Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (August 6, 1917 – July 1, 1997) was an American film actor, author, composer and singer. Mitchum is largely remembered for his starring roles in several major works of the film noir style, and is considered a forerunner of the anti-heroes prevalent in film during the 1950s and 1960s.
Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His mother, Ann Harriet (née Gunderson), was a Norwegian immigrant and sea captain's daughter, and his father, James Thomas Mitchum, was a shipyard and railroad worker. A sister, Annette, (known as Julie Mitchum during her acting career) was born in 1913. James Mitchum was crushed to death in a railyard accident in Charleston, South Carolina in February 1919, when Robert was less than 2 years old. After his death, Ann Mitchum was awarded a government pension, and soon realized she was pregnant. She returned to her family in Connecticut, and married a former British Army major who helped her care for the children. In September 1919 a son, John, was born. When all of the children were old enough to attend school, Ann found employment as a linotype operator for the Bridgeport Post.
Throughout Mitchum's childhood, he was known as a prankster, often involved in fistfights and mischief. When he was 12, Ann sent him to live with his grandparents in Felton, Delaware, where he was promptly expelled from his middle school for scuffling with a principal. A year later, in 1930, he moved in with his older sister, in New York's Hell's Kitchen. After being expelled from Haaran High School, he left his sister and traveled throughout the country on railroad cars, taking a number of jobs including as a ditch-digger for the Civilian Conservation Corps and as a professional boxer. He experienced numerous adventures during his years as one of the Depression era's "wild boys of the road." At age 14 in Savannah, Georgia, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a local chain gang. By Mitchum's own account, he escaped and returned to his family in Delaware. It was during this time, while recovering from injuries that nearly lost him a leg, that he met the woman he would marry, a teenaged Dorothy Spence. He soon went back on the road, eventually riding the rails to California.
Mitchum arrived in Long Beach, California, in 1936, staying again with his sister Julie. Soon the rest of the Mitchum family joined them in Long Beach. During this time he worked as a ghostwriter for astrologer Carroll Righter. It was sister Julie who convinced Robert to join the local theater guild with her. In his years with the Players Guild of Long Beach, he made a living as a stagehand and occasional bit player in plays. He also wrote several short pieces which were performed by the guild. According to Lee Server's biography (Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care), Mitchum put a talent for poetry to work writing song lyrics and monologues for his sister Julie's nightclub performances. In 1940 he returned East to marry Dorothy, taking her back to California. He remained a footloose character until the birth of their first child, Jim, nicknamed Josh (two more children would follow, Christopher and Petrine). Robert then got a steady job as a machine operator with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
A nervous breakdown (which resulted in temporary blindness), apparently from job-related stress, led Mitchum to look for work as an actor or extra in movies. An agent he had met got him an interview with the producer of the Hopalong Cassidy series of B-westerns; he was hired to play the villain in several films in the series between 1942 and 1943. He continued to find further work as an extra and supporting actor in numerous productions for various studios. After impressing director Mervyn LeRoy during the making of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Mitchum signed a seven-year contract with RKO Radio Pictures. He found himself groomed for B Western stardom in a series of Zane Grey adaptations.
Following the moderately successful western Nevada, Mitchum was lent from RKO to United Artists for the William Wellman-helmed The Story of G.I. Joe. In the film, he portrayed war-weary officer Bill Walker (based on Captain Henry T. Waskow), who remains resolute despite the troubles he faces. The film, which followed the life of an ordinary soldier through the eyes of journalist Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith), became an instant critical and commercial success. Shortly after making the film, Mitchum himself was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving at Fort MacArthur, California. At the 1946 Academy Awards, The Story of G.I. Joe was nominated for four Oscars, including Mitchum's only nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He finished the year off with a western (West of the Pecos) and a story of returning Marine veterans (Till the End of Time), before transitioning into a genre that came to define both Mitchum's career and screen persona: film noir.
Mitchum would become a signature actor in the style of film known as film noir (a style used in many genres but most commonly in gangster and crime movies). His first entry into this world of dark crime stories was the well-regarded B-movie, When Strangers Marry, about a psychotic serial killer. One of Mitchum's early film noir outings, Undercurrent, featured him playing against type as a troubled, sensitive man entangled in the affairs of his brother (Robert Taylor) and his brother's suspicious wife (Katharine Hepburn). The ill-received film was Vincente Minnelli's first and last film noir as a director.
John Brahm's The Locket (1946) featured Mitchum as a bitter ex-husband to Laraine Day's femme fatale, while the Raoul Walsh-helmed Pursued (1947) combined the western and film noir genres, with Mitchum's character trying to remember his past and find those responsible for killing his family. Crossfire, also released in 1947 featured Mitchum as a member of a group of soldiers, one of whom killed a Jew. It featured themes of anti-Semitism and the failings of military training. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year, garnering five Academy Award nominations.
Following Crossfire, Mitchum starred in what was arguably the definitive film of his career, Out of the Past (aka Build My Gallows High), directed by Jacques Tourneur and benefiting from the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. Mitchum played Jeff Markham, a small-town gas station owner whose unfinished business with gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and one of the most memorable of all femmes fatales, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), comes back to haunt him. Though ignored by most critics upon its release, the film was a modest box office hit and has steadily gained the highest critical praise from both film journalists and filmmakers since its release. Mitchum was photographed again by Musuraca in the Robert Wise "psychological western" Blood on the Moon the following year.