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Thursday, April 18, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Performers in the Pen- Part I

Robert Mitchum enjoys a cigarette in prison, ironically
when he was arrested for smoking something else.

When Robert Mitchum was interviewed regarding his work on Crossfire (1947), a press agent asked him why he chose to perform in the film (in the role of "Keeley"). His response was: "I hate cops." This retort was mostly the product of his nonsensical and irreverent style-- he didn't care much for studio publicity-- but it was also partially true. Having several brushes and skirmishes with the law, Bob had certainly earned a touch of antipathy toward the police force. However, any personal anger was diluted by his equal sense of humor about his sketchy past, which at least supplied him with plenty of material for his favorite hobby of storytelling. He wasn't the only one with an entertaining or embarrassing stain on his history. Over the years, the very public brother- and sisterhood of celebrity cellmates has only increased. Today, they seem like a piece of daily news, but back in the day, when movie stars' reputations were protected at all costs, their little, legal slips and slides were better hidden-- and thus all the more scandalous when they landed on the front page.

Bob didn't have to delve too deeply for his characterization of resentful ex-con
"Max Cady" in Cape Fear, having spent some time 
"in the clink" himself.

Bob had an early start in building his criminal record. He would later joke that he had been arrested at least 37 times in his life, but this was probably more of that legendary Mitchum exaggeration.  However, there are several events of which the public is now aware. For starters, Bob was arrested for vagrancy when on a train-hopping kick in his teens. Many towns held a grudge against these legions of traveling bums, who wandered in and out of various communities, muddying up the view. Thus, when Bob hit Savannah, GA-- where he was innocently picking up some money that his mother had been kind enough to send-- he was immediately accosted and taken to the station. Bob always maintained that he was arrested for simply being poor. The county tried to tack a shoe department burglary onto his charge, but even the judge had to admit that this was ridiculous. He did spend 7 days in Chatham County Camp No. 1 for the vagrancy charge, but when he learned that the guards had a tendency to extend sentences in order to keep incarcerated laborers on the chain gang, Bob promptly took a run through the woods and escaped! He found life safer at home in Delaware.

In April of 1945, while enjoying an increasingly promising career in Hollywood, Bob arrived home exhausted (and probably tight) one  particular evening to find the police at his house. It seems that his wife-- Dorothy-- and his neighboring mother and sister had gotten into quite the quarrel. Both sides were very possessive of Bob-- his wife thinking that she deserved his full attention, and his blood relatives thinking the same. The cat fights were constant. Needless to say, Bob was both miffed and stressed with all the B.S, and in a fit of misdirected animosity, he lashed out at the officers and told them to arrest him: "Let's go downtown right now, motherf*ckers!" They apparently took his request literally, for a fight ensued, and Bob was booked. Originally handed 180 days, he later opted to accept the more patriotic, military option, joining the America troops overseas. This ploy was most probably a studio push to protect his image. A soldier looked much better than a convict.

However, no sooner had he gotten back than Bob and his pal and body double, Boyd Cabeen, raised some more Hell. Suffering exhaustion during the dual shooting schedule of Desire Me and Undercurrent, which left him hopping back and forth sometimes thrice a day between RKO and MGM, Bob and his drunken cohort decided to enact a little boyish tomfoolery. More than tipsy, the duo returned to MGM after a round of drinks, wandered into wardrobe, and started pulling any and everything they saw off the shelves: hairbrushes, hairdryers, Lucille Ball's wig, etc. Bob gifted the hair dryer to his wife, probably while swaying proudly in their front doorway upon his homecoming. MGM's own Chief H.Q. Hodgett later got down to brass tacks and located the infidels, who had been clearly witnessed in their revelry by several people. Bob was called while on the set, wherein he admitted to his participation in what he called a "gag," and the stolen objects were retrieved.  The studio didn't press charges, but did fine RKO-- Bob's home studio-- for damages. (Lucy may have been haunted by the mysterious Boris Karloff during Lured, but it was Bob and his sticky fingers that she should have feared at this time, right)!

Another small faux pas occurred much later while behind the wheel of his Jaguar. When pulled over for speeding, Bob, at first, was casually shooting the breeze with the policeman peering into his car. Then, taking a look around, he asked the cop if he had any "witnesses" to his vehicular debauchery. The answer, considering the emptiness of the dark, quiet street, was naturally, "No." With that, Bob yelled, "Bye-bye!" and sped away. A warrant was issued for his arrest for speeding over 70 mph, evading arrest, and resisting an officer, which combined could have landed him in the clink for five years. Looking a bit sheepish in the courtroom, the Judge was lenient with Bob, lessening the charges to just speeding and "delaying an officer." Bob was fined $200 total for his lead foot.

For a man who loved freedom, driving anywhere-- and fast--
 was second nature to Bob.

Yet, this is not the most notorious of Bob's legal woes. Every actor seems to have a stigma hovering over him. For Errol Flynn it was the statutory rape trial, for Rudy Valentino it was the "powder puff" label, and for Richard Gere it is that lingering gerbil rumor. For Bob, it was another thing entirely: Marijuana. Bob would be the first to admit that he loved the stuff. He found it mellowing, reassuring, comforting, and honestly just enjoyable. He began his love affair with Mary Jane at a young age and, being the eternal scholar that he was, had educated himself on every genus of the delicious weed available. He even grew his own crop and, like a wine connoisseur, could tell friends exactly where each bud was cultivated just by taste. (Show off). However, as the substance was and remains illegal-- that is, unless you suffer from insomnia, anxiety, or dancing, banana hands, and have therefore obtained a magical pot card-- it wasn't exactly a positive thing for him to be so nonchalantly indulging in the vice. Indeed, he should have feared the reefer...

