“He drank too much and smoked too much. He granted too many interviews full of cynical observations about himself and his business. He made too many bad movies and hardly any of the kind that stir critics to rapture or that, taken together, look like a life achievement worthy of official reward.
God, some of us are going to miss Robert Mitchum!”—Richard Schickel
And he’s still missed, 17 years after his death. No, you sure don’t see movie stars like Robert Mitchum anymore. But we can still appreciate the real thing. In 1983, Robert Ward hung out with the star of Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and wrote the following profile, “Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble Himself: Robert Mitchum.” It originally appeared in the March 3, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone and is collected in Ward’s terrific anthology, Renegades. It appears here with the author’s permission. —Alex Belth
A big, crazy, sexy sixty-five-year-old little boy who can’t get used to the idea that he’s supposed to act like, like Ward Cleaver, you dig?
Robert Mitchum is walking down this Kafkaesque hallway, holding his arms straight out in front of him, crossed, as though they’ve been manacled by the CBS production assistant who trucks along in front of him. Mitchum staggers a bit. All he drinks nowadays is tequila—and milk, though not together—and he had his first shot at one thirty in the afternoon, and now it’s ten thirty at night and he’s been through five interviews and a fifth of Cuervo Gold Especial and is fast moving into that strange land between dreams and wakefulness.
Things are mightily askew but still manageable until someone notices the glass partitions and the little wooden desks, which look like interrogation booths, and yells, “Bob, look, we’re in Czechoslovakia and they’re going to bring out the fucking guards!”
This registers slowly behind Mitchum’s lizard-lidded eyes, and smiling his curling serpent’s smile, he thrusts his hands forward as though they are cuffed and booms in this deep, hilarious voice: “My name is Robert Mitchum. My serial number is 2357982. My rank is private. I have nothing whatsoever to tell you….”
Down these endless narrow hallways and out of these little rooms come women of all ages—twenty-three, forty-five, sixty-seven—each of them saying, “Hey, that’s… that’s Robert Mitchum,” and each of them getting this look on her face. The same look. Lust! And helplessness. And yet, completely maternal. And sweet, like, “I’ve got to help that big, crazy, sexy, funky little boy who is sixty-five years old and has never gotten used to the idea that he has to act like a Ward Cleaver brand of grown-up.”
Mitchum had drawn a similar response from a group of young businessmen as we’d left the Waldorf Hotel earlier. “There’s Mitchum,” one of them said. “He’s all fucked up again.” And the rest of them laughed and nodded. Thank God somebody is still wild.
“Where the hell is the goddamned makeup girl? I want to kiss her, okay?” he says now, as he runs through the halls. Yes, right here at CBS, is Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble himself. Yeah, he’s got himself a pinstripe suit and dark Italian sunglasses like all the rest of those movie stars, but one look will convince you that here is a man acting like a civilized being. In a 1964 Esquire profile, the usually savage Helen Lawrenson said his personality had paralyzed her into wordlessness. D. H. Lawrence described it as the Life Force. But six-foot-one-inch, barrel-chested, ham-fisted, sleepy-eyed, speech-slurred Robert Mitchum gives off something that can’t really be put into words at all….Meanwhile, the makeup woman, a sixty-five-year-old gal herself, is literally buckling at the knees and wiping her brow and saying, “My, oh my, oh my…Robert Mitchum.” The whole place cracks up, and Mitchum sweetly kisses her on the forehead.
A few minutes later, a few women and a few thousand feet of corridor later, Mitchum is in the taping room, meeting with the producers of Nightwatch: “Now, Mr. Mitchum, what is it you’d like to do?” Mitchum bobs and weaves, like he may sucker-punch this sap. But says, “Look, son, I’m a storyteller, all right? Just let me tell some stories, how ’bout that?” The guy puts on this shit-eating grin and says, “Well, just what kind of stories do you have in mind, Mr. Mitchum? After all, this is CBS.”
