This article was originally published on Cinephilia & Beyond
Published in January 1973, George V. Higgins’ crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle was well received by critics and the public, featuring a story of the Boston criminal milieu and its detailed mechanics and intricacies composed by a lawyer and a former Assistant Attorney General turned journalist. Higgins started writing at the beginning of the decade, and the qualities of his gritty prose, sparse style and direct no-nonsense approach displayed in The Friends of Eddie Coyle caught the attention of producer Paul Monash, who purchased the rights to the novel for Paramount. Higgins didn’t get the chance to adapt his own novel for the screen, as Monash himself decided to write the shooting script. Having experienced solid success in the field of live television during the fifties, Monash turned to film production, striking gold with the production of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid back in 1969. British master Peter Yates, who had previously established himself as an apt action film director with the acclaimed Steve McQueen vehicle Bullit (1968) and a year older, less famous but highly acclaimed film called Robbery, was chosen for the director’s chair, and what the project needed for an explosive lift-off was a big name in the cast. Against all expectations, the great Robert Mitchum agreed to shoot it. Mitchum was apparently looking for something fresh and different from films such as Going Home and The Wrath of God, the two projects that preceded Coyle. Upon approached, Mitchum first accepted to play the supporting role of Dillon (which ultimately went into Peter Boyle’s hands), because he insisted on a strictly limited three-week shooting schedule, but Yates succeeded at convincing him the central role of Eddie Coyle was more up his alley. With the high efficacy and dedication of Yates and his crew, Mitchum managed to shoot every single one of his designated scenes within the three weeks timeframe. What’s especially interesting here is that, due to the extremely tight schedule, Yates decided to use even the scenes with Mitchum’s less-than-perfect deliveries, which ultimately gave the film an obvious rawness and imperfection that accentuated the desired feel of authenticity and gritty, unpolished documentary-style filmmaking that Yates and the crew were going for. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was filmed in Boston and the city’s wider area and it was released in June 1973. In the 45 years that followed, Yates’ movie gained the worldwide recognition as one of the best and toughest crime films of the whole period.
A middle-aged delivery truck driver called Eddie Coyle makes his extra cash as a low-level gunrunner and general utility go-to guy for a criminal organization set in Boston. Faced with a prison sentence that would isolate him from his wife and three kids for at least a couple of years, Coyle decides to abandon his cherished principles, break the honorable code of the criminal milieu and try to strike a deal through an ATF agent. To save his own skin, Coyle turns on his colleagues, unaware of the fact that some of them had also turned to the authorities and become informants. By showing us the criminal life of a single man—and mind you, we’re not talking about a big fish, but a dispensable screw within a complex, multilayered operating system—The Friends of Eddie Coyle does not limit itself to the thematically narrow task of showing as a slice of the protagonist’s life. By telling us Coyle’s story and introducing the audience to the choices he is forced to make, Yates’ film sheds light on the whole criminal system, on the perpetually gray city inhabited by regular people trying to support their families and save their own skins, even if it means betraying their principles and professional honor. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is bleak, rugged, depressing; its topic is sad and the conclusion inevitable. The large portion of this masterfully executed film’s appeal lies on the back of Robert Mitchum, one of the best American actors of all time, who never uses his screen time for any affectations or theatricality, only to deliver the distressing story fully immersed into the character he embodies.
He is a master of stillness. Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness, but his forte is his indelible identity. Simply by being there, Mitchum can make almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.
—Director David Lean, to a reporter
As Yates had proven himself as quite the master of creating and executing thrilling action sequences, it’s actually to no surprise that this film holds a couple of genuinely suspenseful patches of bank robbing and dramatic police apprehensions. As great as these sequences are, it’s funny to note that the film’s best qualities lie not in these classic cinematic fireworks, but in the regular, quiet, pensive moments of dialogue and reflection. As the audience today is accustomed to seeing heavy-handed blockbusters and superhero franchise developments where it’s usually challenging to find a moment of peace and quiet that wasn’t sacrificed for some thrilling sequences of buildings getting blown up, it’s refreshing, comforting and somewhat inspiring to turn back to The Friends of Eddie Coyle and a time when it was perfectly satisfying to make a crime thriller in such a contained, subtle style. No fireworks, no main street shoot-outs, no bombs: Yates’ film is an old-school, rare example of that specifically nuanced and complex type of filmmaking, in which most of the explosions spring from the carefully scripted conversation between characters, in which the spectacle comes from glances, grimaces, and lines never delivered.
