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Screen tough guy Robert Mitchum dies at 79

July 1, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Robert Mitchum, the brawny, blunt-spoken actor who starred in more than a hundred movies including ``The Story of G.I. Joe″ and ``Night of the Hunter,″ died in his sleep today at his home. He was 79.

Mitchum, who had been suffering from emphysema and was diagnosed in spring with lung cancer, died at 5 a.m. at his Santa Barbara County home, family spokesman Jerry Roberts said.

Mitchum remained a star for a half-century despite a marijuana bust in his early career, a number of other scandals and his open contempt for his directors and studio bosses. He brought his powerful presence to Westerns, comedies, war movies and dramas, yet he never won an Academy Award.

``I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone else in this business,″ he said in 1983. ``I always thought I could do better. But you don’t get to do better, you get to do more.″

He continued doing more well into his 70s, appearing in television dramas when movie roles were scarce. He appeared in the epic miniseries ``The Winds of War″ and ``War and Remembrance.″

He once remarked: ``I think when producers have a part that’s hard to cast, they say, `Send for Mitchum; he’ll do anything.‴ He added: ``I don’t care what I play; I’ll play Polish gays, women, midgets, anything.″

Despite his self-disparagement, filmmakers realized they could rely on Mitchum for strong performances. He proved that in such films as ``River of No Return″ (with Marilyn Monroe), ``Night of the Hunter,″ ``Cape Fear,″ ``Ryan’s Daughter,″ ``Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison″ and ``The Way West.″

His film career began in the early 1940s when an interview with William Boyd led to Mitchum’s casting in eight Hopalong Cassidy Westerns. In 1943 he began appearing in Universal war movies such as ``Gung Ho,″ ``Corvette K-225″ and ``We’ve Never Been Licked.″ He played a villain in a Laurel and Hardy feature and a crewman in ``Thirty Seconds over Tokyo″ and even appeared in a musical Western.

``The Story of G.I. Joe″ in 1945 provided his ticket to stardom. As the valiant Lt. Walker in the film about Ernie Pyle’s war stories, he was nominated for an Oscar as supporting actor. It turned out to be his only Academy Award nomination.

Before Mitchum could cash in on his new fame, he was drafted into the army. Released on a dependency discharge after eight months, Mitchum returned to Hollywood for costarring roles in ``Till the End of Time″ and ``Undercurrent,″ with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor.

Disturbed by Mitchum’s lackadaisical attitude and practical jokes, Miss Hepburn snapped, ``You know you can’t act, and if you hadn’t been good-looking you would never have gotten a picture. I’m tired of playing with people who have nothing to offer.″

Mitchum proved her wrong in such films as ``Crossfire,″ ``Rachel and the Stranger,″ ``Desire Me″ and ``Out of the Past.″ His granite face and gruff manner fit perfectly in the public’s taste for rugged heroes in contrast to the pretty-boys of the 1930s.

``After the war, suddenly there was this thing for ugly heroes, so I started going around in profile,″ he remarked. He also gained a reputation as a world-class boozer and a ladies’ man.

Mitchum’s $3,000-a-week career faced the danger of a crashing end after midnight on Sept. 1, 1948. He and a blond starlet named Lila Leeds were arrested at her home on charges of possession of marijuana. At first the actor told his lawyer: ``Well, this is the bitter end of everything _ my career, my marriage, everything.″

When Mitchum was sentenced to 60 days in jail, some columnists agreed with his early assessment. But he emerged from an honor farm with his usual jauntiness: ``It’s just like Palm Springs without the riffraff.″ He returned to filming with a John Steinbeck story, ``The Red Pony,″ and his popularity, both with producers and the public, proved stronger than ever.

His overlay of cynicism made him ideal for RKO’s film noir dramas of the ’50s: ``The Big Steal,″ ``The Racket,″ ``Where Danger Lives,″ ``Out of the Past,″ ``Second Chance.″

He served as a stalwart leading man for such stars as Jane Russell (``Macao,″ ``His Kind of Woman″), Ava Gardner (``My Forbidden Past″), Susan Hayward (``White Witch Doctor″), Rita Hayworth (``Fire Down Below″), Shirley MacLaine (``Two for the Seesaw″).

In 1955, he appeared in two of his most dramatic roles, as an idealist surgeon in ``Not as a Stranger″ and as a crazed evangelist in ``Night of the Hunter,″ Charles Laughton’s only film as a director.

The Westerns included ``Track of the Cat,″ ``Man with the Gun,″ ``The Angry Hills,″ ``The Wonderful Country,″ ``El Dorado″ (with John Wayne), ``The Way West.″ He played a bootlegger in 1957′s ``Thunder Road.″ In 1960, he was in a lighthearted family film, ``The Sundowners.″

More recently, he portrayed Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe in ``Farewell, My Lovely″ in 1975 and ``The Big Sleep″ in 1978. Although he claimed ``I work cheap,″ Mitchum collected a million dollars for ``The Winds of War″ and $250,000 for ``That Championship Season.″

Mitchum’s statements in interviews often aroused controversy. His comments about Jews in a magazine article brought demands from the Jewish Defense League for an apology. Mitchum obliged, saying, ``I was just putting him (the writer) on. I couldn’t believe that he didn’t understand.″

Over the years, Mitchum told so many tall tales about his youth that it became hard to determine the truth. The facts of his birth: Aug. 6, 1917, in Bridgeport, Conn., named Robert Charles Duran Mitchum. His father, James, was a soldier and barroom brawler who was Scotch-Irish on his father’s side and Blackfoot Indian on his mother’s. His mother, Ann, was a Norwegian immigrant.

After World War I, Jimmy Mitchum took his family to South Carolina, where he worked in the Charleston Navy Yard. He was crushed between two freight cars in 1919, leaving his widow and two small children. Mrs. Mitchum returned to her parents in Bridgeport, then remarried and settled in New York. At 16 Bob took to the road, riding the rails to California.

During his wanderings, Mitchum claimed to have worked as a coal miner, deckhand, ditchdigger and professional boxer, lasting 27 fights. He came to a decision after the last one: ``That guy had my nose over to one side, gave me a scar on my left eye, had me all messed up, so I quit.″

He also related that he had been arrested for vagrancy in Savannah, Ga., and worked on a chain gang, escaping after six days.

By 1937, Mitchum joined his family in Long Beach, Calif., and became involved in the local theater at the urging of his sister Julie. He wrote and directed plays, ghost-wrote for an astrologer, worked at a defense plant and sold shoes. In 1940 he married his boyhood sweetheart, Dorothy Spence, in Delaware. They returned to California on a bus.

Despite rumors of his extramarital escapades, Mitchum and his wife remained married. ``Sure there were rough times,″ she once remarked. ``Sometimes the women would elbow me out of the way to get to Bob. But what people overlook is that Bob is a very family-oriented person. Whatever he does, he always comes back to the family.″

The Mitchums had two sons, Jim and Christopher, both actors; and a daughter, Petrine.

The funeral will be private and Mitchum’s ashes will be scattered at sea, Roberts said.

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