The life and career of Robert Mitchum is examined using footage of his appearances on the BBC, illustrating why he was a favourite of film fans and an interviewer's nightmare.
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Robert Mitchum was a star who split opinion.
Critics called him a great screen actor.
Mitchum himself claimed he had just two acting styles,
on a horse and off.
Fellow actors and directors loved to work with him.
Interviewers, as we shall see, dreaded him,
uncertain if he'd answer their questions with the truth,
lies or silence.
Before acting, Mitchum had worked as a professional boxer,
a ghost-writer for an astrologer and even on a chain gang.
His acting break came with small parts in B movie westerns,
and here he is in 1987 talking about the early days
and his first dealings with the bosses at RKO studios.
First of all, they asked me if I...
Why I hadn't had my nose fixed,
and I just simply said it hadn't occurred to me.
I could breathe through it fairly well.
They were going to change my name to Robert Marshall.
And, you know, they thought the, like,
Taylor, Gable, Garland, you know...
And the man who wanted to change my name was named Herman Schlum.
So he changed his son's name to Marshall Schlum
and everything worked out.
-What was your first contract?
40 weeks out of 52 for 350 a week.
What was your first film for RKO?
The first one I was in drag, actually,
in the beginning of the picture.
-MAN IN FILM:
-You look good to me!
Well, I had sort of a prairie style flouncing skirt
and I was done up in drag.
You for me, ma'am, I like them big.
Well, they don't come too big for me either, bud.
MAN IN HAT CACKLES
That's good! Got a voice to match your figure.
I'm buying you the first drink, sweetie pie.
It was sort of like a club, RKO.
They had commitments, expensive commitments,
like with Cary Grant, Crosby, people like that,
and then they had what was more or less a B factory, which we did,
we had the westerns and Larry Tourney did Dillinger
and that sort of thing, and it was just a good, functioning factory.
The crew was very familiar, we worked with the same crew more or less
all the time, and it was sort of down home.
What sort of areas could you chose what you wanted?
Could you chose the directors you wanted to work with?
It makes no difference.
You don't believe that the director makes the picture?
I have no idea. Possibly does, you know.
But I have the same general attitude that John Huston taught me,
and Johnny said...
"They want the bad pictures, we can me them too, kid.
"They want them bad, it'll cost a little more,
"but if they want them bad, we can make them bad."
Doesn't concern me.
In 1948, Mitchum was arrested for possession of marijuana.
The Federal Narcotics Bureau said they had been watching him
for some time, eight months in all.
He was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
It did have an effect on your career, did it not, though?
It... Probably, yeah. It made it a bit more...
Well, I couldn't play, for instance,
Eagle Scouts or Baptist preachers.
But I tell you one thing,
it certainly enlisted an enormous number of new fans.
Everybody thought that was the end of Mitchum's career.
Well, it wasn't at all. Mitchum...
Everybody was kind of fascinated by this.
Maybe if it had been Farley Granger or some attractive young guy
with a different kind of image, it would
have been a different thing, but Mitchum, they liked Mitchum
to be a little dangerous, a little reckless, a little...
The kind of things that he was.
That's the character he played and that's the kind of person he was.
Perhaps as a result of his arrest,
Mitchum found himself gravitating towards film noir, and a period of
mostly tough guy roles that tapped into his reputation as a bad boy.
But there was much more to him than that,
as was demonstrated in later films like The Sundowners
and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison.
Both featured the English rose Deborah Kerr,
who called Mitchum her favourite co-star.
In 1969, Mitchum was in Ireland,
working on Sir David Lean's film Ryan's Daughter.
He was interviewed on location by Film Night's Tony Bilbow
in what wasn't the easiest encounter of the reporter's career.
-Robert Mitchum, when you're offered a film,
you're said to look at the contract to see how many days you get off.
Not the contract, look at the script.
That's the only days off I get.
Was this a good script from that point of view?
It was, but I was led down the garden path, you see.
When I'm not working, I'm standing by. I'm under house arrest.
-Do you find this irksome?
There's a kind of legend about you, which you...
..help to perpetuate, I think, that, erm,
you walk through your parts,
that you don't really take your career or yourself very seriously.
Value for value received.
Could you explain that a bit more?
Well, you know, they can have it any way they want it. If they want it...
We make bad pictures too. Cost a little more, but...
..if they're convinced that,
you know, if they're insistent upon dull, bad, dreary making.
I can't help feeling that this is a facade, erm,
and that behind it all you really are a dedicated actor.
I am indeed, I am desperately dedicated.
Very sensitive to criticism or frustration.
I cry myself to sleep at night.