Thanks to Monash’ script and Yates’ direction, and of course the studious and passionate work from the author of the original novel, George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle provides an astonishingly realistic and authentic portrayal of the Boston crime scene, where actors never seem like actors, but unaware participants in a daring documentary. Even Mitchum himself allegedly insisted on meeting the local gangsters to prepare for his role the best he could: some reports suggest the movie star wanted to talk to the infamous Whitey Bulger, the boss of the Winter Hill Gang, against the recommendations of Higgins. Cast member Alex Rocco, having grown up in a Boston suburb called Somerville, introduced Mitchum to a gang member called Howie Winter. The feeling of authenticity was obviously very important to Yates and Monash, but the main strength of the film derives from the excellent script, director’s direct, narratively concise and exposition-free style, and Mitchum’s performance further strengthened by a series of memorable supporting roles from the likes of Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan and Steven Keats.
He really looks right for Eddie Coyle, which surprised me. When he was first being considered for the part, I was a little taken aback. I just hadn’t thought of him. I don’t know who I had in mind, if anybody, but it wasn’t Mitchum. Once you see Mitchum in the part, though, it’s amazing. He’s just perfect, his mannerisms and everything. I’ve watched only four or five minutes of the rushes, but he’s remarkable. He’s a great raconteur, I’ll say that. In fact, I think he got into the wrong line of work. He should get himself a typewriter and stop fooling around with movie acting. He’s a natural-born storyteller. —George V. Higgins
With The Midnight Man and Three Days of the Condor’s composer Dave Grusin’s score, with the future president of the American Society of Cinematographers Victor J. Kemper’s cinematography, and Patricia Lewis Jaffe’s editing, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is coarse and concise, merciless towards the viewer’s expectations, unwilling to sacrifice its credibility and documentary feel by offering any explanations. It’s thrilling with only a couple of real action sequences, gritty and shocking with only a handful of violent scenes, painful and difficult without a trace of any melodramatic gimmicks. A film that adheres to its own codes and vision and chooses to rely on its actors’ talent and the script’s strength instead of cheap spectacle, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the greatest crime films of a decade that gave us so many cinematic treats of this particular genre.
In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (by George V. Higgins), the first line is something like “Jackie Brown came in looking for guns,” and that’s where Quentin Tarantino got the name Jackie Brown to use in his movie, because he renamed Elmore’s [Rum Punch] character and renamed the movie. But that book was a real turning point in Elmore’s life. His agent had said, “You should take a look at this,” so Elmore read the first few pages in a bookstore and a light went off. He switched from Western fiction to crime fiction after reading the first five pages. He loved it. —Graham Yost
Here’s a rarity, screenwriter must-read: Paul Monash’s screenplay for The Friends of Eddie Coyle [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
PETER YATES’ COMMENTARY
ROBERT MITCHUM: THE LAST CELLULOID DESPERADO
The veteran actor recounts a lifetime of tall tales on the set of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The following article first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, March 15, 1973, written by Grover Lewis, ‘Robert Mitchum: The Last Celluloid Desperado.’
On a clear, bone-cold morning in early November—the same day the nation is opting for four more years—the news flashes across Boston’s church-encircled Commons with the speed of a virus ravaging an old-folks’ home. Among the cast and crew assembled in the park to film George Higgins’ street-savvy study of New England hoodlum folkways, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the surprise announcement causes near pandemonium. The gaffers and grips, the electricians and sound men, all the technicians begin to mill about briskly on the thick-sodded grass adjacent to the ice-rimed children’s wading pool. Even the park’s casual strollers, walking their diarrheic poodles and mastiffs, begin to form small, excited queues, because word has it that Robert Mitchum… fabled wild boy of the road, myth-dripping bete noir of more than a hundred movies… is arising… and coming to the location site… before noon.
Peter Yates, the director, swaddled to his stringy gray helicopter hairdo in a bulky, fur-collared parka, flashes the V sign. “It’s a tribute to Bob’s professionalism, rayly,” the Scottish-born director drawls out of the corner of his mouth in a clipped mid-Atlantic brogue. “Bob’s only tahsk will be to feed lines to Richard Jordan off-camera, you see, which could be done by anyone here. But contrary to common myth, Bob takes filmmaking very seriously. And I’ve been absolutely astounded by his performance so far. This will be the finest role of his career, I assure you.”
