Robert Mitchum slipped into his slate-gray shades and glared warily at Yale University. “A cat like me in a place like this,” he muttered, “could get busted for mopery with intent to gawk.” As he scowled back at the scowling gargoyles on the gothic turrets I took in the busted beak, the cuts around the eyes and the ragged ditches underneath, the little fatty pockets forming in the jowls. It was a face out of an 8th Avenue gym, but I liked it. There was power and humor in the blade-thin lips and skewering stare. And the star quality was still there. Through every movement oozed the heavy sensuality that for more than 30 years had made Mitchum a glamor-charged image of the elemental male.
Turning to gape, a passing co-ed spilled her books on the sidewalk. Mitchum brightened. At 53, he dug the compliment. He also savored the invitation to give a seminar on the subject of himself at a major university. In mock-professorial manner he announced to the welcoming committee of the Yale Law School Film Society: “Gentlemen, shall we get it on?” And swelling his formidable chest he went rolling across campus in the languid powerful glide that is known to the trade as the Mitchum ramble.
In the lecture hall he rambled down to the dais and then turned to face an audience of students and professors that filled every chair and most of the aisle space in a 300-seat auditorium. “I have been asked,” he presently announced in a vigorous bass voice, “what it’s like to be a personage of the cinema.” He gave his audience a slow ironic glare. “It’s like being trampled to death by geese.”
Five years ago Robert Mitchum was an aging screen lover with a slumped career and an unbankable reputation for what he calls “the simple virtues”—boozing, wenching and sampling the hemp. Today his assets are worth $5 million and his career is a pleasantly expanding exception in an era when Hollywood’s giants have collapsed like overinflated latex dinosaurs at the end of a parade. With a boost from Ryan’s Daughter, Mitchum remains one of the few superstars who can command the supersalary of the ’60s and a crack at the best roles in his age bracket. “After 20 years of playing a comic strip character called Superstud,” says director David Lean, “Mitchum at last is being recognized as the gifted actor he has always been. He is a master of stillness. Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness but his forte is his indelible identity. Simply by being there, Mitchum can make almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.”
No man more merrily relishes the side dishes of stardom—the money, the girls, the roar of the crowd, the company of the great.
Most of Mitchum’s fans are over 30, but in no small part he owes his new career to a younger generation of moviegoers. To the kids he is a “brother” who grew up poor on the fringes of Harlem and got leaned on by The Man; a “heavy dude” who got busted for cannabis way back in 1950; a rugged individual who time and again has risked his career by refusing to trim in the presence of power. To the campus crowd, from Yale to Fresno State he is the scruffy icon of the Mitchum cult.
No man more merrily relishes the side dishes of stardom—the money, the girls, the roar of the crowd, the company of the great. No man more keenly longs to give the best that is in him and have it appreciated. Yet Mitchum has responded to the people who are calling him the Bogie of the ’70s as he has always responded to adulation: with skeptical aloofness and a snake-quick ironic wit that unerringly fangs a flatterer. Alert and elusive, he shies from close contact and guards carefully against revealing any need or tenderness that the geese could trample.
“Zilch,” he says with his trademarked sneer, “is what this latest frammis means to me. I got half the bread in North America and I need success like I need an extra keester. Why don’t the kids just do their thing and stop tryin’ to recharge my wig. Somebody always wants to own ya, y’know? No way. I’m the last of the iron-assed loners.”
I was in a Philadelphia TV studio when I had my first glimpse of Mitchum in action. He knew I was there and couldn’t resist doing his own Mitchum imitation—in this instance a take-off on Superstud. I was watching through the glass window of the studio and all around me 40 cute little things stood giggling and wriggling. “Ooooo!” a girl in her early 20s gasped in tones of adoration, “doesn’t he look funky!” In the center of the studio Mitchum lounged alone, and I had to agree that funky was the word. He was wearing clay-gray slacks criss-crossed with wrinkles behind the knees, and a London-tailored dark-blue sports jacket that gaped at the collar and skirt like a bargain off the rack at Robert Hall’s. The hair was stringy, the skin as gray as an aging undershirt, yet the figure was commanding. Mitchum is only moderately tall, just a cowlick over six feet, but his waist is narrow, his shoulders wide, his legs lean and elegantly bowed in the calf, like Flash Gordon’s. And when he turned to look at the girls on the other side of the glass he moved his head with slow majesty and flashed his eyes like an old lion sighting a flock of tempting impala. Then he swelled up his chest and bore down upon the ladies in the inevitable feline glide. Enveloped in squeals, he signed a dozen autographs while carefully inspecting the game. Then without a word he reached out to the young woman who had said “ooooo” and, grasping her firmly by the back of the neck, steered her through the crowd and out to his limousine. As he passed me, looking like a small boy who had just stolen a piece of candy, he let one eyelid droop about a third of the way toward a wink.