I've already designed a monument for myself.
-What form will it take?
-I cannot tell you that.
Someone's liable to steal it.
Somebody once said that, er, dignity has ruined more actors than drink.
-Do you agree with that?
-I think John Barrymore said that.
Dignity or trained voices.
But what I'm really getting at is, you see,
I wonder whether this is what is behind
what I still think of as a facade,
that underneath all this you take your profession very seriously...
-You're sending me up again!
-Well, you said it, not I.
I think you take it very seriously
-but you like to pretend that you don't.
-Would you agree?
All right, I'll give you an example of what I mean.
Somebody like Humphrey Bogart, who I admired very much as an actor,
who is generally agreed, I think, to have been a very fine actor,
one of the finest we've ever had. And yet he, like you,
used to give the impression that he didn't give a damn about his job.
No, no, he was a professional actor from nine till six.
After that he was Bogart.
-Ah, so now we have it.
Would you admit that you're a professional actor?
When I'm paid. Yeah, during working hours.
I think you did once say that if you could you'd rather write than act.
Well, I... I had proposed to write, I began as a writer, but, er...
..I was seduced, you know, led down the garden path
and became a movie actress instead.
-When did this seduction take place?
June 1942, I needed 500 and I found it.
But how did this happen?
You don't just suddenly walk into a film studio.
No, but, er, somebody had said
if I'd ever wanted to do anything professionally to let them know
and they'd see if they couldn't get me a job, so I did.
Economic expedient, I needed the money.
It was also very lucky in a way because you came in at the tail end
of the era of the matinee idol...
-I came along with the ugly leading man.
-You said it, I didn't.
I got out of the army, there I was, you know, in profile all the time.
So did you feel that you were very much in the right time...?
No, I just, er, I began as a...
..sort of as a character actor. I began in the Hopalong Cassidys,
all beard, very little dialogue, you know. 100 a week
and all the horse manure I could carry home.
It was great playing Cowboys and Indians
and picnicking out in the fields. It was, you know, all right.
And I just stayed on the tip, that's all.
I don't want to pursue this any more than I need,
but there's one extra thing I'd like to ask you.
Somebody once said of you that there's very little chance
that your real talent as an actor will be revealed
because that would mean exposing more of your real personality.
That's quite possible, yeah.
-Could you give me just a little bit of...?
-You just said it, you know.
What are the things that you're afraid of exposing?
Nothing at all, really.
It's just a matter of, of, er, further involvement and complication,
just personal involvement.
And you don't want to be involved?
-I don't want to charm anyone, no.
-No, we're not talking about charm.
-I don't want to interest anyone.
-No, but as an actor.
You've admitted you're a dedicated actor, a professional actor.
I'm, you know, I'm a professional actor, that's all.
I got a union card that says so.
And a job that says so.
-That's the end of it.
As much as anyone need know as far as I...
I mean, you know, my feeling.
Are you aware of certain facets of your character or personality
that you instinctively dislike?
Oh, yes, the dark, dismal depths of depravity that I hide...
..I don't wish to exhibit to children, you know.
No, all right, you're making a joke,
but is it possible there's a little bit of truth in that?
-That if you really...
-I, listen, I'm sure no more than in anyone else,
I don't know. I mean, I don't regard myself, er, I mean, I don't have a...
I'm not a thief and I'm not a compulsive liar or a cheat.
I don't think that I burden anyone else with my, er,
shortcomings or my sins.
As I say, at six o'clock I just shut off and go home.
Well, let's take a more superficial picture of you,
the image produced by the films of the tough He-Man.
Erm, and like a lot of other stars of your kind,
who have this image, erm, a lot of people in private life
like to take a swing at you, take a punch at you.
What do you do in those situations?
But I mean, do you never retaliate?
Never happens, really, or very rarely happens.
But I mean you have this reputation in the press anyway...
Oh, well, you know, according to the press Tom Dewey is president,
you know, and...
-all sorts of things.
-Mm, cos in the past you've had to live down
some rather unfortunate publicity.
I'm thinking of that narcotics charge some years ago, and the...
-That was a conspiracy charge.
Yes, which was later dropped, rescinded,
I received a clean bill of health and a letter of apology.
No-one ever published that because it didn't sell any newspapers.
-Did you feel bitter about that?
-Not at all.
Then there was the very silly,
blown up thing about the Cannes Film Festival when some starlet...
-I had nothing to do with that.
-No, I know you didn't!
When she flung herself into your arms, erm, she took her top,
took her bra off, and there was this...
She was going for the load but, er,
I opted out.
But I wonder, do you think...?
To what extent would you take...