“Forget it, man,” Mitchum says. He does that when he’s disappointed, when he’s about to go over the crest, fly out there without the handgrips into the Mighty Tequila Pure Inspiration Good Time Void but is dragged back, as one inevitably is, by the Squares that Surround and Envelop and Enfold and Munch Away. He falls back on old ’50s beat talk, like “This producer cat is some down dude, Jim, you dig?” Mitchum sags against a couch, stares at the lights and waits for the Interviewer—the sixth of the day—to show up. His friends are sitting across from the nifty little set with its green couches and fake bookcases, and out comes the Interviewer, Dapper Dan himself, in a three-piece suit. He sits down and looks warily at Mitchum, and admits that he has not yet had a chance to see That Championship Season, the movie Mitchum is starring in with Bruce Dern, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, and Stacy Keach. “So, since we’re not familiar with it, could you, ah, tell us the plot, Bob?”
Mitchum’s pals look at each other in horror. This man is a storyteller, yes sir, but in his current shape, well, the plot might just be a little more than he’s willing, or able, to do. But Mitchum remains cool and manages to tell the tale, which, briefly put, is about a team of high-school basketball players who won the Pennsylvania state championship in 1957 and have gathered to celebrate that one moment of glory twenty-four years later.
Mitchum also mentions that he is starring as U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry in the ABC dramatization of Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, an eighteen-hour mini-series for which Mitchum received a cool million. Then he slides back on the couch, crosses his massive arms, and waits.
“Now, Mr. Mitchum, you say this is about a group of men, who had one shining moment and then everything else was downhill. Is that how you feel about your own life?”
Mitchum squints menacingly through his sunglasses. “No,” he says flatly. “Why would I live like that?”
“Oh,” the Interviewer says. “Well, Mr. Mitchum, do you think that you will become a cult star, a cult hero if you will, say, in the 1990s, like Bogart in the 1960s?”
Mitchum rolls his eyes and says loudly, “Hey, what year is it now, Jack?”
“Well, how would I know, man?” he says.
“Well, the 1990s are coming.”
“That’s deep,” Mitchum says. “Thanks for telling me.” Mitchum’s cronies are squealing with laughter, and the director is shooting threatening glares in their direction, and finally a technician says, “That’s a wrap.”
Mitchum looks around the darkened studio and, ignoring the host, yells at the top of his lungs, “Can I fart now?”
Stacy Keach, who plays a junior high school principal who takes orders for his friends and is always destined to be a second banana, is terrific in That Championship Season, but just now he would rather talk about Mitchum: “Bob’s a legend, but he goes out of his way to make you feel completely at home. Not that he’s ever comic, but he has just enough of the rebel in him, where you know there’s a real character under there. And that character, I think, the guy who is at once a star but constantly laughs at it, undercuts it with humor, that’s what comes across to his fans. The reason for all of that probably has to do with the way he was brought up. He came up in tough times. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it. There’s no pretension with Bob, but he had it tough.”
Born in Bridegeport, Connecticut, on August 6, 1917, Mitchum never got to know his father, Jim, a railroad man who was “squashed to death” by two boxcars in Charleston, South Carolina, when Robert was eighteen months old, leaving Mitchum’s mother, Ann Gunderson Mitchum, to care for three children—Robert, his older sister, Julie, and his younger brother, John. Mitchum’s mother went to work as a linotype operator and fell in love with and married a newspaperman named Bill Clancy, who apparently had some other interests on the side.
“I’m coming down the steps one night,” Mitchum says, a Pall Mall hanging out of the crack that is his mouth, as though he had been born smoking, “and I hear these guys talking. I look around the stairway, and I see Al Capone and another guy sitting in the living room having a beef about ‘receipts.’ I knew enough to go back upstairs.”
At fifteen, he went south, riding in boxcars. (“I dug school. Truly. But not enough to hang around.”) In Savannah, Georgia, a yard bull busted him “for being a suspicious character with no visible means of support.” Two days later he was on a road gang and scared shitless. He smiles, puffs the Pall Mall, drinks the tequila. “I figured I was getting too good at that, so one day, when I had my first chance, I split.”