“You gotta have three legs and two heads to keep up with that cat,” a publicity man warned me on the way back to the hotel. Mitchum was making the east coast loop of a promotion tour and at times he was blue with exhaustion but the show never stopped. That night in his room he loosed the opening gust of the roughest three-day wordstorm I ever weathered, beginning on a note of graceful self-deprecation.
“Me? I’m just a movie actress,” he said with a carefully erased smile. “They want a freak, they got a freak . . . If Lassie can be a star, it can’t be very difficult, can it?” I knew he was a man of surprising talents, but when I tried to discuss them I got nowhere. I asked about his eloquent romantic poetry. “Mother like it.” About his children’s stories. “Kids are easy to fool, aren’t they?” About his hit songs (friends say he did the first drafts of Can’t Get Started with You and Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition) and the oratorio Orson Welles produced “Puerile aberrations.” He is also a secret chef with the gift of sauces, and a self-taught “street intellectual” who can give you back from memory pages of Dryden and whole acts of Shakespeare, but these subjects were also off-limits. Some of the damnedest subjects were substituted.
Gathering afflatus, Mitchum held oral concert for the next six hours. Of all the great gabbers I have heard—W. H. Auden, Buckminster Fuller, James Agee, Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas. Alwyn Lee—Mitchum has the most richly conglomerate idiom. English on his tongue becomes a Joycean bedlam of broken Yiddish (“eppis, stumer”), Swin-burnian alexandrines (“sculptured in awareness with immediate clarity”), pusher Spanish (“mojo, ganja”), Tin Pan Alley talk (“begorra music”), Cockney (“minge”), Harlemese (“that mother had muscles in his hair”), a species of Sydney slang called Strine (“’e pulled a furphy”) and pert tags from Pope and Dr. Johnson along with some snatches of Norse. I lost him at the first turn of phrase, and conversation collapsed into harangue. I remember he did three or four Irish accents, eight or ten English, a dozen or so from the U.S. South. After that came peculiar lore (the Sasquatch of the Sierra Nevada, he said, are a race of abominable snowmen eight feet tall and covered with long brown hair) and some saucy anecdotes. By 2 A.M., well beyond amazement, I was ready to tie my smile to my sideburns.
Next morning Mitchum paused for a press conference. Asked how he got his exercise, he snapped: “I run around and witness the intolerable follies of my times.” Then he was off to the horse races at Laurel, Md., where he chatted wittily with the British Ambassador, made stable talk with Willie Shoemaker and some passing Mellons and signed several hundred autographs with exemplary patience. (“I think you’re wonderful, Mr. Lancaster,” a little old lady told him; “Thank you very much,” Mitchum gently replied.)
The strain of being a good boy told on him, though, and Mitchum took advantage of a break in his tour to “blow the seat out of these balbriggans.”After hoisting quite a few in an elegant restaurant, he confronted a Montrachet ’59 and announced: “I’m happy to say I have no dry vices.” With that he was off on a string of salty stories related with skill and mordant relish—among them a droll tale about how Trevor Howard once substituted the urine sample of a famous actress for his own and was duly informed that he was pregnant. As the evening wore on and the bars closed down. Mitchum became indignant. “Well, if you won’t give me a drink,” he declared gravely to a young waiter at a posh hotel, “you might at least give me a kiss!” Grinning uneasily, the waiter backed off, but Mitchum caught up to buss him resoundingly on the lips.
