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INTERVIEW : One Icon, Hard-Boiled : Robert Mitchum has been making it look easy for 50 years--the acting part anyway. It’s the left hooks and buckets of blood you need to worry about.

<i> Charles Champlin is The Times' arts editor emeritus. </i>

No two star actors are alike, of course, and it is far more than a matter of appearances. The survivors are separated from the also-rans because the camera, and the audiences, perceive something beyond the parts and the lines--some internal quality of menace, charm, intensity, wit, sexuality or simply the scars and strengths of real-life experience that are uncommonly interesting.

Survive long enough and you become an icon. Hollywood no longer creates icons as numerously as once it did. A fair-sized body of work is required, but it’s hard to compile a body of work in present films, even with Mike Ovitz at your shoulder. And the interchangeable stars of television often seem as ethereal and transient as the medium itself.

The scarcity of true icons makes those we have all the more appealing. Robert Mitchum has always seemed to make his unlikeness to other stars a kind of trademark, a star who regards his status with an amused indifference and who says what he would treasure more than anything else would be the ability to walk down a street unnoticed--as impossible for him in Rome as in Rochester.

At 77, Mitchum is still hard at the business of being Robert Mitchum. He is in fact off to Oslo early this month to star in a Norwegian film called “The Sunset Boys,” which will also shoot in Cologne, Germany, with Cliff Robertson as one of his co-stars in a story about four physicians with a burial pact to see each other out in style.

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He’ll interrupt that production to fly to Arizona for a couple of days’ work in “Dead Man,” by the assertively independent Jim Jarmusch and starring Johnny Depp, then return to Oslo to finish there a few days before Christmas. The work for Jarmusch--an interesting entwining of film generations--sounds to be one of those cameos in which the actor’s mere presence, an image shaped by a half-century of acting, saves the director 20 pages of exposition. (Charlton Heston’s cameo in “Tombstone” functioned in much the same way.)

No other actor comes to mind who has actually done time on a chain gang.

Mitchum did, in Chatham County, Ga.

“I was 15,” Mitchum said during a conversation at his home in Montecito recently. “They nailed me out of Savannah, as a dangerous and suspicious character, with no visible means of support, which was a common charge of vagrancy, and gave me 180 days on the chain gang, on the Brown Farm.” It was a good deal for the county: “It cost 38 cents a day to feed a man, but the county rented us out to the highway department for $2 a day.”

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Mitchum had been riding the rails since he was 12. Robert was born Aug. 6, 1917. His father was killed in a railroad accident when Mitchum was 2, and his remarkable mother--a Norwegian immigrant who was a linotypist and writer for a Bridgeport, Conn., newspaper--had to farm out the children. At one point in his childhood, young Robert suffered from pellagra, which is associated with improper diet, and someone once argued that he was “obsessed by the phantom of failure,” almost perfectly disguised by his easygoing style.

After many an adventure, Mitchum gravitated to the home of a sister in Southern California. He arrived characteristically in what the song calls a side-door Pullman car.

“The rest of the bums on the train said, ‘Don’t ride into the yards because the railroad cops would grab you and put you in Lincoln Heights jail and de-louse you.’ But I was so exhausted I rode straight on in to the Alameda Street yards. There were four Mexicans sitting under a water tank and they had a guitar and a big jug of wine and they called me over and gave me some wine and played a few numbers. They showed me how to get out of the place; there was a 12-foot fence around it. Then they gave me directions to the Midnight Mission and I had a meal. And I said, ‘This must be it, the Promised Land, because they’ve got a reception committee, even for the bums.’ ”

He stayed awhile, then went back East and worked in a factory in Toledo before he tried California again. When he returned, he says: “I worked as a dishwasher and a busboy and a stevedore. Then I got married.” He had met Dorothy Spence in 1940; some 54 years later, in defiance of Hollywood tradition, they are still married.

“I needed steady employment and got a job at Lockheed, working the graveyard shift.” He couldn’t sleep and in time he went blind.

“They put me in Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in Glendale for 72 hours and I went to a doctor who said, ‘I’m sorry to inform you'--and I collapsed--'that there’s nothing wrong with you.’ I said, ‘You don’t go blind if there’s nothing wrong with you.’ He said, ‘You can’t sleep because you know you’ll have to go to work and you hate the job.’ I said, ‘What’ll I do?’ He said, ‘Quit.’ ”

After leaving Lockheed, he was left with $41.11, as he remembers, but found a job selling shoes on commission. “I’d get fired four or five times a day for wisecracking,” Mitchum says, and then be rehired. “I made my own hours so I could go off and audition.” Inevitably, being a handsome devil, he had found his way to community theater in Long Beach.

He appeared in “The Lower Depths” at a theater on La Cienega and, among other roles in Long Beach, played Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest,” the role that pushed Bogart toward stardom in the 1936 film version. An agent saw him and urged him to try out for film roles.