He spent the next few months in the Civilian Conservation Corps, digging ditches for a living. He saved thirty dollars and hopped freight trains hobo-style to California. When he first hit LA, he met up with his sister, Julie, and his mother, who now was divorced from Clancy. She had remarried to a man named Hugh Cunningham-Morris and was pregnant with Mitchum’s half sister, Carol. Julie was working in little theater groups, writing and acting. Mitchum, who had always wanted to be a writer like his idol, Thomas Wolfe, tried plays, stories, and acting. From 1934 to 1942, he was a busboy, a dishwasher, a truck driver, and a longshoreman. In 1940 he married Dorothy Spence and soon had two young sons, Jim and Chris, to support. An old foot wound was acting up, and he was unable to work much. After eight long, broke years, the situation was getting close to desperate.
When help did arrive, it came from an unlikely source. Years before Mitchum had landed in Hollywood, another young man had come to Tinseltown from Ohio. He was handsome, a good actor, pals with Clark Gable. His name was William Boyd. Unfortunately, before he found the right properties, he found vodka. Boyd drank a quart a day for ten years and was quietly fading into Nathanael West pink-stucco retirement when a producer decided he could get him cheap. Boyd and a crew travelled to Bakersfield, and the Hopalong Cassidy series was born.
Mitchum was pals with Boyd, and one day in the early ’40s, he got a call telling him to get a bus up to Bakersfield to be in the movies. The twenty-five-year-old Mitchum could scarcely believe his luck. When he arrived a few hours later, the actors, crew, and directors were sitting on the veranda of the hotel, talking in low, hushed tones. Mitchum introduced himself, tried to look cheerful and ready for work. Boyd glumly told him to go over to makeup, which was housed in a little cabin across the road. When he entered the makeup cabin, Earl Mosher, a friendly prop guy, smiled slightly and gave him a cowboy suit. Chaps, shirt, bandanna, boots and finally, a cowboy hat.
“This seems a little sticky,” young Mitchum said.
“No problem,” Mosher said. “See, the guy you’re replacing, well, he was doing a stunt today, and he was pulled off his wagon, and the reins were lashed around his wrists, and, well, the wagon kept going back and forth over him, the horses went nuts, you know, when he fell, so what we got here is a little of his head blood in the hat. We’ll take care of that fine, though.”
Mosher took out a pen knife and scraped the blood off the hatband. “There,” he said, smiling at the young actor, “that ought to fit just right now.”
“That’s how I broke into movies,” Mitchum says now, as he belts down another tequila. “I got a dead guy’s hat. And I’ve been selling horseshit ever since.”
After racking up seven Hopalong Cassidy movies, Mitchum got himself an RKO contract for $350. After making three pictures for RKO, he starred in The Story of G.l Joe, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Studio executives were talking about this hot new star. The guy had sleepy eyes and sex appeal, and what’s more, under it all, he could really act.
Mitchum was thinking about the sweetness of all this one night, sitting on his front porch, just having a drink, looking at the stars, smoking a Pall Mall, when a car stops in front of his house, and a man starts running toward him and shines a light in his face.
Mitchum hit the man in the face, breaking his nose. The man was a member of the Los Angeles police force investigating a disturbance at such-and-such and address. He had the wrong address, but Mitchum came down the steps and demanded to be arrested.
“Hey,” he shrugs, opening his leathery palms, “if the cops are going to come up to your porch and hassle you, then I wanted them to take it all the way. I mean, what the hell? Let’s go through with it. Right?”
Or, as Mitchum’s wife Dorothy puts it, “Robert sometimes has this little problem with authority.”
Mitchum admits that leaping into the cop car and screaming, “Let’s go downtown right now, motherfuckers” was probably a strategic error. One cop smashed him in the side with a billy club, breaking two ribs; the other cop—the one Mitchum had cold-cocked—used fists, knees, and his gun butt. By the time Mitchum arrived at headquarters, he was looking a bit like one of the soldiers in G.l Joe. No fun.