There was something almost flirtatious about Mitchum’s aggressive displays.
It was part of an act we both knew was wearing a bit thin. I wondered when he would stop being Mitchum and start being himself. There was a big man in there somewhere and I wanted to meet him. But I couldn’t get under his jab-jab-jabber.
Once, when we were alone. I ventured to suggest that he was developing a slight paunch. He strolled toward me sleepily. “Tap that gut,” he said. I tapped his diaphragm. It was as hard as a tree. Another time, about 2 A.M. in a hotel room, I wondered out loud if he was really as fierce as he sometimes sounded. His eyes slitted and his teeth gleamed in a sinister smile. “If I ain’t a bear,” he said softly, “I’m a rough pole on a tall hill on the way to it.” Then all at once his eyes blazed, his voice rattled. “Double wild! Hang or die! Born that way!” His tone fell to a purr. “Like to play rough? Right on, Jack! Take yer best shot. But when you fuck with the ape, be ready to go the route. Because he might just come unglued.” He was roaring again, his face bulging with fury less than two feet from mine. “He might just tear yer eye out and hand it to ya! Rip a finger off and bring ya to attention!”
If I’d had the nerve I’d have hollered: “Print it!” But I was afraid he might get carried away by his performance and actually hit me. Also, curiously, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. There was something almost flirtatious about Mitchum’s aggressive displays. I sensed they were meant to make me admire him, even to like him. Ferocity concealed an offer of affection.
It wasn’t until I’d been with him day and night for almost a week that Mitchum dropped his guard a little. “On the whole,” he mused. “I’m hopeful about today’s kids, though God knows they’re a Breughel of freakers. I don’t mean the drug thing. That’s just the latest hula hoop and it’ll go away. I like their adventurousness and up to a point I like their politics. I resent any system that tabulates men. A terrorist is always preferable to a bureaucrat. And I tend to agree that the world has too long been ruled by a conspiracy of constipated grandfathers and a tax structure that ties us all to the trellis of competitive materialism . . . But I wish the young’uns’d pay more attention to the reality and less to the ritual of resistance. I mean they come on with cardboard sunglasses, a knapsack full of raisins and walnuts and a Molotov cocktail degree in sociology and really think they can solve the world’s problems. It’s a head ramble . . . I’m a revolutionary conservative, a Republican radical, and these days I feel like a lone maggot in a collapsing cheese.”
The cheese collapsed around Mitchum quite early in his life. His father, half Scottish-Irish and half Blackfoot Indian, died in a railroad accident before Robert was two years old. His mother moved the family from Bridgeport, Conn, to her father’s farm on the eastern shore of Maryland. Her father, Gustavus Adolphus Gundersen, was a 295 lbs. Norwegian-born sea captain who, according to Mitchum, could back-lift a wagon loaded with 4,000 pounds of hay. Gus was a sadist. He hated cats, and once when he came home from a voyage to find six kittens in the kitchen he made all the children (Robert among them) watch while one by one he brained their little pets with a ballpeen hammer. The women, by contrast, were overprotective. Mitchum still has nightmares about being smothered in powdered bosoms.
All this trauma produced a child prodigy. At five, put up to it by his gifted mother, he wrote some precocious verse that was published in newspapers and (children’s magazines (A rod, a reel, a quiet mood;/a boy, a book and solitude). But by this time Mitchum and his family had moved to a part of Manhattan just south of Harlem where five-year-old poets were not notably appreciated. One day a boy somewhat larger than Mitchum washed his face with horse apples. The grandson of Gundersen went berserk and knocked his attacker cold.
The victory established the Mitchum style. He built up his skills as a street kid—cracking vending machines for cigarette money, selling candy apples in the local bordello. At 14, he quit school forever and rode the rods to California and back. On the way he was introduced to marijuana, peyote and the roughhouse tactics of the railroad police. On a later junket nabbed for vagrancy in Georgia, he was handed six months on the chain gang but soon escaped.
