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The interview, Mitchum-style

April 01, 1990|Susan King

"You're the biggest fraud I ever met. You pretend you don't care a damn thing about a scene, and you're the hardest working so-and-so I've ever known."

--Director Howard Hawks, talking to Robert Mitchum

It's been more than two decades since Howard Hawks directed Robert Mitchum in "El Dorado," and the 72-year-old actor still acts as if he doesn't give give a hoot. Age definitely has not softened film's sleepy-eyed tough guy. While he may receive respect and admiration from his fellow actors and film makers, he offers none to the press.

The actor plays his curmudgeon role to the hilt as he talks to a reporter about his first TV series. Casually dressed and sitting in the living room set of his NBC comedy, "A Family for Joe," Mitchum seems less a living legend and more like a big old bear who has been rousted out of hibernation. Mitchum is not happy that the rest of the cast and crew got a break and he must spend the time talking--well, sort of talking--to the press .

In "Joe," a limited-run series airing Saturdays at 8 p.m., Mitchum plays a homeless man adopted as a foster grandfather by four sitcom-adorable orphans. The series kicked off Feb. 25 as a two-hour movie, and though critics had a hard time swallowing Mitchum as a '90s Grandpa Walton, the show landed in the Top 30.

Mentioning the success of "Joe" in the ratings doesn't break the ice in the interview. "There's no accounting for taste," he says in that well-known baritone. He takes a sip of his coffee and glares straight ahead.

Is it challenging to film "Joe" in front of a live audience?

"Of course not," he growls. "It's no different than being in front of a 200-man crew or a battleship full of sailors."

Why did he decide to do a TV series?

"You know, it's like any job, but with children, you don't have long, protracted hours," he answers succinctly.

Mitchum's disdain for the press may stem from one of several unauthorized biographies written about him. He's hated them all.

"I remember one, the most widely circulated, and in the first paragraph they had my name wrong, my wife's name wrong, my birthplace wrong and my birth date," he says. "Five mistakes in the first paragraph, and from there on it went downhill."

But he has never tried to correct these errors. "Why? I don't know any of my fans. Who cares?"

And Mitchum never will allow himself to be the subject of a documentary: "Why don't I just take out an ad?"

Mitchum has never needed to take out an ad--he's let his acting speak for him. Even a two-month jail sentence in 1948 for marijuana possession didn't hurt his box-office appeal.

Despite his throwaway, lazy attitude toward his craft, Mitchum has starred in some great films, including the ultimate film noir, "Out of the Past" (1947), the chilling "Night of the Hunter" (1955) and "The Story of G.I. Joe" (1945), for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Bring up that rich past and suddenly Mitchum opens up a bit. Point out the fact that he made 17 films in 1943 alone, and he starts to talk.

"Someone told me I did 17 pictures in a one-year span, and they were all for different studios," says Mitchum. "When I did 'Undercurrent' at MGM, I was doing 'The Locket' here at this studio (Culver Studios) and working on a picture called 'Desire Me' with Greer Garson--all at the same time. I would finish here--we were doing exteriors on the lot at night--and when the dawn broke, I had to be at Metro at 7 in the morning in makeup, and then they would fly me up to Monterey in the afternoon to spend time with Greer Garson, and back I would come and work here all night. I spent 21 days and nights doing that. I was making $350 a week."

Mitchum takes a slow drag on his cigarette.

"MGM had a class system, but RKO was more of a club," he says. "The big major stars weren't under contract at RKO, though they may have had commitments like Cary Grant. They had a stock company there which I eventually joined. When you went to another studio, you were treated entirely different because you were an oddity, but then, of course, you were not really aware of or subject to the class system at RKO."

Back to the present. "A Family for Joe" officially began its scheduled six-episode trial run on March 24.

What will Mitchum do after "Joe" is over?

"When is it over?" Mitchum asks wearily. "Every time I ask somebody that they walk away."

On that phrase, Mitchum finishes his coffee and walks away.

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