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MY ROBERT MITCHUM—Our Man Behind The Mask

I’ve heard it said that Robert Mitchum is a casual man. That he’s a casual husband. A casual father. This does not perturb Robert in the slightest. It doesn’t bother me, either. I can recall the time that casual Robert Mitchum’s son, Jimmy, went east to visit my family. The day after he left, Robert began eyeing the mailbox. “Why doesn’t he write?” he wanted to know.

Three days later, Robert was still watching for the letter carrier. “Why don’t your folks write and let us know how he is?” Mitchum casually asked me—about twenty-five times.

Although I explained that Jimmy had barely had time to arrive at his destination, it didn’t help. “Well, it’s high time we heard from him anyway,” said my husband, stepping up to the telephone which he usually avoids as if it rested in a bed of hot coals. His long-distance call found Jimmy safe and sound—unpacking his suitcases. Bob may have an offhand manner, but he’s not casual—about anything!

Sometimes I think our sons inherit their father’s supposed offhand manner. Like the time Robert was working inside the house and heard a shout coming from the pool. To Bob, it sounded like a cry for help. He went through the doorway at hurricane-speed and took a flying leap. In his haste, he misjudged the distance, missed the pool and landed hard on solid ground. When Robert came to, Chris, who’d been noisily splashing in the water, was standing over him. “Now why in the world did you do that, Dad?” he asked—casually.

Often, it’s so hard for me to believe what I read about my husband that I’ve given it up. I have my memories of the past; I have the moments of the present; I look forward to the future. Consequently, I can dispense with all the fiction that is written about him in these three tenses.

I can remember, for instance, the man who had won a fine role in a little-theatre production. I remember opening night when, just before the curtain was scheduled to go up, I told him his first son was on the way. I recall that he borrowed a car, rushed me to the hospital, and then dashed back to concentrate on his part—or try to concentrate. And that he returned to the hospital after the performance, with his make-up still on, to pace the floor with the other expectant fathers.

The Mitchum I know is the fellow who turns out a cake for my birthdays . . . one with “Happy Birthday, Darling” written across the top in bright pink icing. He’s the man who taught me to cook when we were first married. Although I’ve asked him many times just how he happened to learn, I’ve yet to get a straight and serious answer. He’s the husband who’ll come home for dinner two hours late—bringing dinner with him.

He’s the father who takes his small daughter for long rides along the beach road because she likes to look at the ocean. He’s the fellow who can be found stretched out on the floor, mending his sons’ model airplanes.

The Mitchum I know takes great pride in his home—wherever it happens to be. I remember the time when we decided to redecorate the house and discussed the idea of consulting an interior decorator. “How can a stranger tell me what I want to live in?” asked Robert. And in the year that we lived there, he proceeded to paint the living room three times—experimenting furiously with the various colors.

My husband is a self-styled handyman around the house. It may take him months to finish a project (the completion of a dog kennel, for instance, took him around six months), but his interest and good intentions are ever present. “It’s got to be done right,” Robert would explain, as the dog grew older in his place by the hearth in our house.

A character? Well, frankly, yes. When you think about it, who isn’t—in his or her own way? I am married to a man whom few people will ever really know or understand. I am married to a fellow who is, by his own admission, an invisible man. He once told me about a writer who had come to the studio to interview him. The writer started to inquire about his childhood. “When I was a youngster, I was always running away,” Robert began.

“Didn’t your family object?” asked the scribe.

“Well, I guess they figured if I wanted to see the world, I might as well have a chance to get a good look at it,” said Robert.

“What did they do when you got home?” asked the writer.

“They looked right at me,” Robert said seriously. “As far as I was concerned, it was pretty unnerving. You see, I used to think I was invisible.”

The writer put down her pencil and shook her head while Robert went on. “I didn’t know that later I’d be so visibly magnified. When I made the discovery, I became somebody else . . . the guy they write the stories about. I don’t know what they write. I don’t care. It’s not me.”

The real Robert Mitchum has remained invisible to most people. They identify him with the actor they see on the screen, or with the stories they read about him. They turn to a chapter in the Hollywood rule book called “How a Movie Star Should Behave.” And by doing this, they lose the key to his actual identity.

“I learned early in life that by telling a story far more colorful than the truth would be, one’s truth is let alone. I like it to be let alone,” Bob says.