At 21, after a two-year career as a boxer that concluded when his left eye was temporarily knocked out of his head, Mitchum married his childhood sweetheart and they arrived in California with a cardboard suitcase and $1.14. During the next 18 months, while he and his bride inhabited a slightly remodeled chicken coop in West Hollywood, Mitchum scrounged along as a comedy writer, musical arranger and lyricist. With a baby due, he got a war job at Lockheed Aircraft but hated it so much he went stone blind. The day he quit his sight came back.
Remembering his success in amateur theatricals a couple of years earlier, Mitchum went to see an agent and wound up on the posse in a Hopalong Cassidy movie. Eight pictures later a director named Bill Wellman (The Oxbow Incident) cast him as Lieutenant Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe. With that movie Mitchum was established among the best of a new breed of Hollywood stars, the hardjaws who came up during World War II to replace the pretty pusses (Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power) of the late Depression years.
“Mitchum is one of the great dirty fighters of our time. In a free-for-all, no one stands a chance against him. Breaks your fingers, thumbs your eyes out.”
Mitchum at first was a docile celebrity. He was so pleased to be famous he didn’t at all mind being typecast as a handsome brute. But when he mildly requested a role in which he could show his acting talent, the studio head laughed in his face. It was the wrong way to handle Mitchum. All his life he had heard that he was “common.” Now he was being told that he was stupid. Hurt and angry, he turned the insult back in his own ironic way. Tough they wanted him? Tough he would be. For a love scene with Greer Garson, who seemed to him too sniffety, Mitchum primed his breath with Bermuda onions. To express his displeasure with David Selznick, a producer who happened to own half his contract, Mitchum slouched into his office and, standing on an expensive white rug that was Selznick’s pride and joy, urinated.
With directors, Mitchum could be really brutal. “I have a terrible temper,” one director told him at the start of a picture. “When I lose it I shout at actors. But don’t let it worry you. Next day I’ve forgotten all about it.” Mitchum said he understood. “I have a temper too. When a director shouts at me, I flatten him. But don’t let it worry you. Next day I’ve forgotten all about it.” The director did not lose his temper. Another, who did, had a remarkable experience. Mitchum tied his shoelaces together and hung him upside down from a lamppost.
And that was mild. “Mitchum is one of the great dirty fighters of our time,” says a friend who once boxed professionally. “In a free-for-all, no one stands a chance against him. Breaks your fingers, thumbs your eyes out. And he can get heavy wood on you with either hand. He’s got the reflexes of a leopard—and the blood lust.” He has whipped four men at a time, and once in a Colorado bar he took out with one punch a professional fighter who later went three rounds with Marciano. Mitchum fights less frequently nowadays. He considers it a miracle he has never killed a man, and he hopes to keep the miracle intact. “The thing I’m most afraid of in this world,” he told me one night, “is me.”
What is it that makes Mitchum so angry? Usually the same thing. “I tell ’em but they won’t listen. Gotta be their way—keep crowdin’ in. But can’t two people be in the same place. Can’t nobody be me but me. Stand back, Jack. No? Whap!” I wondered who had first tried to crowd Mitchum out of his existence and I remembered Gus Gundersen. Would Mitchum ever finally prove he was tougher than that wild Skowegian?
In the early days Mitchum was sometimes rough with women too—“had to be, man.” Dozens, often 100 girls, waited at the studio gate when he was on the lot, and on location he had to enlist two bodyguards to fight them off. Men were known to offer him their wives, and on one occasion a woman tried to force him into bed at gunpoint. Mitchum escaped through a bathroom window.
It was a woman problem, according to his close friends, that almost wrecked Mitchum’s career. They say that a studio executive, enraged because his girl had been with Mitchum, tipped the narcotics squad that the actor was smoking marijuana at a house in Laurel Canyon. Mitchum did 60 days on the work farm and so admirably kept his cool (“It was just like Palm Springs,” he explained, “without the riffraff”) that he came out of the mess the darling of the downtrodden and a bigger star than ever. But the episode cemented his disgust with Hollywood (“I’ve met nicer people on freight trains”) and considerably shortened his fuse.
