The Arizonian

Robert Mitchum Rides into the Sunset

Published in The Arizonana: Vol. 1, No. 6 Arizona Territory July 6, 1997

The television played absently in the background as I sat down to write this memorial tribute to Robert Mitchum. The star of a slew of films and Westerns, and regular resident of our Valley, had died on July 1st at the age of 79 and I did not know where to begin. Then, all the hairs on my neck stood at attention as an most unmistakable voice from the TV announced,

Robert Mitchum“Beef. Its what’s for dinner.”

A grin came to my face as I recalled when I first met Robert Mitchum – eleven years ago. My mother, Esther, had died the December prior. Already friends with Mr. Mitchum’s actors /sons Chris and Jim, and daughter-in-law Vivian – she and Jim insisted I come over to their home in Paradise Valley for their family Christmas Eve party. Their gracious invite, coupled with the fact Valerie Perrine and mistletoe would be there, made my acceptance a no-brainer.

I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of stars who have reached various levels in the Hollywood heavens. Based solely on what he brought to the screen, in my opinion Robert Mitchum already had a constellation all his own – and at age 68, it was still glowing steadily. Long before Stallone entered the arena of this world, Mitchum made sleepy eyes a commodity. He credited – or blamed them – upon having “chronic insomnia and dual eye astigmatism from boxing bouts.”

Those eyes peered intently from the corner of the living room as the tall man stood. Less than half his age and I knew, this still was not a man I’d want to cross physically, though he looked dapper as he extended his hand. His right eye squinted down upon me as I was introduced. The drowsy eyes widened ever so slightly as the distinguished voice repeated my name then intoned, “What the hell kinda name is that?”

After I plowed through my standard explanation, he asked what I was drinking. My reply of “7-Up” gained another tight squint from his eyes.

“That a drink?” he shot back.

“It’s the second half of a Seven & Seven.” I offered weakly.

He nodded with a satirical bite. “Jimmy? Bring Mr. O’Rourke a 7-Up…on the rocks.” He picked up his glass.“And throw the first half in mine,” he barked.

“You can call me . . . Pierre,” as I took the seat to his left.

“You can call me . . . Mr. Mitchum,” he retorted with the slightest grin from the right corner of his mouth. Often cocking his head to the side with the squint to the right of his sleepy eyes even tighter, he was polite to the other guests who came over to acknowledge him while he seemed to remain ‘on my case.’

Over the next couple of years I learned that Robert Mitchum’s biting mannerism was his way of acceptance, eventually his embrace. And with the passing of years, I continued to call him “Mr. Mitchum” more to annoy him and get that eyebrow to raise. I marveled at the way he held mental pictures of the travels to which his career had introduced him. He seemed to enjoy these more then the “behind the camera” stories.

Mr. Mitchum accomplished something few couples, let alone Hollywood Couples, ever achieve. He and his wife Dorothy celebrated 56 years of marriage, married in 1940. He settled down . . . a bit; working hard as a drop hammer operator for Lockheed Aircraft, spending free time with the Long Beach Theatre Guild – and fathering Jim Mitchum, who later followed in his father’s acting career.

Robert Mitchum Rides into the Sunset Part 2

Robert MitchumWithin a year of his joining the troupe, it began to move quickly for Robert Mitchum – and the history of westerns. Not yet 24, it was 1943 and he was in 18 movies. It started with . . a Western. Hoppy Serves a Writ re-established the career of William `Hopalong’ Cassidy Boyd. These were to become one of the longest running series of Western movies, and Mr. Mitchum was in 8 of them. Some of the other Westerns he did that year included Border Patrol, Bar 20, Lone Star Trail, and Riders of the Deadline. Somewhere between takes, he and Dorothy had second son, Chris – who joined his brother in pursuit of an acting career.

Nevada (1944) with Anne Jeffreys was a standard Zane Grey Western where Mr. Mitchum mopped up a band of outlaws. West of the Pecos (1945) was his 24th movie and the last time he had concern for employment. Hollywood set out to make the story of Ernie Pyle, considered the greatest of America’s WWII combat correspondents. Mr. Mitchum nailed the role of the tough but admirable `Lt. Walker.’ “I was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1945 . . . and never had to work again,” he drawled. “Folks looked at me differently, seriously.” Surprisingly it was his only Oscar nomination of his career.

Rachel and the Stranger (1948) cast him with Loretta Young and William Holden. As `the stranger’ he visits a home, causing the husband’s love for his wife to resurface. It was followed with Blood on the Moon, the first of eight films he did in Arizona. Produced in Sedona, the tough Western had rival Robert Preston and him becoming bitter enemies because of a scheme to undo ranchers Barbara Bel Geddes and Walter Brennan. The Red Pony (1949) based upon Steinbeck’s novel, “was not exactly a Western, but one of the finest horse tales ever. I received alotta respect from my playing `Billy Buck’ as he entered the fifties of films and thirties of his life.