When the RKO lawyer came prancing onto the scene, he told Mitchum their the trial was a lock. Just plead guilty, take a suspended sentence and a ten-dollar fine. Mitchum went along with the lawyer, only to receive a counteroffer from the judge—180 days in the slammer. At the trial, Mitchum said, “No… no… no way I can make that.” The judge asked him why, and Mitchum said, because he was going into the army. The judge asked him when. Mitchum said, “Ummm, Tuesday.” The judge smiled. He liked patriotic actors. That very afternoon, the same two cops who had given Mitchum the nice ride to the police station took him down to the draft board and let him enlist. Then it was back to jail for the weekend, and on the following Tuesday, America’s hottest young actor was led, handcuffed, to the troop train.
Assigned to the medics, it was Mitchum’s job to look up “the asshole of every GI in America. Just what was he supposed to be searching for? “Piles, hemorrhoids, bananas, grapes, dope… you name it.”
After a year, Mitchum got out on a hardship case, and went back to making movies, only to discover that he had become something other than an actor. He had become Robert Mitchum. See him raise hell onscreen. Read about him raising hell in real life.
Producers threw Mitchum into one forgettable action thriller after another—Till the End of Time, The Locket, Pursued, Undercurrent, Desire Me, Rachel and the Stranger.
There were some good pictures as well. Jacques Tourneur’s film noir classic Out of the Past (Kirk Douglas’ second film), with Jane Greer; The Big Steal, with Jane Greer; Blood on the Moon, with Barbara Bel Geddes. But for the most part, Mitchum, like all the other contract stars of the day, had to do what he was told. And he wasn’t in any position to argue or hold out for better films. Mitchum never, never talks about this subject unless he’s very under the weather. The most he usually says is, “I punch in, I punch out. I don’t worry about the film.” But privately he will say, “I would have done other things. But they weren’t offering them to me. First I was unknown, different…. Then two weeks later, they’re saying, ‘Get me a Mitchum type.’ That’s it. The man tells you what to do. Not only that, in those days, the man took most of the money as well.”
At the height of his earning power he was making over three thousand dollars a week. But with agents’ fees, taxes, the Life of a Hollywood Star and a family to feed, Mitchum didn’t save a lot of the dough.
“Look, I’m not complaining,” he says, over a drink at the Waldorf bar. “I got a great life out of the movies. I’ve been all over the world and met the most fantastic people. I don’t really deserve all that I have gotten. It’s a privileged life, and I know it. I didn’t make what these young guys, the Spielbergs, are making. But I had a hell of a lot of fun. Working with all the great leading ladies of my day. Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Greer. I think she was the most underrated of them all. Working with guys like John Huston and Raoul Walsh.
“Hell, the first time I came on the set with Raoul, we did seventeen pages of dialogue in one day. He used to set up and roll cigarettes with his right hand, the side that had the eye patch. Because he couldn’t see them, all the tobacco fell out, and he would immediately roll another one, take a puff or two and wonder how he’d smoked the damned thing so quickly. When he had us all ready, he used to turn his back to the shot and let the cameraman tell him when it was done. The thing was, he trusted us. He wouldn’t have made the picture at all if he didn’t.”
It’s the element of spontaneity and camaraderie that Mitchum finds missing in today’s shooting.
“I know production values are better, sure, but are the scripts, are the pictures? I was on a set with De Niro, The Last Tycoon, and he takes forty minutes to get ready for a scene in his trailer. Ray Milland was in the movie, and he gets all upset. He asks Gage Kazan how come we didn’t get that much time, and Kazan says, ‘Hey, look, you guys don’t need time like that. Come on, just say your lines, I got enough problems with him.’ The thing is, it’s a hell of a lot more work, and I don’t see overall where the films are any better, really. You tell me.”
One gets the feeling that Mitchum misses not only the spontaneity but the fun his generation had. Walsh was a great friend until his death, and John Huston, with whom he made Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, remains one of Mitchum’s closest buddies, and one of the few living directors he speaks lovingly of.
“John was relaxed, but he knows what he’s doing all the time,” Mitchum says now. “You want to do things for directors like that. He wasn’t sitting around trying to create art.’”
But there was art to what he was doing?