When people come to him for stories, he’s likely as not to murmur, “Make it up.” When people offer small talk at parties, asking about the early days, he’s apt to launch into, “Now when I was a youngster, I was strictly a juvenile delinquent,” or, “Did I ever tell you about my days on the chain gang in Georgia?” He realizes that they are interested in Robert Mitchum the personality—not Robert Mitchum the person.

The person and the personality are completely divorced. For one instance, he’s quite a horseman in the movies. In private life, he never goes near a horse. The movie star is supposed to love night-clubbing. Robert avoids night clubs like a plague, unless he’s showing around some out-of-town guests. Once he was asked, “How did you feel when you first saw your name in lights?”

He replied with another question. “How do you suppose the operator of a gasoline shovel feels the first time a crowd gathers to watch him excavate a sewer line?”

He believes that favorable public response—for making a movie or excavating a sewer line—is a result of the work a man has done. Acting is a job. A very gratifying one. But, nevertheless, a job. Off-screen, Robert lives like other people, some of whom occasionally mutter, “But you make so much more money.”

Says Robert, “So I pay so much more tax.”

Sometimes stories give the impression that Robert views everyone with sardonic scorn. This is far from the truth. Honesty and an adult attitude toward life will win his respect any time.

I believe that Bob’s youth accounts for many of his ways. It gave him his protective shell. It gave him the sense of humor that permits him to stand back and look at the world. It also gave him a tinge of bitterness—and was responsible for keeping his feet on the ground when success came. He still considers his success to be a sort of super-sized piece of good luck.

Few people would have given a nickel for Bob’s chances at one time, except perhaps those who read his poetry in his home-town paper, The Bridgeport Post. The paper ran a good many of his works, beginning with “A Chreestmus Pome.” And then there was “A War Poem”:

I seek adventure and I find too much.

Oh, if I were only rich,

I’d not be in this terrible “dutch”—

I’d not be in this ditch.

With these efforts, Robert won the reputation of Bridgeport’s “finest young poet.” However Robert was a restless young poet. He wanted to see the world. “I wanted to do things,” he explains. “So I lit out and did them. Anything. Dull, some of them—so I quit those. Fun, some of them—so I kept on.”

He was six when he first ran away. He ran as far as New Haven, took a long look, got hungry and hurried home. Home was a modest one. Bob’s father had been killed in a railroad accident, and his mother had gone to work on the newspaper to support her brood of three. She worked long hard hours and there was little time left to give to her children. There was money, barely enough. There were clothes, but no luxuries. So Robert set out to see the rest of the world . . . time after time. He returned less frequently when the police sed tired of chasing him and sending him back.

Long before he was twenty-one, Bob had seen nearly every state in the forty-eight. He managed to sandwich in grammar school in Delaware and Connecticut and even had a fling at high school. But he never finished.

Bob rode the rods. He lived in hobo camps, dodged yard bulls in railroad centers. He got into trouble sometimes. What boy wouldn’t? “But I always managed to come out all right,” he’ll tell you. “I like people and I like towns. A strange town is always exciting. Every new place is an adventure. I’d get into a new town and wouldn’t know what to expect. There would always be a new, interesting person to talk with.”

Even today he’s restless. He wanders. He’s likely to leave on a trip at a moment’s notice—Mexico City, Paris, New Orleans. . . . If the family can go, we all depart. If not, he goes alone or with a friend. People who’ve traveled with him on personal-appearance tours have asked me if he ever sleeps. Once, while on such a tour, he wasn’t in the mood for sleep, so he knocked on one press agent’s door. “Talk to me,” he pleaded.

This fellow had accompanied Robert on trips before. “Get lost,” he shouted. But the knock came again. “Awright, come on in,” he finally said. After which he mumbled, “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh,” as Robert talked on.

When the press agent began to snore, Robert went across the hall and woke another press agent—one who didn’t know him as well. They talked for the rest of the night. Next day, the man was so bleary-eyed he could hardly see. Robert felt fine.

Actually, he does sleep, but he prefers to deny it. He does it casually and heartily dislikes to have anyone catch him. “Think I’ll go over my lines,” he’ll say, stepping into his dressing room or the study and shutting the door. A while later, someone will awaken him, and he’ll look sheepish.

When Bob first came to Hollywood, he held some sort of record for cross-country travel—via freight. He’d worked as a farm hand, a truck driver, a stevedore, a bouncer, housepainter, steel worker, track layer, cement mixer, day laborer, quarryman, dancer, boxer and gag writer among other things. Between jobs, he came back to Delaware.