Of all the women in Mitchum’s life, only three are now important. To know Mitchum you have to know his wife of 30 years, his 19-year-old daughter and his secretary-manager. I saw his wife, Dorothy, briefly in Philadelphia. She arrived in Mitchum’s suite about 9 P.M., a bit flustered by planes and taxis, a tall, slender woman, 50ish, expensively dressed, pretty in a clear Nordic way. Mitchum greeted her with a smile that seemed to me somewhat strained and even hostile; she hurried into the next room. I was embarrassed for her, and later sympathetic when she talked about her loneliness. Then at the end of the tour I saw her at home, a comfortable but unassuming four-bedroom California colonial in suburban Bel Air, and realized I had been too quick to commiserate. When Mitchum growls, more often than not she hisses. “When he goes too far,” says a friend, “she packs his bags and puts them outside the front door. After one day in a hotel, he is destroyed. Mitchum is a man who needs his home, his tribe.” He also needs Dorothy, though he hates to admit it. He needs her strength, her continuity. “He needs a fulltime woman who always puts him first,” says Dorothy. “I do.” Mitchum is grateful for what she does, but it seems hard for him to say so.
It is almost as difficult for Mitchum to show his daughter Trina how he feels about her. He obviously feels deeply— what father wouldn’t? She is a heart-stopper with long glossy hair, a subtle tone of red, and enormous liquid eyes that change color with the light like watered silk. Whenever Mitchum comes into the house, he asks the same casual question: “Treen around?” When she is in the room his face brightens. But they seldom exchange two sentences at a time.
“When I was little,” says Trina, “I was I so scared of him I couldn’t speak when he was there. Now I understand him and I love him, but it’s still hard to talk about serious things.” Yet Trina’s reentry after three years in a psychedelic orbit is mostly Mitchum’s doing. When she came to tell him about a flipped-out marriage she was going to make, he calmly let her talk herself into tears and then said: “If anything hurt me that bad, I’d walk away from it.” Trina is now living at home and taking film classes at UCLA. “I’ve been on some weird trips,” she says, “but no way would I blow it. I have too much respect for them both.”
Mitchum in some ways is closest to the third important woman in his life, Reva Fredrick, the wife of a high-ranking film executive named Max Youngstein. Reva is Mitchum’s secretary, business manager, agent, artistic adviser, psychiatrist, bartender, chauffeur, shopping service, friend. Mitchum calls her “Spider Lady” and never makes a business deal she hasn’t vetted or a movie she hasn’t approved. She knows all his faults and couldn’t care less. “Don’t let the noise fool you,” she once told me. “He’s double kind.”
Mitchum’s kindness often takes the form of generosity. On impulse he gives sportscoats, record players, cameras, money to his friends. I’m told he once gave a new car to a stranger he met in a bar. And, year in, year out, he supports six relatives outright and contributes to the support of six others. But Chris, the second of his three children, a 27-year-old actor who has appeared in the last three John Wayne movies, refuses to accept his father’s bounty. “It’s because his offers aren’t just offers,” Chris told me. “They’re tests. If you accept, he figures you don’t care about him—just his money. I care about him and I care about myself so I’ll never take his money.” Reva provides a larger view. “Giving money is sometimes a substitute for giving himself, which is too painful. Rawb feels love, sometimes feels it very strongly, but doesn’t dare to risk expressing it.” Several people told me that in Gus Gundersen’s family, people who expressed love were considered weak, and it wasn’t safe to be weak with Gus around.
The Mitchum clan gathered one day when I was there. Trina came down the spiral stairs at the center of the house. She wore clinging leather slacks and in her hands she was twirling a tiny boa constrictor. “Hey!” she said to no one in particular.
Mitchum was sprawled in a big low bed-like easy chair in the family room, expounding to Chris’ wife, Cindy. Chris was in Mexico with John Wayne but Cindy had brought the two children down from their split-level shack in Topanga Canyon. She was a small, slender, quietly pretty young woman with intelligent eyes, but she looked guarded now. Her children—Carrie, 6, and Robin, 4—were screaming a lot, and Mitchum occasionally shot them a look loaded with shrapnel.
