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Remembering Robert Mitchum, Born In Bridgeport 100 Years Ago

Robert Mitchum is shown in his role in "Anzio" in this undated photo.

The actor Robert Mitchum was one of classic Hollywood’s most recognizable and most sinister faces. Mitchum was born one hundred years ago this month in Bridgeport, Connecticut. WSHU’s Davis Dunavin reports on how his life and screen persona lined up.

Mitchum’s roles usually cast him as a hard-bitten detective or a cold-blooded killer. His most iconic role might be the 1955 southern gothic The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum’s a country preacher who murders a woman and hunts down her kids to try to get his hands on a bag full of money. There’s a famous part where he explains the tattoos on his knuckles – Love and Hate.

“HATE. It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. LOVE. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. These fingers, dear hearts, is always warrin’, a tuggin’, one agin’ t’other.”

Listening to Mitchum’s creepy southern drawl, you might not guess he was born in the industrial Northeast. Mitchum always claimed his family had to flee Bridgeport because his father, a railroad man, supposedly beat a bus driver to death. Young Robert had the same nasty temper. He told Dick Cavett in 1971 he was a textbook delinquent.

“Were you ever kicked out of school?” “Often, yes.” “What did you get kicked out for in those days?” “I can’t tell you…One time involved a trombone in the school band.” “Oh.”

As a teenager, Mitchum rode the rails and slept in boxcars. He drank, smoked pot and picked fights. At just 14, he was arrested for vagrancy in Georgia. He got put on a chain gang, then he escaped from the chain gang and went on the run.

He served a second prison term later for marijuana possession, early in his acting career. He told Johnny Carson in 1978 he wasn’t ashamed to be perhaps Hollywood’s most famous pothead.

“Did it do anything to your career at that time when it was considered?” “No, not really, I don’t think. People didn’t drag their children off the streets when they saw me coming. I must say, it expanded my circle of acquaintances and friends.”

Mitchum first became known to audiences as a villain in the Hopalong Cassidy movies, but producers and directors quickly noticed his sinister, streetwise demeanor could be worthy of meatier roles in westerns and film noirs, like 1962’s Cape Fear. He plays a relentless killer who uses legal loopholes to stalk the lawyer who put him in jail, played by Gregory Peck.

“You just put the law in my hands, and I’m gonna break your heart with it. I got a little plan for your wife and kids they ain’t never gonna forget. Never.”

Mitchum brought easy charisma to the most evil characters imaginable. He always said acting wasn’t really work – it was the easiest thing in the world. That might be due to the fact that the terrifying but uber-cool persona on screen was his own.

Robert Mitchum died in 1997. And there’s one last twist to his story. This hard-as-nails tough guy had a little-known side career – as a calypso singer. 

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.