The Lusty Men (1952) was a rodeo drama in which he portrayed an ex-champion who mentored a novice rider played by Arthur Kennedy, and gets attracted to the fledgling’s no-nonsense wife played by Susan Hayward. “Folks said we had the same voice. Must’ve come from a tuff life. Susan’s did her in. She was box office – but gone before 60.” Four more films and Mr. Mitchum and Dorothy had another production with Petrina. Rather than following the guys into acting, their daughter’s career followed screenwriting.

River of No Return (1954) placed him under the direction of Otto Preminger, saving Rory Calhoun and Marilyn Monroe from a leaky raft, only to be abandoned to the Indians. “Took longer to shoot, lots more care in set-up of the cameras . . . the lighting.” This was the beginning of CinemaScope so look for a big screen TV to enjoy the gorgeous locations and thrilling rafting sequences. Track of the Cat (1954) had him and Tab Hunter involved in a cougar hunt and a family’s difficulties, “remembered for the colorless photography, where they included color in specific settings to drive the critical points.”

The Man with the Gun (1955) has him as a lawman seeking to bring peace to the town. We agreed “Angie Dickinson looked mighty fine.” Bandito (1956) had him as a gun supplier playing both sides of the 1916 Mexican rebellion. Zachary Scott is his rival, resulting in constant action and endless cat and mouse twists.The Wonderful Country (1959) had him running guns again between the Mexico and Texas border while romancing Julie London.

The sixties galloped in with a bang as Mr. Mitchum joined Deborah Kerr in a first rate film of an Australian family devoted to sheep herding. The Sundowners (1960) has excellent cinematography. “That’s one movie I’ll admit to being proud of, it’s a keeper. I loved the travel, we filmed on location. I spent all my free time looking around, asking questions.”

Twelve films later placed Mr. Mitchum in a strong cast with Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, Sally Field making her film debut, and Arizona’s own Jack Elam. The Way West (1967) was forged from an epic novel, but never cooked. “It had major problems with the script. Vastly undeveloped sub-plots.” Yet here again, his acting was superb – a testament to the fact he never gave his audiences anything but his best.

Robert Mitchum Rides into the Sunset Part 3

Robert Mitchum MoviesEl Dorado (1967) is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and was probably his favorite project.One of four films Mr. Mitchum made in Old Tucson, the jail and many of the buildings were among the losses suffered during the studio’s recent horrific fire. John Wayne was the aging, wounded gunfighter – Mr. Mitchum was his pal, the drunken, self-pitying sheriff. Magical chemistry in which he thoroughly enjoyed himself. “Me and The Duke were often makin’ it up as we’d go – while keeping (director Howard) Hawks on his toes,” as Hawks worked the theme of the old passing off to the new.

In El Dorado, “it was a fun group, fulla clowns.” Arthur Hunnicutt was the smart-alec deputy, “who used to crack us up. Just lookin’ at the old fart would crack us up!” Michele Carey was the love interest. Edward Asner, “could make you blow a line with his smile,” was the wealthy land baron out to start a range war.Christopher George was the handsome, ultra-cool hired gun . . . and James Caan was `Mississippi’, the young gambler who can’t shoot. “We had fun with him (Caan). He hadn’t made that gangster movie (The Godfather) yet.” Mr. Mitchum’s look turned distant as he leaned back laughing. “He hadn’t earned the right to have an attitude yet. Good kid, attentive, worked hard – but us pickin’ on him – he earned his check with that one.”

In 1968 Mr. Mitchum did two Westerns. Villa Rides retold of Villa’s Mexican campaign with a broadened focus on cohort Charles Bronson and Mr. Mitchum as a captured pilot. “You just knew, being around Charlie (Bronson), he’d go big. But the highlight was the rare opportunity to see Yul Brynner with hair.” In Five Card Stud, Mr. Mitchum’s character was the menacing preacher, Dean Martin was the gambler, “A funny nut but damn serious about his work,” and Inger Stevens was a pleasure. His eyes suddenly turned so sad. “The poor baby(she died in 1970 of an accidental overdose) was always wanting to prove herself as an actor. This might have been her about her last film.” (Miss Stevens died in 1970, apparently from.The mood went up again as he and I wondered who ended up with the hollowed-out Bible prop from his final showdown with Dino.