“It’ll be his Zorba,” the unit publicist chimes in nervously. The unit publicist—let us call him Portnoy in deference to his concordance of real and imagined complaints—is a thick-bodied, prematurely balding gnome who is not without interest. For one thing, he is mortally terrified of Mitchum. The week before, during a filming sequence at the Boston Garden, Big Bad Bob had hurled a styrofoam cup of beer at Portnoy’s photographer. The photographer had been too zealous in his work, that was all—”He got in too close and made Mitchum’s shit hot.” This morning, hopping from foot to foot to keep warm, Portnoy looks visibly relieved when Yates hospitably offers to introduce the visiting writer to Mitchum.
A blue-jowled Irish cop is controlling the queues of spectators massing along the park’s main path. “Can youse step back dere, lady? Dey’re fixin’ to take some movie heah.” A snaggletoothed little man in a twill hat asks the cop when Mitchum is supposed to arrive. The cop shrugs. “Zowie!” the little guy yodels, shadowboxing in the air. “I wouldn’t want ol’ Mitchum to belt me one, you know what I mean? That guy, he’s as tough as John Wayne—tougher, maybe.”
Over at the Beacon Street boundary of the Commons, a sleek black limo driven by a bullet headed Teamster named Harry docks at the curb, and Mitchum alights, wearing pitch-black shades and a dark topcoat. There’s a hush as he walks leisurely down the grassy glade toward the camera setup, moving in the loose, powerful stride that’s known in the trade as the Mitchum Ramble. On the way, squaring his door-wide shoulders, he surveys the park’s gnarled trees, the coveys of pigeons wheeling overhead, the State House dome glowing gold in the distance, the crowd of hushed onlookers in their orange-lined styrofoam parkas. Mitchum is a massive hulk of a man, with a jowly face battered as a used VW bus. Silently, he shakes hands with Yates. “Where we at, dad?” he asks.
As Yates smiles and begins to explain the setup, Mitchum glances around at the individual members of the crew, nodding, counting heads. Portnoy flashes him a sickly smile. Mitchum looks at Portnoy and doesn’t see him. Does not see him. Mitchum, it turns out, looks at a lot of people that way. Mitchum studies the spectators, paying particular notice to several fetching college-age girls showing tantalizing expanses of panty-hosed shank and thigh between boot tops and coat hems. “Hot damn, dad, it’s great to get up durin’ the day,” he deadpans to Yates in a bass rumble. “I get to see some ladies with clothes on for a change.”
An hour or so later, after Mitchum has spoon-fed his lines to Richard Jordan and departed for the day, Peter Boyle, Jordan, Portnoy and the writer are taking lunch together at a small French restaurant a few blocks up the slope of Beacon Hill. Stabbing a fork into his tossed salad, Boyle throws back his head and laughs raucously when Portnoy asks what effect the success of Joe has had on him. “Oh, it’s been unbelievable. My life’s just fallen apart. Believe me, I don’t recommend stardom to anybody. If this is stardom, I’m in the wrong movie. Where’s that waiter? Garcon? Garcon? Ah, yes—red wine for the three of us, please, and a bottle of beer for this scandal scribbler. Do you have Kronenberg beer? Yes, make it Kronenberg. Make it a six-pack, in fact. The man’s thirsty.”
“Un pac d’ six,” Jordan, a young, good-looking New York actor, murmurs with a smile. Boyle feigns a double take: “Oh, you speak fluent and mellifluous frog, too, eh? Well, you’re fired.” “As a matter of fact, I do speak fluent frog. I acted in French in my last picture. Opposite Genevieve Bujold, which was fun. Before that, I made three Westerns”—Jordan makes a sour face—“all of them bad. Valdez Is Coming, Lawman, and Chato’s Land, directed by Michael Winner. Whom I despise, I might add.” “Winner is a loser, eh? I saw Chato’s Land. I was driving across the country stoned on several strange substances. I stopped to see the movie—I was too stoned to drive any further. I remember that Charles Bronson spoke only a few lines, and I was struck by that, because I was once into that silence trip myself. I’ve noticed that there’s a silence revival lately, and I can really understand that.” “When were you into a silence trip?” Portnoy asks curiously.
Boyle droops his head toward his vichyssoise in mock-penitence: “Back in the Fifties. I was an early-Fifties Jesus freak. I did it for about a year—I never spoke when I wasn’t supposed to speak. I was an acolyte in the Order of the Christian Brothers. Yeah, yeah, I know—the Friends of the Winos. But I took it very seriously at the time. I pursued, you know, God, somewhat unsuccessfully for several years as a professional religious person, and then I forsook that life and took myself back to the world and, through a series of incredibly stupid errors, became an actor. And after many hard, bitter years of struggle, I’ve achieved the immense fame I have now. Wealth. Happiness. Beautiful women throwing themselves at me. Believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Ahead of me, I can see only more stardom with liberal doses of obscurity.”