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He had stage experience but no training. “Training to be an actor is like going to school to learn to be tall,” Mitchum said, an attractive heresy.

He signed on at United Artists in the early 1940s to do Hopalong Cassidy Westerns at $150 a week. He swore he was a terrific rider, explaining that he used to bust broncos on his father’s ranch in Texas. He was thrown four times before he managed to look like a rider.

Film historian Ephraim Katz totted up that Mitchum appeared in 18 films his first year, 1943, most often as a heavy. William Boyd told him that he detected a meanness around the sleepy eyes. Which film came first is not entirely certain, but it seems to have been “Border Patrol.” He also did a bit in “The Human Comedy” at MGM.

He made his first visit to the spectacular rock formations called the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine near Mt. Whitney to shoot “Hoppy Serves a Writ,” also in 1943. Mitchum shot five more Westerns in Lone Pine, including his first starring part (and 23rd film), the title role in “Nevada” in 1944. It was one in a Zane Grey series that had previously starred Tim Holt, who had just gone into the Air Force.

Although he was starring, Mitchum found when they got back to RKO for interiors that he was still dressing in the upstairs locker room, with a locker that wouldn’t accommodate his Western hat, and no place to shower.

“So I just went out in the park in the center of the studio and took off my clothes and got a garden hose and took a shower. Ed Killy, the director, ran out and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? Put your pants on.’ He dragged me into the producer’s office and said, ‘This is my star , for crying out loud.’ So I got a dressing room.”

Mitchum had been scheduled to appear at the fifth annual Lone Pine Film Festival next weekend. Then the date of the Oslo film was moved up and he reluctantly had to cancel. He videotaped an interview that will be shown instead.

The festival features only films--and there have been 300 at least since 1920--that have been shot at Lone Pine. “Gunga Din” and many a Gene Autry Western, as well as the Hoppys and “Bad Day at Black Rock” have been made there, along with innumerable commercials. This year’s many offerings will include a 50th-anniversary showing of “Nevada,” “King of the Khyber Rifles” (1954), Steve McQueen in “Nevada Smith” (1966) and Richard Donner’s recent “Maverick” with Mel Gibson and James Garner.

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“I was really looking forward to it,” Mitchum says of attending the festival. “I remember the Dow Hotel and a place up the street we called the Bucket of Blood. Don’t know what its real name was or whether it’s still there, but we kept it busy.”

The shooting was done mostly among the vast rock formations. “But once,” Mitchum remembers, “we shot on the alkali desert east of Lone Pine. And the heat! Unbearable, unforgiving. The cowboys would toss a handful of dust at the camera as they rode by. It took four hours to clean the damned thing, so you could sit in the shade of a cactus for a while.”

Things moved fast and Mitchum’s big break came with William Wellman’s “The Story of G.I. Joe” in 1945. “I did a test with Burgess Meredith (who played the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle) and I think Bill used it in the picture.”

Acting “natural” in front of the camera is not so simple as it sounds, not with rehearsals, retakes, equipment problems and the need to say the same lines in wide shots, close-ups and over the shoulder reversals. Mitchum’s gift, recognized early on, was the ability to make each line sound as if he had just thought of it, even on the 20th reading. At first when, as he says, his roles mostly called for him to be shot, beaten, pummeled by gorillas and generally ill-used, the lines were no challenge. From “G.I. Joe” onward he revealed a range from quite good guys to very bad guys.

Part of the naturalness was an apparent unwillingness to take the business seriously. “A casting office asked me if I’d ever thought of having my nose fixed. I said, ‘It’s already been fixed, by about four left hooks.’ ” RKO tried hard to change his name to Robert Marshall.

“Dorothy and I were talking about that at lunch with Jill Esmond, Laurence Olivier’s first wife. She said RKO wanted to change his name to Larry Oliver. ‘No one knows how to pronounce it, let alone spell it,’ ” Mitchum says, imitating a fluting English accent. Both actors stood their ground.

“I have no idea where the camera is or what it’s doing,” Mitchum insists. “I remember one time I was working with Loretta Young and she started changing the lights. I mean, ‘Put a half-scrim on this, put a snood on No. 2,’ and all this. And she said: ‘I don’t know why I worry about this. Look at him, he’s been working in nothing but leak-light all his life, and here he is and he doesn’t know what we’re talking about.’ I said, ‘I know , Loretta; I just don’t care.’ She said: ‘I’m sure you don’t. But I do . So put a half-scrim . . .’ and so on.”

It’s an attitude that endears him to directors--none of those troubled conversations about motivation. “I assume the director knows his stuff,” Mitchum says. “A lot of the time if you’ve got a really good cameraman you don’t need a director.

