On his 100th birthday, here’s to legendary Hollywood tough guy Robert Mitchum
On Aug. 6, 100 years ago, Robert Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Conn., though he once claimed he didn’t have a hometown. Humble beginnings led to several trips west, at least one in a boxcar, before he found stardom in Hollywood as one of its most iconic mid-century leading men.
The actor, who died in 1997, was known as an avid reader and a bit of a renaissance man. He wrote poetry, songs, recorded two albums and once reportedly penned the libretto for an event Orson Welles directed at the Hollywood Bowl. An intimidating man of contradictions, he could be surly and charming, aloof and loquacious, humble and arrogant, pugnacious and gentle, testing the mettle of reporters from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to the Los Angeles Times’ own Charles Champlin.
Below are some choice Mitchum quotes from his conversations with The Times.
“I like acting. But I don’t want to stick to it all my life. I’ve got just one hobby — thinking.” (1947)
“[John] Huston and I became great pals while on location [for ‘Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison’]. He and Charles Laughton can direct for me any day or place. John thinks I’m a fool to act — says I should write or direct.” (1957)
When asked about directing, Mitchum replied, “In the theater, yes, but not pictures.” (1957)
“Every time, the same goddamned role. I’m wearing the same hat and the same boots I wore in ‘Five Card Stud.’ ” (1970)
On studying acting, Mitchum opined, “Do you go to school to be tall? Do you go to school to be blond? Stanislavski wrote a book about the Method and he admitted he did it for the money. And so now everybody follows him, and he laughs. Talent is like having an ear for pitch — you can’t develop it.” (1970)
“I just fall in and fall out. The idiots need the importance. I just live in the brush, slip in when there’s work, then slip out again.” (1970)
On the film “The Yakuza”: “I have no emotional feeling for this picture. I’m a professional actor. It’s a job.” (1974)
“I have no idea where the camera is or what it’s doing … I assume the director know his stuff. A lot of the time if you’ve got a really good cameraman you don’t need a director.” (1994)
On show business
“When I was a child, I didn’t want to be a cop, a fireman or railroad engineer when I grew up. I wanted to be a burglar. That’s a fact. I never quite realized my ambition, but when I first started raking in movie and radio money I thought that I was on my way. But after doing seven pictures last year I ended up with exactly $2,200. Now I’m wondering who burglarized who.” (1947)
Responding to discrepancies between his studio bio and his own accounts, “I didn’t write the darned thing.” (1947)
“I just report to whatever studio I’m told to and start working.” (1947)
“Trouble with this place [Hollywood] is that you’ve gotta look like yourself all the time. The public gets a certain idea about you and insists that you live up to it constantly. It gets mighty monotonous.” (1947)
“No, movie success — if you can call it that — hasn’t changed me. About the only difference is this: I used to have to apologize for some of my acquaintances; I don’t have to anymore.” (1947)
“I can make a million and a half [dollars] yearly — one of the highest-paid actors in the world. I don’t need to improve. I’ve made good actresses out of ordinary ones and good directors out of poor ones. I have tremendous love for this business.” (1957)
“I don’t like calluses. … I just clock in and clock out. That’s the extent of it. I just look at the contract and see how many days off I get.” (1970)
“I still had to get up in the morning for that one [‘Thunder Road’]. The fans were the same. Some yahoo saying, ‘That’s him, that’s him, that’s him, hey Bob, I saw you in a picture, what was the name of it? Huh? How do you remember all your lines? You must get hot working all day with those broads.’ ” (1970)
“I didn’t show up at the ceremonies, and the academy hasn’t messed with me since.” (1970)
On his preference for spending time with the crew over other actors like John Wayne or Kirk Douglas: “I just work with those guys, we never talk off the set.” (1970)
“A casting office asked me if I ever thought of having my nose fixed. I said, ‘It’s already fixed, by about four left hooks.’” (1994)
On his life
“I was 15. 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 cost 38 cents a day to feed a man, but the county rented us out to the highway department for $2 a day.” (1994)
“When my wife and I arrived in California by bus we had $26. No job or prospects for one. The only person we knew here was my mother and she had less money than we did.” (1947)
“I had a 26 [inch] waist, 47 [inch] chest and weighed 160 pounds then. They hit me but could never hurt me. I had only one punch and I could knock ’em dead. I could keep ’em off me for a long while before I threw the punch — the difference to me was $15. Then I’d hop a freight out of town.” (1957)
“Every now and then some hooligan swaggers up to me in a bar and says: ‘No so-and-so of an actor can outfight me.’ When they’re too persistent, you have to show ’em.” (1957)
“I won’t be threatened. I’ve been in seven jails. I’ve had pellagra twice from lack of nourishment and have a certain background. I don’t react the way they expect when they tell me, ‘I’ll fix you!’ I just say: ‘If you’re going to shoot, get it over quickly.’ ” (1957)
On the world
“This is the only country that works. We’re goofy. Our blood mixtures make us energetic.” (1957)
“I feel sorry for those guys [the British]. Little by little they’re Americanizing themselves. They know if they don’t they’ll be out of competition. Now we have only two sides to the world — the West and the Soviets. ... England is squeezed in between and the French are drinking themselves to death — of course, it’s a nice way to go. But America is the example. There can be only one world in the final analysis.” (1957)
“Ours is the country least suspect in its motives. It’s inconceivable to the rest of them — they just don’t understand.” (1957)
“This is what I used to write about before I chickened out to become an actor.” (1957)
“That’s what people are for, to be pushed this way and that. Ignorance is just to be made money of, by the smart guys. … If there was no more pestilence and war, everybody would be out of work … There’s no more happy cobbler. Today he has to own the shoe factory. … When you think you’ve arrived, nothing has happened. The realization comes too late, when you realize life is the purpose of life. That when you give, you’re not losing everything. Every time you breathe it’s a new life. … I think it’d be good to be an architect, the building endures, and the word endures. … ‘Sink or swim, I have at least had my dream.’ Was that Byron?” (1970)
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.