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The last of the old lions

In 1982, on Robert Mitchum's 65th birthday, I visited the set where he was making "That Championship Season," one of his 125 movies. I waited in the shadows, just watching, as he lit a Pall Mall and blew out smoke and looked bored and weary. Then it was time to shoot the scene, and something stirred inside that sleepy-eyed, angular frame, and found magic in the dialog. And I made this note to myself:

Remember this moment. Right now, this moment, is as historic as if you were on a Hollywood sound stage 40 years ago watching Humphrey Bogart, because Bob Mitchum is the last of the old lions. He is as close as you're going to get in this lifetime to a legend.

On Tuesday, early in the morning at his California home, the final chapter of the legend was written. Robert Mitchum, one of the greatest of all movie stars, died at 79, which is longer than anyone, Mitch included, expected him to live.

He was a heavy drinker, a chain smoker, a sometime brawler, who said when he checked out of the Betty Ford Clinic, "I think I'll start making the martinis one glass at a time, instead of by the pitcher."

If there was one thing Mitchum made perfectly clear, during a career that began in 1943 in a Hopalong Cassidy movie and included films with dozens of the greatest directors and stars, it was that he did not give a damn what anyone thought of him.

And yet he was such a fine, versatile, subtle actor. A man whose face and voice evoked the very soul of film noir --the genre of films about crime, guilt and the night. A man who was so sure of himself that when David Lean asked him if he could do an Irish accent, he replied "Come on, David! Which county?" A man with such a strong screen presence that when he was unavailable for a John Wayne picture, the producer eliminated the character, because "we can't find anyone else who can hold the screen against Wayne."

He never won an Oscar. He was nominated only once, for "The Story of G. I. Joe," in 1945. There was a movement under way to give him an honorary Oscar, but it came too late. But in the business there were few actors more professional and versatile, and if your image is of a tough guy, remember him as a tired old crook in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," or as a restless Australian sheep farmer in "The Sundowners" (1960), or as an Irish school teacher in "Ryan's Daughter" (1970).

Of course he was born to play Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's legendary private eye, and he played him twice, in "Farewell, My Lovely" (1975) and "The Big Sleep" (1978). Those were latter-day noirs, depending on Mitchum's presence to evoke the glory days of the genre. Mitchum was there at the birth of noir, and starred with Kirk Douglas in one of the greatest, "Out of the Past" (1947).

They screened that movie in 1993, at a Virginia Film Festival tribute to Mitchum. Afterwards, onstage, I asked him if he'd suspected at the time he was making a classic. He shrugged. "We called them B pictures," he said. "We didn't have the money, we didn't have the sets, we didn't have the lights, we didn't have the time. What we did have were some pretty good stories."

Unlike a lot of actors, he never got theoretical and self-important about his work. Later the same evening, uncomfortable with praise for his acting, he said: "One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. What the hell. It can't be too much of a trick."

There cannot be a single greatest Mitchum performance, because he worked in too many different styles and genres. He made Westerns ("El Dorado") and offbeat romances ("Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," in which he was a grizzled Marine besotted by a Deborah Kerr's proper nun) and backwoods dramas ("Thunder Road," which he directed) and dark dramas ("Cape Fear") and a Japanese mafia picture ("The Yakuza") and lots of war pictures ("The Enemy Below," "The Longest Day") and he even combined genres in perhaps the only noir Western, "Pursued."

But his single greatest film was probably "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), Charles Laughton's only film as a director, where Mitchum played the phony preacher who had "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, and "HATE" on the other." The film is an uncanny blend of realism and creepy fantasy, shot on stylized sets; the slightest touch of overacting could have brought it all crashing down, but there at the center was Mitchum, finding exactly the right notes to make it work, and make it scary.

He loved working with Laughton. He was not shy of giving his opinions of other directors. I met him first in 1968, on the set of Lean's "Ryan's Daughter" on the remote Dingle peninsula in Ireland. "Our director has filmed for one day and is nine days behind," he told me. At Virginia, he elaborated: "David would sit there in his chair. Thinking. Sitting. Thinking. For hours. Once on 'Lawrence of Arabia' he was shooting in Jordan and they had to pick up the chair and carry him off in a pickup truck. A war had broken out."

Another tempestuous relationship was with director Otto Preminger, who made "River of No Return" with Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. Years later, after a heated disagreement, Preminger fired Mitchum from the movie "Rosebud." Mitchum listened silently, nodded, turned, lifted a hand, and said, "Taxi!"

Mitchum's early life read like a parody of movie star biographies: He was a coal miner, a deck hand, a boxer, a procurer for a psychic, spent time on a Georgia chain gang, and met Marilyn Monroe in the 1940s when he was working on an aircraft assembly line with her first husband. He did time for marijuana possession in 1948, emerging from jail to report, "It's like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff." One of the most notorious celebrity photos of the 1950s showed him, somewhat startled, being embraced by a topless starlet at Cannes, before the days of toplessness.

He co-starred with most of the top stars, was successful at the box office for 50 years, and found enormous popularity in the 1980s as the star of three top-rated TV miniseries, :"The Winds of War," "North and South," and "War and Remembrance." Of the first, he said, "it's about how I smuggle some people to safety in the bags under my eyes."

There is a moment in "Out of the Past" where Mitchum is informed that everybody dies sooner or later. "Yes," he replies, "but I plan to die last." He just about made it.

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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