Mitchum, Hollywood's Tough Guy, Dies at 79

Robert Mitchum, Hollywood's tough and rugged leading man, who defined cool, died at home in his sleep Tuesday at the age of 79.

Mitchum, who had been suffering from emphysema and lung cancer, and died at 5 a.m. in his Santa Barbara County home.

Mitchum starred in more than 100 movies, including “The Story of G.I. Joe” and “The Sundowners,” and played the fearsome ex-convict in the original “Cape Fear.”

Mitchum already had lived a colorful life before making his first film. Mitchum remained a star despite limited education, being jailed for marijuana possession, and known contempt for directors and studio bosses.

His effortless nonchalance once caused Katharine Hepburn, his co-star in Minnelli's melodrama, “Undercurrent,” to snap: “You know you can't act. If you hadn't been good-looking you would never have gotten a picture.”

He was born August 6, 1917, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as Robert Charles Duran Mitchum. His father James, a soldier and barroom brawler, was Scotch-Irish on his father's side and Blackfoot Indian on his mother's. Mitchum's mother Ann was Norwegian immigrant.

After World War I, the elder Mitchum was crushed between two freight cars in Charleston, South Carolina, Navy Yard, leaving his widow and two small children. Ann Mitchum returned to Bridgeport, remarried and settled in New York.

At 16, Mitchum hit the road, taking odd jobs for money. He said he held such jobs as an engine wiper on a freighter, a nightclub bouncer and a ditch-digger. He also had 27 fights as a professional boxer, but decided a career change was in order after a fighter “had my nose over to one side, gave me a scar on my left eye, had me all messed up. So I quit.”

Mitchum was arrested for vagrancy when he was 16 and spent six days on a chain gang in Savannah, Georgia, before escaping. In 1937, he joined his family in Long Beach, California, and became involved in the local theater at the urging of his sister.

He wrote and directed plays, ghost-wrote for an astrologer, worked as a drop-hammer operator for Lockheed Aircraft and sold shoes. In 1940, he married his boyhood sweetheart, Dorothy Spence.

After acting with the Long Beach Theater Guild, he broke into films, playing heavies in some “Hopalong Cassidy” Westerns. He played supporting roles in a series of war films, comedies and dramas and. In 1943 alone, he appeared in 18 films.

In 1945, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of an Army lieutenant in “The Story of G.I. Joe.”

He was drafted that year and spent eight months in the Army before resuming his career. His rugged looks, gruff manner and deep voice fit perfectly the public's taste for manly heroes after the pretty-boy actors who dominated the 1930s.

“After the war, suddenly there was this thing for ugly heroes,” Mitchum recalled, “so I started going around in profile.” “I was fortunate from day one,” he said on another occasion. “I never looked back and I worked all the time.”

Mitchum gained a reputation as a serious drinker and a ladies' man, and it very nearly ended his $3,000-a-week career. He and a blond starlet named Lila Leeds were arrested in September 1948, at her home on charges of marijuana possession. He was sentenced to 60 days on an honor farm.

Mitchum He returned to the filming of John Steinbeck's “The Red Pony,” and his popularity, both with producers and the public, proved stronger than ever.

Mitchum's cynicism made him ideal for RKO's film noir dramas of the 1950s: “The Big Steal,” “The Racket,” “Where Danger Lives,” “Out of the Past” and “Second Chance.”

He also starred as a lead man for such stars as Jane Russell (“Macao,” “His Kind of Woman”), Ava Gardner (“My Forbidden Past”), Susan Hayward (“White Witch Doctor”), Rita Hayworth (“Fire Down Below”) and Shirley MacLaine (“Two for the Seesaw”).

He once remarked: “I think when producers have a part that's hard to cast, they say, 'Send for Mitchum; he'll do anything.'” He added: “I don't care what I play; I'll play Polish gays, women, midgets, anything.”

Of his cool, tough-guy persona, Mitchum said, “The studios knew I was on-time and I usually got it right on the first take. The image was something that was created to enhance my lack of glamour.”

In 1955, he appeared in two of his most dramatic roles, as an idealist surgeon in “Not as a Stranger” and as a crazed evangelist in “Night of the Hunter,” Charles Laughton's only film as a director.

“I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone else in this business,” Mitchum said. “I always thought I could do better. But you don't get to do better, you get to do more.”

Among his other films were “El Dorado” (with John Wayne) and “Ryan's Daughter.” He twice played Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe in “Farewell, My Lovely” in 1975 and “The Big Sleep” in 1978.

In the 1980s, Mitchum shifted smoothly to TV dramas and worked well into his 70s. He appeared in the epic miniseries “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Mitchum collected $1 million for “The Winds of War” and $250,000 for “That Championship Season.”

Despite rumors of extramarital escapades, Mitchum and his wife remained married. “Sure there were rough times,” she once remarked. “Sometimes the women would elbow me out of the way to get to Bob. But what people overlook is that Bob is a very family-oriented person. Whatever he does, he always comes back to the family.”

The Mitchums had two sons, Jim and Christopher, both actors; and a daughter, Petrine.

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