The noise got worse after Jim and Wende came in with their contribution—Tiffany, 7, and Josh, 3. Jim is even bigger than his father but looks so much like him that people stare when he walks down the street. He’s 30, has also appeared in movies, and seems determined to make it as big as his father did—but on his own terms, which are radical and unbarbered. Meanwhile, father is footing many of the bills. Wende is small, dark, vivid: an actress and, I’m told, a good one. Mitchum said hello but didn’t get up. Josh toddled over and grabbed his grandfather’s thumb. Mitchum smiled benignly—Josh is his favorite. “Only kid his age I ever saw,” he says wonderingly, “that’s got developed triceps.”
Once the clan had gathered, two bottles of champagne were drained in five minutes. Somebody put a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album on the record player and the men began talking horses. Cindy and Trina went on about Trina’s film class. Over at the bar, Wende was telling Dorothy that she and Jim and the kids were all going up to Taos soon to visit Dennis Hopper.
“You’re wrong, Jim!” Mitchum suddenly was bellowing. “You put a bottom like her under that cold-jawed mother, you’ll get a short stroker couldn’t run to the mailbox and back!” He was off on a tirade about horsebreeding that soon had Jim glassy-eyed and then fighting back with a tirade of his own. At the height of it little Robin arrived in the center of the room and began to screech uncontrollably. Mitchum crossed the room, put his mouth an inch from the child’s ear and shouted: “SHUT UP!”
Robin shut up. So did everybody else. Cindy went white but said nothing. Six more bottles of champagne arrived. Corks popped rapidly. Talk got very loud. Mitchum sat sullen, realizing he had gone too far. Jim, getting stoned, cornered his mother behind the bar and all but asked her directly to buy him a $50,000 house he’d just seen. “Jim,” said Dorothy, getting smashed, “stop suckling!” Jim flared up and reminded his mother of the time his father had promised to star him in a movie and at the last minute had let him down. “Now hold on, Jim!” Mitchum bellowed across the room. “No, you hold on!” Jim bellowed back. Wende made frantic little signals. Cindy gathered up her kids and left. I headed for the kitchen. For the next ten minutes it sounded like a barroom brawl in a Mitchum movie—the men roaring, the women screaming. I heard Wende shriek: “No, Jim. no!”
And then suddenly they were all in the kitchen, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, smiling broadly. “Now make up!” said Dorothy. The men grabbed each other and hugged heartily. The women hugged. Jim and family left. “Jesus!” said Mitchum, his eyes flashing with pride, “that Jim’s a wild mother! I mean, when he picked up that bottle he was ready to go the route!”
Next day Dorothy told me that five minutes after I had left she and Mitchum had started fighting again. At 1 A.M., Mitchum had packed a bag, jumped in the Chrysler and driven away.
I never had a chance to watch Mitchum make a picture, but while he was “scarin’ up the backblocks,” as he later put it, I had two days to talk with actors and directors who had worked with him. In recent years, they agreed, his professional manners have been impeccable. He never hogs the camera, never plays the star. He admits to facility—he regularly commits a page of dialogue to memory in one reading, and in two readings actually learned a 50-word speech in Swahili—but to nothing more. “I don’t act. I just stand there and let ’em talk to me.” But that’s just it, says Deborah Kerr. “He’s the best reactor in the business. He listens to every line, as if hearing it for the first time, and alters his response according to your reading. It throws your lines right out of your head, it’s so real.”
Another quality of Mitchum’s work that many professionals mention and few critics have noticed is his humor. “He is a master of the put-on,” one director told me, “but it’s such a subtle put-on that the public doesn’t get it. All these years he’s been laughing at the masculine ideal of middle America. It’s been a very lonely joke.”
About 36 hours after he had left his Bel Air home, Mitchum turned up at his ranch in the country. When I met him there, I didn’t ask where he had been. Usually when he wants to get lost, he just takes his front teeth out and puts up at a motel. Nobody recognizes him. “It gives me the temporary illusion that I’m real,” he says.
The Mitchum ranch is a small spread, about 75 acres, all good bottomland cross-hatched with seven-foot fences and well grassed-over. There is a five-room bungalow for the trainer, a four-stall stable and a carousel for training the colts. Mitchum keeps 30 or 35 of the best quarter horses on this continent there.