..responsibility for that kind of thing happening to you?
Well, just the...
The, er, being a public freak, you know, being a...
..a zoo animal on the loose, that's all.
There was the time when you said that you wouldn't care
if you never made another picture at all.
I'd have said that the first day I ever went to work.
I'm not, I was never starry-eyed and fascinated by
the magic of the movies, you know.
Take the money and run.
So what would you do
if you suddenly found that the offers weren't coming in?
Weep, I suppose.
All the way to the bank.
Like Tony Bilbow, Michael Parkinson would also find Mitchum to be
one of his more challenging guests.
Parkinson later wrote that Mitchum had been up to his old tricks,
smoking something exotic just before the interview,
and thought this was one reason why it went the way it did.
Good evening and welcome.
My special guest tonight is one of the cinema's superstars.
He's made so many films
that he claims to have stopped counting after 130.
In a changing industry he's remained a constant, a fixture,
defying the ebb and flow of a shifting world.
He once claimed that the only thing he'd changed
since going to Hollywood was his underwear.
Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Mitchum.
APPLAUSE AND MUSIC
I really can't see all those people, I guess I'd better...
They can see you, that's the important thing.
They always have. A frightening thing.
You're not nervous, are you,
-about appearing in front of a live audience?
-Yes, I am.
-That is as steady as a rock.
Really, don't you like the live audience,
don't you like the feel of it?
I come from Los Angeles, a rock is not so steady.
How is it, do you think, that you've, I said in the intro there,
that you've been, or you are, one of Hollywood's most durable stars,
you've had a long career and it's not fluctuated.
I mean, why is it, do you think, that you've remained so constant?
I should think just that, endurance, you know. Just general durability.
Some of them fell dead from playing tennis,
found in bed with a blonde, you know.
Some are lost at sea, and I just, er...
-You don't play tennis.
-I don't leave the house too much.
Why do you think, though, I mean, to be serious, if we can
for a moment, have you ever tried to analyse your popularity?
One time, I guess it was the first time
that my wife and I went to Rome,
and we met an Italian journalist, a lady, and, er, she said,
"You have no problems at all walking through the streets of Rome."
We were going down window shopping on the Via Condotti and were
staying up at the Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Stairs,
and she cited, you know, the appearance
and sort of walk about of Gary Cooper and Bogart and on and on.
And she said,
"Oh, no, the Italian people have great respect for the artiste."
I said, "OK, fine,"
so we went off and we wound up being sort of boxed in in the middle
of the Via Condotti with about 2,000 people blocking both ends.
And there's a big smiling Carabinieri standing next to me,
and I went on speaking Polish for two hours, and finally,
some guy jumped up, he said, "Well, he's been very kind, very..."
My wife was hiding in a doorway back across the street.
And this, you know, fella sort of let me off the hook.
He said, "He's been very kind, he's given of his time,
"I think we should let him go,"
so they finally turned me loose to great cheers from the crowd,
and we marched back up, back on up the stairs
and back to the hotel and we met this newspaper woman.
And I told her my experience, and I said,
"I guess they don't consider me, you know, a grand artiste."
"Oh, yes," she said, "the great, they have great respect for you.
"Really great artiste but with the common touch."
Thanks a lot. So they feel they can hit you, you know,
speak to you, those other cats they stand in awe of, but you...
-..they can touch.
-Do you think that's true, though?
I'm afraid it is true, yeah.
-Why is it, then?
Well, because I've been just about
every place everyone else has, you know, except good.
So, I, uh, you know, I pretty much know what it's like,
and I've spent most of my life sort of giving odd asides from the balcony
and, er, I think people pretty well understand what I'm talking about.
Mm. Do you mean that they sort of look at you and identify with you?
-Well, if the dialogue is really bad,
you know, I speak the dialogue
and then turn straight around to the audience like Jack Benny,
and say, "How about that?"
Really, you know, I think it's pretty well understood that I...
..you know, I go to work in the morning
and I come home at night, God willing, and, er, I have,
-I reserve my own attitudes about what I'm doing.
I mean, I remember one time in New York at the Paramount Theatre,
and they have that stage that goes down at the end,
and this was right after or during
the Sinatra craze, you know, that period,
and I had been there with Frank and I watched this whole thing.
And, er, I did, I stood on the stage and said,
"Well, now, that's about the end of it.
"We've done our gig and that's it."
And I said, "Now this foul film comes on, and I've seen it,
"and I would advise you to split." And nobody left, nobody left!
Nobody left, they just creamed, you know, "Gotta see it."
But RKO didn't send me on too many more exploitations.
You mentioned, though, this thing about being boxed in in Rome.
