Robert Mitchum, filmdom's monosyllabic, devil-may-care tough guy whose lizard-lidded eyelids seemed to be forever looking down on a world he found both amusing and profane, died Tuesday at his home in Santa Barbara County. He was 79.
Mitchum, frequently seen in films and photos with a cigarette dangling from his lips, died in his sleep of complications from emphysema and lung cancer, said his biographer and friend Jerry Roberts.
Mitchum had led a wild life seldom seen in the dollar-conscious world of latter-day Hollywood where actors are bound to obedience by the immense cost of their films. Over the years he continued to waver between the wildness of his youth and the somnolent success of his middle years, sometimes existing on a diet of tequila and milk, other times wrapping himself in the love of his family, where he judged himself "a poor husband and a good father."
The unpredictable actor, who had continued working until recently, was still capable of striking women speechless well into his 70s. And he accepted most of the adulation with a grace and charm he seldom exhibited on the screen, kissing his female fans on the cheek as they rushed up for a kind word and an autograph.
At 6 feet, 1 inch and barrel-chested, Mitchum swaggered through more than 125 feature pictures, starting with a mediocre Hopalong Cassidy Western and climaxing in powerful performances in the acclaimed TV miniseries "The Winds of War" and its sequel, "War and Remembrance," based on the Herman Wouk novels.
Then-Paramount TV division President Gary Nardino said Mitchum was the lone actor considered for the central character of Navy Capt. Pug Henry in that epic. "He's the only Gary Cooper still alive."
By the end, Mitchum had found stardom in such praised performances as "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "The Story of G.I. Joe," "Till the End of Time," "Out of the Past," "Thunder Road," "The Night of the Hunter," "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," "Ryan's Daughter," "Farewell, My Lovely" and several more.
Conversely, there were such classically forgettable films as "Five Card Stud," "The Angry Hills," "Young Billy Young," "Secret Ceremony" and more.
Mitchum himself once summed up his lengthy, rewarding and diverse career by saying in his inimitable manner: "It sure beats working."
Although one of film's true superstars and a leading man for four decades, he never was accorded the most cherished insignia of his craft, the Academy Award. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Lt. Walker in "The Story of G.I. Joe," which many considered his finest performance. But he remained a bridesmaid and not a bride, unlike such contemporaries as Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.
A headline over a Mitchum article in the New York Times many years ago read: "Mitchum, a Character in Search of a Jail." It was a phrase that could have been applied to many aspects of his personal life, for the then-beginning actor had shocked the world in 1948 when he was arrested for smoking marijuana with a starlet in her Los Angeles apartment.
Pictures of a sullen Mitchum being booked into jail were displayed on newspapers' front pages across the country.
Yet, although marijuana was considered the epitome of drug abuse, he emerged from two months of prison to find his career not only intact but his talent in greater demand.
If he had learned to be penitent, it didn't show. He told reporters upon his release that "jail is like Palm Springs without the riffraff. A great place to get in shape, only you meet a better class of people."
Although his career quickened and broadened, one thing never changed: his iconoclastic approach toward life and art exemplified particularly when confronted by interviewers. He generally answered all questions by spinning webs of lies, interspersed with self-deprecating remarks. He then crafted these in language he knew could never be printed.
He was, wrote his friend and co-star Deborah Kerr in a Mitchum film anthology, used to expressing himself "in a totally unrepeatable language."
He gloried in outrageous inconsistency and in one period in the 1970s served up three places of birth to a like number of questioners.
What's acknowledged by researchers and film historians is that he came into the world as Robert Charles Duran Mitchum on Aug. 16, 1917, in Bridgeport, Conn., the son of a Norwegian-born mother and an Irish-Scots railroad worker prone to brawling when he wasn't working.
Robert was 18 months old when his father was caught between two freight cars and crushed to death. His mother, who was pregnant at the time, spent the next 10 years supporting her three children (Mitchum was the middle child) before remarrying a dashing Englishman she had met while working at the Bridgeport newspaper.
The upheavals at home were believed to be the beginnings of young Mitchum's hostility that began to surface in a series of schoolyard brawls. In one he received the broken nose that developed into his angular trademark.