“Bogart once laid it on me: a man who really wanted to be a man would always feel ashamed to be just an actor, and I guess he was right. Literature was my lick, but instead of writing novels. I’ve lived them.”
When I arrived, Mitchum and his trainer, Pete Woods, were watching the exercise boy breeze a yearling mare around the oval. Mitchum was at ease. His eyes were bright and his skin, freshened by the morning chill, had a healthy flush for the first time since I’d known him.
With squirely pride he showed me his fiery little horses. Gold, orange, black, they were loping poems. Mitchum races them, but his passion is improving the breed. As we strolled among the warm animals, he recited the breeding of every horse for three, four, five generations back, and most of the bloodlines trace to Man O’War, Equipoise, Nasrullah or a sire almost equally illustrious.
Back at Mitchum’s motel room he took out a pipe no bigger than his thumb and as he smoked it, spoke his mind.
“I’ve dirtied my ticket some over the years, but I do respect those who battle for their innocence. Men of character and destination. If it’s a matter of belief and you sell out for 40 dollars or 14 million you’re a fink. A man who doesn’t have something to die for doesn’t have anything to live for. The Masai understand this. Before he can be a warrior, every Masai boy must kill his lion.” He paused and puffed. “In our world, the moral equivalent of the lion is a man’s work,” he said, and was silent awhile. I sensed that for the first time he was trying to tell me something essential about himself.
“Bogart once laid it on me,” he went on, “that a man who really wanted to be a man would always feel ashamed to be just an actor, and I guess he was right. Literature was my lick, but instead of writing novels. I’ve lived them. And there are times,” he added with an ironic tilt of the head, “when I suspect I have run out of ink.”
We both knew what he was saying—that he had never killed his lion and now he was getting old.
“Is it really so,” he asked, “that the supreme value in a man is his continued existence?” Through the smoke he smiled a gently sardonic smile. “I don’t know what God is, but then I don’t know what else there is. We seem to have some sense of divinity, an impulse to refine life to a crystalline substance. Smoke it, shoot it, stick it in yer eye. Some way or other, make a connection. I don’t sleep so good, and the nights are pretty long. You wonder about these things, y’know?” He drew deep on his pipe. Our eyes met. For an instant his look was clear and childlike; then all at once it was ironical again. “What I need,” he said, “is a black void. Black voids aren’t too easy to come by these days. But someday I’ll find one.”
In the bar and grill where we went for dinner there was a short, fat, loud woman who looked like Betty Boop. Earlier in the day she had come cantering onto the Mitchum place on a hairy little quarter horse with an Arab head, and for the next half hour she had jabbered movie-magazines and flirted like rural sin. Mitchum looked bored then and he looked bored now. But all that pink flab covered with black net was no common eyesore, and I suspect it was Mitchum’s fine sense of the absurd that made him invite her to eat with us. After five minutes he was sorry. She took over the conversation and pawed him as though she owned him—two things you just don’t do with Mitchum. He kidded her along for a while but when she started to analyze him astrologically he gave out and, excusing himself, went to sit with some strangers at a nearby table. There was another fat woman there and for the next three hours she exclaimed over and over in a high silly voice: “Oh, I just can’t believe it! I’m really having a drink with Robert Mitchum!”
It just wasn’t his night. He got mildly smashed and about 1 A.M. we went back to the motel. “Oh, no!” Mitchum groaned. Betty Boop was there. When he opened the door to his room she ran in. He rolled his eyes but I knew he wouldn’t kick her out. For one thing, he couldn’t bring himself to hurt her feelings—he could knock her teeth out but he couldn’t embarrass her. For another, anything was better than being alone.
“Hi diddle-de-dee. An actor’s life for me,” he said. And went in.
Postscript: From the Editor’s Note in Penthouse: Robert Mitchum, another controversial figure, now enjoying a new level of critical and popular recognition, is the subject of an unforgettable study by Brad Darrach. Before writing it, Darrah spent more than a month with Mitchum, in the east, in the west, at him home in Bel Air, at his ranch in central California, on trains, on planes and in half a dozen hotels and motels. “I had expected to meet in person,” he reports, “the ageing yahoo we so often see on the screen. Instead I found the intense and intricate man I have tried to describe.”