“One hopes. Yeah, sure, but you don’t go out there thinking like that. Where the hell would you be then? Look, take music. You can study it all you want, you can learn about time signatures, and you can know what legato means, and you can read it, and you can appreciate it, but if you haven’t got an ear, if you’re off-pitch, then that’s it. I’ve always had an ear. Hey, it’s like Bogart used to say, ‘Say the lines and don’t stumble over the furniture.’”
What he doesn’t say is that he has always had complete dedication, despite the lousy movies he’s had to endure. John Huston recalls in his autobiography, An Open Book, a time when he asked Mitchum to crawl across the grass on his elbows. The scene had to be shot three or four times, and when Mitchum stood up, he was covered with blood. He had been crawling across stinging nettles. When Huston asked him why he had done it, Mitchum only answered, “Because that’s what you wanted.”
One gets the sense that Mitchum has a high standard for people. If he trusts and respects you, he crawls through nettles. The same standard applies to Mitchum’s leading ladies. He loves Betty Jane Greer because of her “great sense of the ridiculous.” He loves Marilyn Monroe because she “had the guts of a lion.”
Mitchum found out about Monroe’s courage while on the set of River of No Return, a 1954 Preminger film. Monroe and he were about to go down some white water on a raft. When they got to the place where the shoot was to take place, the water was raging, and even the Mad Prussian was against sending Mitchum out. But Mitchum and Monroe thought they could make it. Halfway down the river, as they headed toward the rapids, the security line broke, and they were headed for some rocks. Mitchum signaled for the rescue boat—which started toward them. But Monroe wouldn’t escape unless Mitchum got off at the same time.
“She was worried about me,” Mitchum says now. “She kept saying, ‘You’re sick, you shouldn’t even be out here with the flu. I don’t get off until you do.’ I told her, ‘Look, this could be a matter of life and death. In another three minutes, we’re going to be over those rapids and cut into forty pieces.’ But she still wouldn’t leave.”
For a supposedly macho male, the two traits he likes best in women are a sense of humor and guts. His wife, Dorothy, has plenty of both. She is funny, and regularly deflates Mitchum when he gets on one of his sentimental, drunken storytelling jags. Mitchum takes her needling in the spirit in which it’s intended and pours her another drink.
Robert Mitchum is a man who has made it in the toughest and most uncaring of businesses, and he has survived it all by staying one step out of it and pursuing other interests, like music. In 1939, he assisted Orson Welles, splicing together music for an oratorio for a Jewish refugee fundraiser that was performed at the Hollywood Bowl, which Welles directed and produced. In the ’50s, he wrote the music and story for the film Thunder Road, which was originally supposed to star Elvis Presley. Instead, Mitchum recorded the title song and had a hit record. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, he spent a lot of time with oyster fishermen and the plain-spoken people of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Drinking, talking, hearing stories. He refused film after film simply because he didn’t want work to become “all there was of me. I think that’s pathetic.
“Listen,” he says, “I always tell them, you don’t want me. If you can get somebody better, please, by all means, get him. If you can get somebody cheaper, get him. I don’t want to work much anyway.”
One of Mitchum’s most famous movies is Cape Fear. He turned it down at first and agreed to do it only because the producer sent him a case of liquor and some flowers. He called the guy up in the middle of the night and said, “I’ve smelled the flowers, and I’ve drunk the booze. I guess I have to do the picture.”
Anyone who has seen Mitchum in Cape Fear will remember his performance. Perhaps the only other role he gave as much to is that of the crazed preacher in The Night of the Hunter. But if you talk to Mitchum about it now, he thinks the director, Charles Laughton, held him back.
“I wanted to take it all the way,” he says. “I wanted to scare people to death. The book did that. It was ten times as frightening as the picture. But Charles had such good taste. He kept saying, ‘I make my living reading the Bible. I can’t do this sort of thing.’ As it was, it was pretty good… I guess.”
The public, however, probably remembers his pot bust in 1948 better than it remembers most of his films. Mitchum talks about it with a great ironic laugh.