We met when I was thirteen. He was fifteen. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t like him. He was a wise guy. He never thought of paying a compliment like other boys. Instead, he teased. Yet every other boy I knew seemed dull by comparison.

When I was fourteen I fell in love with him. We double-dated with his cousin one night and spent the evening riding around in his cousin’s car. That was it. We’d just started going steady when Bob’s family moved en masse to Long Beach. Bob and his brother Jack hitchhiked out.

Bob did odd jobs around the beach. He worked in stores, filling stations, on the amusement pier. His sister was doing night-club work and was interested in the local little theatre. Bob also joined the Long Beach Theatre Guild and began writing night-club material for his sister and for local radio performers. Then he moved to Hollywood and teamed up with an astrologer. Bob became his contact man.

However, he always returned to Delaware. My family had hoped that I’d forget him, yet somehow I couldn’t. I went on to business school and took a job in an insurance office. Then Robert arrived again. He and his employer were making a tour of the east coast. For our marriage, Bob’s boss consulted the stars. Robert, he said, was under the influence of Leo, the Lion. I was guided by Taurus, the Bull. “There will be great conflict,” predicted the astrologer. “It will never work.”

Although my family neglected to consult the stars, they held the same opinion. I knew Bob’s faults. I didn’t care. When there is love, I concluded, who needs perfection?

Robert has claimed that he won enough money in a crap game to get us married. Actually he borrowed a hundred dollars. And I had a hundred given to me by my employers and co-workers as a wedding present.

We met in Dover to do some last-minute shopping. I went in search of a wedding dress. Bob and Charlie Thompson, our best man, struck out to look for a ring. Robert found a plain gold band, but then came the problem of measuring my finger. He and Charlie solved the problem by borrowing the jeweler’s sample scale and going out to look for me.

They’d forgotten the name of the store I’d gone into, so they simply wandered up and down the main street. At last I saw them through a window and knew they didn’t know where to find me, so I pulled on the gown and ran out into the street. We measured my finger on the sidewalk and I tore back into the shop before they could get the idea that I’d run off with their dress.

We rode around until we found a Methodist minister. We rang the doorbell and an elderly man appeared. “Bet I know what you folks want,” he chuckled. He led us into the living room, and, I remember, the temperature seemed somewhere below zero. So we adjourned to the kitchen where there was warmth, plus a rather strong smell of cabbage.

The old man put on a frock coat. Then his wife came and sat down at the kitchen table. “Do you want the old service or the new?” the minister asked us.

“The old one,” I said, because it sounded more romantic.

The day after the wedding, Robert and I took a Greyhound bus to Hollywood, where we moved in with his family. There were nine of us in a two-bedroom house. The family in that hilarious play “You Can’t Take It with You” never had it so hectic—and I’ll venture to say that their home must have been a mite larger.

Bob resumed his little-theatre work. Having left the astrologer, he began working in an airplane factory to earn money. When he decided to try acting as a full-time career, he and a friend, John Shay, formed a partnership. They had one good suit between them and took turns wearing it when they made the rounds of studio departments. Once Bob got in to see a famous producer who was considering him for a role. The producer looked him over and finally spoke. “You’re ugly,” he sneered. “Your nose looks as if it’s been broken.”

“It has,” said Bob.

“Your eyes are too small, and your ears . . .” the producer went on.

Bob started across the desk, vowing he’d do a little work on the producer’s own face. But the studio cops came and hauled him away.

“I’ve never mortgaged my tongue to get or to hold a job,” Bob says. It’s true. And I, too, am proud of the fact. I wouldn’t want Bob to feel any other way.

Meanwhile Robert had met an agent who believed that he could find work for him. “Can you ride a horse?” he asked.

Robert mentioned that he had once handled horses on his grandparents’ farm. By the time the information reached the producer of the picture, it had become “He used to break broncos.”

The farm horses were a long cry from broncos. When Bob came home from his first day’s work, he was stiff all over. “I got on the horse,” he said, “and he threw me. Then they gave me another horse. He threw me. I knew I’d better do something in a hurry. So when he snarled at me, I snarled back. Then we understood each other.”

Hopalong Cassidy pictures kept him busy for a while and Bob and Bill Boyd became good friends. Between Hoppy pictures, he did bits at U-I and Monogram. Then he went to M-G-M, where he tested for some thirty-two different parts. “Mitchum,” said director Mervyn LeRoy, “you’re either the lousiest actor in the world, or the best. I can’t make up my mind which.”