-Does this lack of privacy, does it annoy you?
-It's not a lack of...
Well, it's frightening.
You know, you can't see that many people all headed in your direction
without, er, having some vague memory of a lynch mob,
because you can't find, you really can't
believe in your heart that there are that many people who mean you well.
-Not in concert, really.
Among them there's got to be some cut-purse or some stabber or...
It's kind of, you know, nervous making, I think.
But, I mean, if you ever took it to its extreme, though,
if you ever really thought about it before you went out,
you'd never go out, would you? So, I mean, how...?
-I don't much, really.
-You don't much go out?
-No, I don't, no.
No, I go out in drag a few times, you know.
Oh, I see.
Dicey musician over there.
There's no such thing as a dicey musician, they're dicey from birth.
Do you in fact...?
You said earlier on that you, erm, you regard what you do as a job,
you go in the studio, turn up and you go home.
Do you enjoy it, though? Do you enjoy making movies?
Of course, of course. Certainly.
I find myself, I have always found myself telling other people,
other sort of novitiates that, erm,
find themselves very awkward in the presence of, you know,
120 crew and general technicians,
and, er, they freeze up, you know, they become inhibited, and I said,
"Look, it's your turn and all these people are here for you."
Really, they're on your side,
and once that's understood then the ambience of, you know...
It's the only truly communal business.
Everybody gets together for you at that time, and it works very well.
-And I sort of...
My, sort of, my mature life was, er,
in that climate and that atmosphere,
and I must say I'm very grateful for it, really, because I found, er...
..well, a great deal of human concern
that people are just not ordinarily...
-ordinarily exposed to. And I'm very grateful for it.
-I, you know, I think it's an improvement. It helps growth.
But what about movies themselves?
-I mean, you've made a hell of a lot, haven't you? More than most.
You know, you propose in front that this is dumb or that's stupid
or that's, you know, er...
And they, they argue.
They don't even argue, really.
They draw up, and, er, they pay.
They steal but they pay.
So, er, if you want less than the best, fine.
I'm very well prepared to give less than the best if that's your game.
Really? You mean you don't...?
-I wouldn't want to embarrass a producer
by being better than he expected me to be.
No, but you might like to satisfy yourself to be
as good as you know you can be.
I satisfy myself when it's dark.
-I satisfy myself that I outlive them.
-Do you always want to be a movie star?
-No, I wanted to be Queen.
No, I didn't, it never occurred to me.
Didn't make it. I didn't make the weight.
Couldn't make the weight.
No, it never occurred to me until it came up, you know.
With this extraordinary varied background that you had,
how do you eventually arrive in movies?
-Did they find you?
-It was an economic expedient, I needed the job.
My wife was going to have a baby and I needed 500
and I just went up and knocked on the door and asked if they were
taking any hands in the acting department, and they said, "Why not?"
That was it, I went to work.
-And you worked on, what, Hopalong Cassidy movies?
-Never looked back.
100 a week and all the horse manure I could carry home.
Couldn't beat that with a stick.
How long did it take to shoot those movies in those days?
We made, er, two pictures, I think, in 21 days.
-I think that's what it was.
-That's going some.
We went out into the locations...
No, we did the interiors for one, then did both exteriors, and,
you know, changed cast in the middle and came back and did
the interiors for the second, so the location trip served for both films.
Yeah. I suppose the first film that really lifted you out of that
and got you a lot of recognition was The Story of GI Joe.
I suppose it was. Some people say Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Some people say it was my picture in the Police Gazette, you know.
I guess it was. If you say so, I guess it was.
-No, I only say so, I mean...
-Cos other people say so?
No, no, not at all, because it's the only picture you were
-nominated for an Academy Award for.
That impresses me.
Yeah, I guess so, right.
I just wonder what you thought about Academy Awards and nominations?
It has really not much to do with me.
If someone should call me up and say, "You just got the Academy Award,"
I'd jump up and down and go on...
Put a sign outside the window, you know. But other than that
I really don't know much about it.
You don't take George Scott's attitude about it?
I mean, he's antagonistic toward the whole system.
Well, yeah, he has a position, you know,
he has a position of antagonism.
I have no position at all.
There it is, you know.
It's like a choice of restaurants, or, I don't know...
I'm sure that it's valid and very important
and it's important to people who...
Every year we give each other awards. You're OK, Charlie.
Which is good enough,
sort of a private club patting each other on the head.
And, if you...
..if you wear out a lot of foot leather
or spend at least part of your time
in seeking further jobs and further work,
that's a good thing to have in your portfolio.
Academy Award winner, Golden Gloves, 1903, you know?