“Raoul Walsh would say, ‘Roll ‘em,’ and walk away. He’d roll a cigarette on his blind side. (Walsh had lost an eye in an accident en route to a location in 1928.) All the tobacco would fall out and he’d light it and whish! the paper would flare up, and he’d do that four or five times. And finally, after what we’d call a protracted silence, he’d say, ‘Is it over? Cut it. How’d it go?’ And the cameraman would say OK except the lamp fell off the table. Walsh would say, ‘Did it look natural? You picked it up and put it back on the table?’ ‘Yep.’ Never watched a scene! Except the exteriors.”

It may be that Mitchum will be longest remembered for his villainous roles. As an ex-con bent on revenge against lawyer Gregory Peck and his family in “Cape Fear” (1962), Mitchum was truly frightening. “I didn’t want to do the part at all,” Mitchum says. “But the director, J. Lee Thompson, said, ‘Who else?’ And that stopped me.”

Polly Bergen, who played Peck’s wife, recalled later that Mitchum had been meant to manhandle her through a door, which was supposed to open but didn’t. He pushed her so hard it drew blood on her back. They had to do the scene three times for technical reasons and Mitchum apologized for the rough treatment. Mitchum remembers that Bergen said, “Don’t apologize, I dug it.”

He was paid $250,000 for a cameo appearance--as a good guy--in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of “Cape Fear.” Peck and Martin Balsam also did cameos and the original Bernard Herrmann score was used. “I looked at Bobby De Niro’s tattoos and asked him if he had to go to makeup to have them put on every day. He said, ‘Naw--if you don’t use soap, they don’t come off.’ ”

Mitchum had done his most memorable bad-guy performance in 1955’s “Night of the Hunter,” which critic Pauline Kael called “one of the most frightening movies ever made.” As a demonic itinerant preacher with LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, HATE on the other, terrorizing two children and their mother, Mitchum, ranting and shouting, was as unlaid-back as he has ever been on screen.

Mitchum worked with David Lean in 1970’s “Ryan’s Daughter,” another film that he initially did not want to do. “Lean and (screenwriter) Robert Bolt both called me. Bolt said, ‘Well, what are you committed to do next?’ I said, ‘Commit suicide.’ He said, ‘Well and good. But do the film first and we’ll guarantee to see to your burial expenses later.’ How can you refuse an offer like that?”

He has a particularly painful memory of Lean. “He was getting a life achievement award and they asked me if I would present it to him. I said that I’d be pleased and flattered to, but that they should ask him if it was agreeable to him. Instead, they went to David and told him I’d refused to do it and he wept. I didn’t know, and he died only a short time later and I never got a chance to tell him what the truth was.”

When Mitchum was making 1968’s “Secret Ceremony,” co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, for Joseph Losey in London, he says: “We were working in some sort of halfway house for nuns. You’d be shooting and a nun would go streaking along the balcony. One day we heard this ear-piercing, blood-curdling scream. We ran up to Elizabeth’s dressing room and this chap from the income tax, the Inland Revenue Service, had come to claim full duty on the famous diamond that Richard had bought her. They worked out some sort of arrangement so that she’d have to put it into custody whenever she came into England.”

Most of Mitchum’s major films are available on videocassette and are shown on television (except, alas, for “The Story of G.I. Joe”). At that, many in a later generation will identify him with Admiral Pug Henry in the two miniseries, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” or as the star of the briefly seen series “A Family for Joe,” in 1990, in which he played a homeless man.

More recently, he co-starred with Bo Derek in “Woman of Desire,” which, bypassing both cinemas and television, went straight to video. He played an attorney, and the film was shot in Capetown and Johannesburg, South Africa. “It looked like a carpet commercial,” Mitchum says, and the heat and the racial tensions made for an uncomfortable shoot, although John and Bo Derek are neighbors and friends.

The public and private Robert Mitchums do not seem strenuously different. He has a fast and often sardonic wit. When he was asked if a photographer could come along to take some pictures, he replied, “Nudes?” He is certainly aware of his stardom and the difficulty of walking in public, but he lives as unstarry a life as possible. He reads widely and abundantly and wrote and sang two albums of songs in the 1950s.

His seeming nonchalance served him well and was its own form of damage control at the time of his dubious arrest for possession of marijuana in 1948, an item hardly newsworthy by present Hollywood standards but potentially serious then. But posing cheerfully in prison garb pushing a mop, Mitchum seemed simply, well, Mitchum.

Like James Cagney and a few other icons who came up a hard road, Mitchum has seemed to regard acting as a job of work, more lucrative than many, sometimes astonishingly so. Yet the laid-back airs need to be regarded with some skepticism.

Despite his long-ago protests to Loretta Young that he didn’t care about the lighting, he knows his craft. Being natural on camera is itself an act, maybe the hardest of all, and not to be seen acting is ironically a high compliment for an actor. Whatever else is true, icons don’t survive by accident.


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