Nevertheless, Bob won a role in “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.” Then came “The Story of GI Joe,” in which he portrayed a captain. His next stint was in the Army—in which he was a private. When he was inducted at Fort MacArthur, they asked him if there was any branch of the service he’d prefer. “Nope,” he said. “Just put me where I can get some action.” He landed in the infantry.

While he was in the service, there was a great deal of action, career-wise. “The Story of GI Joe” played in theatres throughout the country and Bob was acclaimed a brand-new star. His portrayal won him a nomination for an Academy Award. It established him as a fine actor. And a “character.”

Stories said that he was an explosive character. One mentioned that he had swung at a guard at a studio gate. As a matter of fact, he did. As Bob passed, the guard, a new one, had barked, “Where do you think you’re going?”

“What did you say?” asked Bob.

The guard repeated his question and added a few more well-chosen words. Bob jumped at him, but his agent pulled him back. “You can’t go around slugging people,” he said. “Everybody will hate you.

Bob explained. “I wasn’t mad at what he said to me. But if he makes cracks like that at me, he’ll do it to some unknown kid down on his luck. And that’ll hurt him. It’s that little guy I was thinking about when I got sore.”

He still thinks of the little guy. Not so long ago, a director bawled out a crewmember on one of Bob’s sets. Then he told the man to pick up his check. Bob had been sitting in the corner, apparently unconcerned, throughout the row. When the crewmember left, Bob retired to his dressing room. And when the director called for shooting to resume, he was told, “Mr. Mitchum can’t work without a full crew.”

The director got the point and sent for the banished crewmember. The director apologized to the crewmember and production again rolled.

People mean a lot to my husband. Possessions don’t mean a thing. I remember once when he was on a hospital tour. In one ward, a boy admired his shirt. Bob pulled it off and handed it to him. “Take it,” he said. Then he grinned. “I guess I ought to have something to wear out of here. How about giving me your shirt?”

The boy gave him his T-shirt, several sizes too small. Mitchum donned it and wore it home.

One evening he arrived home and I noted that his new watch was missing. It seems that someone had asked him the time. “Don’t you have a watch?” Robert inquired.

The fellow explained that it was in the shop. Bob removed his own watch. “Guess you need this more than I do,” he said by way of explanation.

He likes to give gifts. Sometimes they’re most unusual like the time he came home with a coat for my birthday. I opened the box and my jaw dropped a mile. “It’s a man’s coat,” I told him.

“I know,” said Robert. “But I thought you’d look well in it, so I bought it.”

As it turned out, I did look well in it. I wore it and grew very fond of it.

When our daughter Petrine began to sing and dance whenever she heard music, Robert decided that she must have a record player for her room. He searched the town over for a phonograph, but could find none that suited him. Then one evening he walked in with same. “I’ve seen that one before,” I mused.

It was the one that he kept in his dressing room. “Has the best tone I’ve ever heard,” he explained, carting it into the nursery. “She’ll like this one.”

Bob gets more pleasure from giving than anyone I’ve ever known. For a while, after he became a star, he gave away most of his salary. It had to stop. We had practically nothing left. So we worked out a budget. Bob went on an allowance. “I feel better now,” Robert told me when the deed was done. “This way there will be something against the future, something for the kids.”

The kids, Jimmy, Chris and Petrine, are his whole life. He’s as relaxed with them as he is with anyone . . . but their welfare is the most important thing in the world to him. Bob was alone a great deal during his childhood. He didn’t have the care or the fun that most kids have. He wants his children to have everything he missed—the very best there is.

He takes the boys hunting and fishing, and often we all go along on location trips. The last one was “River of No Return,” in Canada. Petrine was about a year old, but Bob was determined that the entire family would come. So I packed diapers and bottles and the thousand and one things a baby needs and away we went.

Often people ask if Robert is teaching the children his own philosophy of life and how to avoid the mistakes he’s made. Robert figures a person has to profit by his own mistakes, that you can’t really teach anyone to avoid anything. In the final analysis, people have to make their own decisions. They have to learn—in their own way.

That’s Bob’s way. And I happen to like it.





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    7 Nisan 2023

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  • Ava Pittman
    9 Nisan 2023

    This was a fabulous read, loved Bob Mitchem, one of my favourite actors.

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