“The guy who set me up for that bust was my ex-business manager. I wasn’t even tried, you know, and in 1951 the jury apologized, but all people remember is that photo of me coming out of the cell. What they don’t know is how close I came to killing the son of a bitch. I got a little hot one night, and I was telling a friend of mine that I was going down to the hardware store and I was going to buy a corncob, a can of gasoline and a whip, and then I was going to go over to my ex-friend’s home and stick the corncob up his ass, pour on the gasoline, light it, and whip his burning ass all the way down Sunset Boulevard. My pal said, ‘No… no, you’re not. No way.’ So I had a talk with the police about all the money he was stealing from me, and the guy went up to San Quentin. I don’t mention his name anymore, he has kids and he paid. I had some pals who were in the joint, and I don’t think the bastard got his head above water the whole time he was there. But I’ll tell you what. He was lucky I didn’t turn him over to the Mexicans.”
“Yeah, when I was at Paramount there were these Mexican hard guys, gang guys I knew. They’d served as extras in one of my pictures, and after the bust and all the details came out in the papers, they used to meet me at the gate and say, ‘Hey maaan, we know where this basteeeeerd leeeves. You geeve us the word, maaan, and weee go top heeeem for you. You deeeeg, man. We top heeeem!”’
“Cut off his fucking head, Jack,” Mitchum says, looking like the Night of the Hunter preacher. “You know what I mean?”
“It’s the mystery of Mitchum as well as his charm,” says actor Paul Sorvino, at a press conference for That Championship Season. “When I met him, I was in awe of him. And I think you’re only in awe of someone who is mysterious, whom you can’t read easily. In fact, we used that awe, all of us, in the movie, because the team members are supposed to have awe for the coach. Naturally, as you get to know Bob, some of that Screen Legend stuff diminishes, but I didn’t want to let it go too easily, because it worked for the movie.”
Mitchum himself is propped up against a wall, talking to two journalists. In his hand is a Bloody Mary, and his eyelids hang down his face like two broken blinds in a flophouse.
“You know what a Mitchum movie is,” he says, as a woman reporter from Newsweek breaks into that sexual motherly smile. “It starts with a shot of a girl running across a beautiful open field. On the other side she sees this big gorilla. He waves to her. She runs toward him, smiling, with open arms. Then twelve guys come out and beat the gorilla over the head. He collapses on the grass. Scene Two: the girl meets the gorilla in a cabin. He’s locked inside. She tries to get to him, but just as she opens the door, he’s beaten over the head by twenty guys. Scene Three: a castle somewhere. The girl sees the gorilla in a turret. She climbs up, gets there, but again there’re fifty guys beating him over the head. She finally takes his head in her arms and looks directly into the camera and says, ‘He stinks and he’s ugly but I like him.’”
Mitchum has told this story, oh, maybe fifty thousand times over the past forty years, but each time he gets a great laugh and a look of worship and admiration from whoever is around. Mitchum is, of course, the gorilla, and in his tale, he’s being saved by the girl, who can’t quite get to him in time. It perfectly illustrates the combination of bravado, real toughness, and a kind of lost-little-boy appeal that he has with women. Every woman who hears the story gets that look in her eyes. “If I were there, I’d save the big, helpless gorilla from the mobsters.”
By the same token, it’s quite possible to misconstrue the “sensitive heart within the gorilla body” angle. One evening, Mitchum invites me up to his room at the Waldorf. Both of us are having difficulty maneuvering down the flower-covered hallway, and Mitchum pretends to pick the flowers and eat them as he heads toward his room, laughing and staggering, cursing and picking imaginary flowers all at the same time.
When we get into his suite, he collapses on the couch and begins drinking tequila again.
“Still haven’t eaten,” he says. “No time to feed the gorilla. He’s been on the chain gang.”
“Hey,” I say. “Let’s call room service and get some hamburgers sent up and some milk, okay?”
“Nah,” Mitchum says, looking down at his slightly bulging belly. “It’s too late. Hell, I don’t even need to eat.”
“Hey,” I say. “You do need it. I’m ordering you some food, for chrissakes.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, come on.”
This is crazy, I think. Finally, reluctantly, he allows me to call room service and have them send him up a cheeseburger. Meanwhile, I get out my tape recorder and set it up, and Mitchum smiles and talks about the making of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which is one of his best and least-seen films.