The following year Mr. Mitchum was directed in two films by Burt Kennedy, a man he “really respect . . . top-notch director, but we made too few films together.” First, the peculiar saga Young Billy Young (1969) the director adapted from the book, WHO RIDES WITH WYATT?, of the alleged friendship between Wyatt Earp and Billy Clanton. Mr. Mitchum was re-teamed with Angie Dickinson and Paul Fix. Later that year Mr. Kennedy directed him in The Good & The Bad Guys as an aging marshal chasing his old foe, played by George Kennedy, abandoned by his own gang for being too old. It included Tina Louise, and both David and John Carradine. Mr. Mitchum said he, “could relate to the story. I liked that it had a solid message in it, like when The Duke did The Shootist.”

The film industry of the seventies had Mr. Mitchum soon to enter his fourth decade “of mugging for the camera.” He had 85 movies under his belt as he donned his Western rig for The Wrath of God (1972) as a defrocked priest south of the boarder in a revolution-ridden country. It was adequate action with tongue-in-cheek humor and is remembered as Rita Hayworth’s last film. “Tough shoot, but she (Hayworth) hung in there. I didn’t, no one knew the facts at the time” (that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s). He lamented, “We were the same age. Man! I don’t ever want that. Forgetting lines, marks. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Though not a Western, I asked Mr. Mitchum – why at the age of 75 he opted to do the TV mini-series Winds of War, (1983) a 13-month project. His laconic reply was “It promised a year of free lunches.” He returned to the tube with a Western in 1985 in the epic adventure, North and South. “More meals, less shaving,” he offered to me on the phone.

The blockbuster Tombstone (1993), filmed in Arizona, was enhanced by Mr. Mitchum’s rich voice supplying the narrative. As was his first film, his last film was a Western. Shot in our state, Dead Man (1996) is an avant-garde Western. He portrayed a mine owner who has set bounty hunters on his son’s killer. He found Johnny Depp, “a talented little pup.”.

Robert and his wife Dorothy bought their Paradise Valley horse ranch in the foothills of Mummy Mountain “as a little place to relax and recoup. Got a lot of my family here.” His sister Julie is a longtime resident of Phoenix and Jim’s family includes youngsters Price and Kaitlin, two of eight grandchildren. He never had to speak for me to see his passion for horse-breeding. His eyes sparked through the heavy lids. He voiced deep disappointment and concern when he found out the pollen from the olive trees on their property was bad for the horses. He wasn’t as mad as concerned for them. “Damn stuff hurts their lungs. Mine too,” he shrugged.

In recent years I asked about any possible regrets from the brawny man’s life. Mr. Mitchum held his head back, his teeth barely showing through a slight smile. He watched little Price run by as he began with a slow, deep voice which offered nothing more than “Ohhhh,” then he made a click with his cheek. It was as if several thoughts hit him at once. It was the only time I perceived the stalwart legend as embarrassed, slight humming before he spoke.

“I learned it’s the little things, those momentary things we don’t think of – which can define a lifetime. Habits become habits before we know it. I didn’t know where the acting troupe would lead, anymore than . . . when I did things and got labeled by the press, when I got busted.” His granite face appeared vulnerable.

It felt strange seeing one of my heroes embarrassed, so I switched the topics but just for a moment. I knew he did jail-time, and overcame a reputation which many figured would cost him his career in 1948. I mocked the discussion of such with, “The things you do for two months of guaranteed meals!” It earned me a solid punch to my leg.

Mr. Mitchum’s eyes narrowed. “I seemed to watch what I was doing when I was doing it in films, watched my acting as it was happening – more than in my life. Course that changes as the parts . . . and the road get shorter.” He peered at his grandkids, always resulting in a smile. “One thing – might be a movie part or a dumb stunt – can change your whole life. I learned from it all, took it all to the screen. Regrets? Awwww hell, that I didn’t do more.”

I now reflect back to Robert Mitchum’s words. Words shared over the course of living rooms, gala events, the patio of Pischke’s Paradise, and phones. Then I look to what he brought to the silver screen and life. I try to tally the man’s 79 years from the little I know of him. 111 features films – almost 30 of them Westerns, a 52-year Hollywood career recognized around the world, a marriage of 56 years . . . and I don’t know where to stop. I don’t know what else he would or could have done.

So, as I reach for my iced tea, I toast you, Mr. Mitchum. You weren’t perfect – but you were never pretentious. You may not have done it all, but you sure did a lot. And your characters took many of us to places and allowed us to do things through you – we may only dream of. As I offer my thanks, please know you are missed already.

Pierre O’Rourke, former owner of Celebrity Promotions, now assists publicists promote their authors and celebrity clientele. He is a free-lance writer, a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona – and was a friend of Robert Mitchum.

Reprinted with permission of The Arizonian

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