Bob had formed a friendship with the struggling actress and social castaway Lila Leeds (left) in 1948. Enjoying a brief and bumpy career in the industry, Lila was trying to make a comeback, and gaining a pal like the unpretentious Mitchum-- a real find in Hollywood-- gave her a little more confidence. However, she also had a growing addiction to various inebriates, including Bob's shared passion: cannabis. Thus, she and her roommate Vicki Evans invited Bob and his friend, real estate agent Robin Ford, to their place for a little late night game of puff-puff-pass. Bob and Robin arrived, not knowing that the police had been staking out their hostesses' pad in Laurel Canyon. As soon as Bob took his first drag, the door burst open, and the toking foursome found themselves under arrest! Due to the irregularity of this strangely coincidental arrest, all signs pointed to a set-up. After all, the cops hadn't barged in on Lila and Vicki, who had been imbibing all evening, but had waited for the big name star to arrive. Conspiracy theories ran amok: Lila thought that she had been set up by Vicki, Bob suspected his former business manager, others believed that either the studio magnates or the district attorney were simply making an example of him. There was even a theory that Mickey Cohen had orchestrated the whole thing, though his reasons for doing so remain unclear.

In any case, Howard Hughes of RKO put on his hero cape and arranged for Bob to have the best lawyer, the infamous Jerry Geisler, who would be representing Bob on two counts of possession and conspiracy to possess-- totaling 6 years in jail time. Mitchum posted bail at $1000 after enjoying some laughs in jail for the cameras, and Geisler got to work. While the counselor agreed that something odd was afoot, he could not prove who it was that had "framed" Bob and felt that a public delving into his client's past and private life could damage the star's career irreparably. Thus, he threw Bob on the mercy of the court, asking that they decide his innocence or guilt for the "possession" charge in accordance with the "conspiracy to possess" count. They would therefore be judging Bob's fate "on the basis only of the transcript of the testimony before the Grand Jury." It was agreed. In the end, both Bob and Lila obtained a one-year sentence, which was lessened to 2 years of probation, including a 60 day sentence. 

Bob may be getting a little irritated with the photography
at this point...

This was how Bob found himself Prisoner #91234 at the county jail and later at Wayside Honor Farm, where he wore overalls and did hard time doing farm labor. Despite the chili from Barney's Beanery that friends brought or all the candy bars that Hughes consistently sent him-- a specification the latter found necessary for Bob's health-- Bob still worked off whatever weight he had and became nearly as thin as he was in his youth.  He also sobered up and took stock of the pain and humiliation that he had caused his wife and children. In addition, because of the fines and legal fees, he had been forced to sell his family's home, and the debt was piling up. One innocent night of social smoking had left him cooked. Thankfully, the eccentric Hughes like Bob, and courteously loaned him $50,000. In the cold light of day, Bob started to feel properly guilty, though he maintained his amused demeanor before the hoards of visitors and press hounds. He did his time and, needless to say, was overly grateful when he was again free. For a man who hated walls, jail was pretty much Hell. 

Probably a posed shot for the press to indicate his
"good behavior" to the public.

Fortunately, the public-- at least the younger crowd-- thought Bob was all the more "cool" for his latest transgressions. His "badness" was exactly what they liked about him in the first place. However, this particular arrest was a stain on his life that he would never outrun, and it also probably led to the industry thereafter never taking him seriously, despite his impressive resume and mind-blowing work on the silver screen. 

To add insult to injury, the woman who owned the property that Lila had been renting in Laurel Canyon-- the scene of the crime-- put her couch up for sale after she had evicted the naughty starlet. The listing was as follows: "Charming sofa and arm chair, new slipcovers hide cigaret [sic] burns. Robert Mitchum sat here." Apparently, the dough she got for the furniture wasn't enough, for she later sued Bob for the damages he had allegedly done at the now notorious 8443 Ridpath house, though he had been there mere minutes before the police barged in.

Sporting a mustache, Bob had clearly been incarcerated for awhile
when this picture was taken. But is he packing or unpacking?

*In other jail bait news, Robert did time at Wayside with tennis player Bill Tilden, though they never saw each other. He also filmed The Wonderful Country with baseball player Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who was specifically let out of prison to perform his role in the picture. He had been serving time in Florida when Bob requested him for the film.

More faces and disgraces to come next week!

Bob and Robin.

To be continued...


  1. Great reference to "Fear the Reaper"... Also Bill Tilden? He was the one busted for molesting children, and before that was a friend to the stars? Thanks for the great article on Bob Mitchum, love it!

    1. Glad you caught that, hahaha. Sometimes my humor goes over people's heads. AND, ick, ick ick to Tilden!

    2. Oh lol! And Tilden WAS a disaster of a human.. Ick indeed. Here's a fun idea? Which old timey movie actress looks most like you?