“Up in Boston,” he says, “these are some tough motherfuckers. I mean hard guys. You ever meet George Higgins? He and I are having dinner, and he says, ‘Hey, Bob, did you ever think about committing suicide?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, I guess, once or twice, but not really.’ And he says, ‘No, I mean with the gun in your mouth.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, but I always figured it would make too much of a mess for the other guys.’ And Higgins smiles and says to me, ’No, I have that covered. I mean you do it in the shower, see? Then they can just sponge you off the walls.’ Weird. See, I don’t know why it is, but I attract weirdness.”
“Maybe you like it.”
“Yeah, hey, who the fuck are you, Sigmund Freud?”
Mitchum puts down another tequila, and I can feel the mood of the room changing. “There was this guy up there,” he says. “Part of the Boston Mob. Reminded me of the guys who hung out at my father-in-law’s house. Very natty dresser, very polite. He was a hit man for the mob. One night, see, this guy gets carried away just having fun in this Italian restaurant, and he takes out his piece and shoots a hole in the ceiling. You don’t do that, you know? It’s like shitting in the parlor. So he comes over to dinner at our house one day, and he’s really down, and he say, ‘You think you got problems, listen to this. You know what they made me do because of that little hole I blew in the ceiling? They made me go all the way out to San Francisco, get a hotel room, buy new suits, get a girlfriend to cover for me, spend days setting this guy up, and then I got to blow him away. All out of pocket! Can you believe that? I mean, would you consider that a fair thing to do?”
Mitchum laughs wildly at the story, as do I… but then the mood changes again.
“You getting this shit?” he says.
“Yeah… Listen, maybe you don’t need another drink, Bob.”
“You’re telling me?”
“That’s good, because guys shouldn’t push the gorilla too far. Sometimes in bars guys come on with stuff, you know. ‘You think you’re tough, or what?’ I do like this…”
Mitchum gets up and orders me to do the same. He comes over and stares down at me, his huge hands clamped firmly on my shoulders.
“You see, I don’t fight clean. I gouge eyes, I break arms. I say to the guy, ‘Listen, pal, if you really want to do this, you ready to go all the way? ’Cause that’s what it’s going to mean. You dig?’”
I feel myself trembling, but with Mitchum you don’t back down. “What if they say, ‘Fuck you, movie star?’”
Mitchum’s eyes narrow.
“Then I do this!” he says.
Suddenly, he throws his whole body backward, still grasping my shoulders, and comes winging back toward me with his huge creased forehead. It’s the old Irish forehead slammer trick and I stay perfectly still and pray that he’s not too drunk to stop himself.”
My prayers are answered, and Mitchum stops one millimeter from my head.
But he is still glowering at me, and I no longer have any idea whether he’s acting or we’ve gone over into the Twilight Zone.
“If they aren’t knocked out by that, I twist them around and break their arms, gouge their eyes. It’s not the Marquis of fucking Queensberry rules, I want to tell you.”
And at that moment the doorbell rings.
“Room service!” I say moving backward toward the door.
“Hey,” Mitchum says, smiling, “I could use some food after all.”
At the gala premiere of That Championship Season, surrounded by the Kennedys, Norman Mailer, Bud Schulberg, royalty from Greece, Robin Williams, and about a thousand other rich and famous people, Mitchum comes over to me and asks what I’m doing next. I tell him I am going home, back to work on my novel.
“Jesus Christ. You know, that’s what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t make that kind of commitment. Good luck with it. I mean it.”
There is such real warmth and such actual concern in his voice that I feel touched, and can’t resist giving him a hug.
“Listen,” I say. “It’s been great fun. Good luck and take care of yourself.”
Mitchum smiles, looks at the little circle of people who are standing around and yells, “What? Five hundred dollars? You want to go to a motel with me? Jesus Christ, man, what kind of guy do you think I am? Get the hell out of here, kid! Some god-damned nerve!”
Then he pounds me on the back of the head with his big open hand and walks just behind his wife out of the room.