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Robert Mitchum: "How high are we?"

Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

"How high are we?" Robert Mitchum asked. "Sixth floor? I guess that's safe." He took a sip of his Scotch. "You know," he said, "at high altitudes this stuff can kill you. Drinking in a place like Durango is a serious business. You got an altitude of five, six thousand feet, you can get drunk by accident. Get sick. Of course, that's one of the best ways to lose weight. Getting sick.

"Reminds me of that story about Sir Cedric Hardwicke. He sent a message to be read to the audience before the curtain was supposed to go up on his play. It said he regretted terribly that he could not be present tonight, but he had been suddenly struck drunk."

Mitchum permitted himself a wry smile, which is the only kind of smile he seems to carry in stock. He was visiting Chicago to beat the drums for "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," the new movie in which he plays a small-time Boston hoodlum with his fingers in, too many pies. It's at the United Artists.

"Did you read the book?" Mitchum asked me. I said I hadn't. "It's an interesting book," he said. "It was written by this guy George Higgins, who was a state's attorney out there. Now he's resigned to do a book about the Watergate thing -- lots of luck -- but he was still on the job when he wrote the book. Also his new one, The Digger's Game!

"Well, it's my own highly personal theory that Higgins used a little inadmissible evidence in writing the book. The ones he could prosecute, he did, and the ones he couldn't pin down, he fictionalized them, and zapped them in his book. There's a theory, for example, that Eddie Coyle just might be based on Specks O'Keefe, who was the unknown quotient in the Brinks holdup.

"Mr. Higgins apparently offended a lot of people with his book. There seems to be this little war going on now in Boston, they call it the Bunker Hill war, there are about 60 people dead. Maybe they read the book and were able to find the answers to why a lot of things did and didn't happen . . ."

Mitchum lounged in his hotel suite, and his wife of many years, Dorothy, looked comfortable at his side. He was in a mellow mood maybe a little tired, and the famous eyebrows performed the famous droop. He was not at all, in fact, like the Mitchum of song and fable, the Mitchum recently portrayed as a hard-drinking, hard-loving hell-raiser in a notorious interview in Rolling Stone.

"That was a funny thing about that guy from Rolling Stone," Mitchum said. "I never met him. No, I think I met him for five minutes. He asked me something about gun control. I asked him why the hell he would ask me a question about that. Then he came out with this article that has a lot of people a little upset. I never finished reading it; I pulled up lame at the first spate of bunched irregularities. But I understand the Boston Teamsters are suing him, they didn't like what he said about them one bit."

You need the Teamsters, I said. Otherwise you could set out to drive yourself to a location and get lost and wind up in another state. Like that time in McKeesport, Pa., when you set out for Pittsburgh and wound up in Steubenville, Ohio, trying to bribe a snow-plow operator to lead you to the Allegheny County Workhouse . . .

Mitchum laughed. "Jesus, wasn't that the goddamndest craziest thing you ever saw? When the guy says you gotta go down the road a piece and you ask him what a piece is and he says 40 miles, baby, you know you're lost."

The movie he was making in Pittsburgh was "Going Home,'' which got good reviews for Mitchum and bad ones for the picture. I asked him what happened.

"We had a little problem with our director," Mitchum said, "largely due to his inexperience and his lack of care. And he paralyzed himself with long close-ups of my co-star, Jan Michael Vincent, instead of getting on with it. Now Jan Michael is a good actor, very good. But what was the director trying to prove with the close-ups? Were we supposed to see the inner workings of Jan Michael? Or what? Anyway, a lot of inner workings were missing when the picture was released. They cut out 40 minutes. They're still trying to figure out which 40 minutes. Ha."

He heaved himself to his feet and made his way to the Chivas Regal bottle to recharge his glass. I asked him how he liked his "Eddie Coyle" co-star, Peter Boyle, who used to be in Second City before he became famous in "Joe."

"He's a little strange," Mitchum said. "I got along with him okay. You know, the role Boyle played, the hit man? Originally I was going to play the role. It was the sort of thing I'm always looking for the Claude Rains bit where you get three weeks' pay for two days' work."

The telephone rang and it was Mitchum's secretary, calling from California with news about "Yakuza," a movie that Mitchum might or might not make in Japan. "It's all up in the air," he explained after hanging up.

"Warner's thinks maybe they want Robert Aldrich to direct it. And Aldrich suggests we have a meeting in New York, in neutral territory. Jesus! Neutral territory. And he says he'll send his son to talk to me. So I said, what the hell, I've got two kids not working at the present moment I'll send them. And what with one thing and another . . ."

Is it going to be a kung-fu movie?

"No, it'll be an adventure. None of that kung-fu crap I had enough of that on 'Two for the Seesaw.'

"On 'Two for the Seesaw' there was a scene where I was supposed to sweep a glass off a bedside table. I hit it a little hard with the edge of my hand and broke it clean in two. By accident. It was great, but somehow it wasn't right for the scene. And my hand hurt like hell. 'Two for the Seesaw.' That was my kung-fu movie. I'm afraid to do another one, I might cut off a finger. And who the hell wants to jump into a shot on a trampoline, anyway?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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