The day after 79-year-old Robert Mitchum succumbed to lung cancer, beloved actor James Stewart died, diverting all the press attention that was gearing up for Mitchum. So it has been for much of his career. Not that Mitchum wasn't one of Hollywood's most respected stars, he was. But unlike the wholesome middle-American idealism and charm of the blandly handsome Stewart, there was something unsettling and dangerous about Mitchum. He was a walking contradiction. Behind his drooping, sleepy eyes was an alert intelligence. His tall, muscular frame, broken nose, and lifeworn face evoked a laborer's life, but he moved with the effortless, laid-back grace of a highly trained athlete. Early in his career critics generally ignored Mitchum, who frequently appeared in lower-budget and often low-quality films. This may also be due in part to his subtle, unaffected, and deceptively easy-going acting style that made it seem as if Mitchum just didn't care, an attitude he frequently put on outside the studio. But male and female audiences alike found Mitchum appealing. Mitchum generally played macho heroes and villains who lived hard and spoke roughly, and yet there was something of the ordinary Joe in him to which male audiences could relate. Women were drawn to his physique, his deep resonant voice, his sexy bad boy ways, and those sad, sagging eyes, which Mitchum claimed were caused by chronic insomnia and a boxing injury.
He was born Robert Charles Duran Mitchum in Bridgeport, CT, and as a boy was frequently in trouble, behavior that was perhaps related to his father's death when Mitchum was quite young. He left home in his teens. Mitchum was famous for fabricating fantastic tales about his life, something he jokingly encouraged others to do too. If he is to be believed, he spent his early years doing everything from mining coal, digging ditches, and ghost writing for astrologer Carroll Richter, to fighting 27 bouts as a prizefighter. He also claimed to have escaped from a Georgia chain gang six days after he was arrested for vagrancy. Mitchum settled down in 1940 and married Dorothy Spence. They moved to Long Beach, CA, and he found work as a drop-hammer operator with Lockheed Aircraft. The job made Mitchum ill so he quit. He next started working with the Long Beach Theater Guild in 1942 and this led to his becoming a movie extra and bit player, primarily in war movies and Westerns, but also in the occasional comedy or drama. His first film role was that of a model in the documentary The Magic of Make-up (1942). Occasionally he would bill himself as Bob Mitchum during this time period. His supporting role in The Human Comedy (1943) led to a contract with RKO. Two years later, he starred in The Story of G.I. Joe and earned his first and only Oscar nomination. Up to that point, Mitchum was considered little more than a "beefcake" actor, one who was handsome, but who lacked the chops to become a serious player. He was also drafted that year and served eight months in the military, most of which he spent promoting his latest film before he was given a dependency discharge.