But if you don't care,
then it really doesn't help much, does it?
What about the changes that you've seen in the industry, Mr Mitchum,
over the years?
The only thing I've noticed is that they call me "Sir".
Mr Mitchum, Sir.
They used to call me, "Hey, Rob, would you get your over here."
That's about the only changes I've seen.
That and the sort of cyclical return
to amateurism which is...
..largely prevalent now and I should think that out of it
comes hard-working, young people
with a sense of doing
and they do it.
I suppose they eventually will wind up being
the relatives of the needle trades advocates
who built Hollywood, and on and on I suppose.
Even in the sense that nothing is new?
Not really, not really.
Because all the giants were built out of really...
..trash catchers who sold it back to you in wholesale lots
and made you pay for it.
You know, that wasn't too bad, was it?
I would think that a new group
coming in with all the waste and all the amateurism
should develop some straight,
because I'm convinced that the audiovisual medium...
There's nothing else
until we find ourselves
in some sort of mental medium that
transcends that, but up until that I should think that
the audiovisual medium is better than all the languages in the world
because people can see it, they can make it up in their own heads.
And I have great faith in it, I really do, you know.
And I see people
who progress far beyond the material progress of it.
You have sons, also, who are sort of carrying on in the...
Looking for jobs.
Looking for jobs.
I wonder was there any advice you gave them when they became actors?
Just remember your lines
and don't write home for money.
-That's all they need to know.
-Neither of which they took to heart.
No, they do as they will.
That's their lives, isn't it?
They could have been burglars. as long as...
I said, "Whatever you do, don't get caught at it."
No-one's ever caught me acting.
Did you ever contemplate retiring?
This morning I did.
And every morning.
I am retired really.
You keep on making movies.
On my own terms, generally.
-And that's the best way?
-I would think so, yes.
-I would agree with you, yes.
-It's kind of juicy, really.
Of course Mitchum hadn't retired.
Amongst other things, the following year saw him
starring in a series of well-received crime dramas,
including two adaptations
of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels.
And there was, of course,
Night Of The Hunter directed by the actor Charles Laughton.
It had flopped on its original release in 1955,
but developed a cult following and over the years came to be
reappraised as one of American cinema's great classics.
Here we find Mitchum with his fellow cast and crew
discussing the film for the programme Moving Pictures.
..a most unusual subject
and we took what we had to work with
made a gem of it.
We had a mutual appreciation society.
We all knew we were involved in a great classic that was timeless.
They never had to shout for silence.
I was very much taken by
Davis Grubb's writing
and by his, er...
..delineation of the characters.
It was right on.
When I read the novel,
I was so impressed by the beautiful horror of the writing.
He was a master at words
and it was like beauty
and fear all together
and Laughton got that.
The original script was done by James Agee
and I saw it and I read it
and I held it in my hands.
It was at least 250 pages long, an extraordinarily long,
I think it was probably a masterpiece, but it wasn't a film script.
Jim Agee was sleeping on the couch in my den
and he turned in
a script that looked like a WPA project.
The goddam thing must have weighed 18 pounds.
And then my understanding from Laughton was that
he went back to the book which is a very, very cinematic book.
It's one of those books that you almost tear the pages out,
paste it in a notebook and shoot.
And he went back to the original book
and wrote the screenplay.
Charles really is responsible for the script.
Do you know what that is?
Do you want to see something cute? Now, looky.
How about that?
This is what I use on meddlers.
John might be a meddler.
Ah, no, no!
No, little lamb, don't touch it.
Don't touch my knife, that makes me mad. It makes me very, very mad.
Just tell me, where is the money hidden?
But that's why I promised John I wouldn't tell.
John doesn't matter!
Can I get that through your head, you poor, silly, disgusting, little wretch.
'It was an unusual part
'and I was very grateful for it.'
gave me a little exercise.
I... It took me off, you know,
smiling and kissing the horse at the end.
And I knew the character fairly well,
and rambled around in that territory when I was a kid.
Yeah, I made several trips out on freight trains.
Bummed all through that country.
Charles Laughton would call Mitchum one of the best actors in the world,
a tender man
and a great gentleman.
And when Mitchum died in 1997 aged 79,
the tributes were equally glowing.
He was described as one of the true greats of Hollywood's Golden Age,
and the soul of American Film Noir.
Not bad for a man who when asked what he thought of his profession
would always answer,
"It sure beats working for a living."
The life and career of one of Hollywood's original bad boys, Robert Mitchum, is examined using archive footage of his appearances on the BBC that illustrate why he was a favourite of film fans, and an interviewer's nightmare.