Laughing along, Portnoy capsizes a chunk of bread in the pool of orange sauce on his plate. “About that FTA thing, Pete,” he asks, “why did you leave that show, anyway? Was that another fickle-fad impulse?” Boyle grimaces theatrically. “Strictly speaking… um, possibly. No, I don’t know. I felt the show hadn’t become a kind of satirists’ cooperative, which I’d thought it was going to be. I just sort of got out of it. I didn’t feel free enough to—Satire and revolution don’t really go together. I mean, if I want to do a bit about a dumb cunt—well, you see the problem. Fonda and Sutherland are a little serious, yeah. So-o-o… I’ve just been making a lot of pictures and breaking, you know, a few hearts. Christ, counting this one, I’ve got four unreleased pictures, did you know that? I played in Slither with James Caan, Steelyard Blues with Jane and Don, and I went down to Durango to make Dime Box, Texas with Dennis Hopper.”
“I have a funny feeling about this picture,” Jordan says hesitantly. “I mean, I think we’re moving along on it awfully fast.” Boyle drains off the last of his wine and nods in agreement: “Yup. Could be a lot of re-shooting on this baby. No way to know, really.” “Mitchum’s great, though,” Portnoy ventures optimistically. “I keep telling people Eddie Coyle will be Mitchum’s Zorba, and I really believe that.” Boyle yawns and stretches and pats his belly with an air of satisfaction: “Yeah, you could be right. I really like Mitchum. The thing about him is that he’s so fantastically hyper-kinetic. I mean, questions of tolerance and energy and all that stuff—he’s just not quite human.” “The elemental male,” Jordan muses.
“Yeah, all that stuff. The broads and the booze—I don’t understand how he keeps up the pace. The guy’s incredible in a lot of ways. He and I were talking one time and he was describing to me how you can bite somebody’s nose off, you know? How if you bite a guy’s nose off, he’ll bleed to death, choke in his own blood. I asked him if you had to bite hard, and he said no, you just go”—Boyle acts out a savage crunching of the jaws—“and that’s it, that’s all she wrote. It’s apparently a favorite form of homicide among primitive people. Ever since then when I’ve been around Mitchum, I’ve been a lit-tle careful. I don’t want him to get any sudden nipping notions.”
“The sexy reactions Mitchum gets from women are just incredible,” Jordan says, pushing away his plate. “Watch him in a restaurant or anyplace like that sometime. It’s like he’s dirty, but it’s OK.” “Vic Ramos—you know, the casting director—Vic claims that Mitchum has seven balls, like a cluster of grapes,” Portnoy snickers. Boyle claps his hand dramatically to his forehead: “And a brace of Sabines to hold them out of the dust—Fruit of the Loom won’t do! My God, lady, what’re you doing to me down there? Oops, she’s dead… and her eyes rolled just like a teenager. Long live the queen! But enough of this balderdash—what time is it?” Portnoy peers at his watch and looks apprehensive: “Uh-oh, it’s three o’clock. We were supposed to be back 20 minutes ago.”
Gesturing expansively, Boyle rises from the table. “Ah, don’t worry about it, pal. Yates was late this morning; we can be late this afternoon. We get any flak, I’ll just say fuck you or somethin’ cool like that. You know—Up your giggy with a meathook, Mary. Jeez, it just struck me—wouldn’t it be fun to be a real movie star and get to act like one? ‘A round for the house, waiter.’ Get shit-faced snockered. Wow! Just like Robert Mitchum. That’d be somethin’, friends—that’d be somethin’ else.”
Back on the Commons late that afternoon, a cacophony of church bells peal vespers. Paul Monash, the writer-producer, is huddled deep inside his topcoat on a park bench, watching over the film technicians as they pack up the unit’s cumbersome equipment for the night. A slight, clear-eyed man wearing Beverly Hills denim and a McGovern button on his coat lapel, Monash has the odd habit of raking a hand quickly through his long, thick salt-and-pepper hair to emphasize his points.
“Boston is a splendid city. I always relish being here. I’m in flight from Los Angeles, among other things. I find it a very deadening place. I just wrote my wife a letter saying one of the things I will not do is live there, in California, at least not for awhile. It took me years of playing tennis to realize that I was getting tennis head instead of tennis elbow. “Yes, that’s correct, I began by writing novels. You’ve read one of them? Incredible. Which one? Ah yes—How Brave We Live. How brave you are. Well, that book swiftly passed into, um, literary history. And there was another one, too—The Ambassadors. I rather hoped readers would mistake it for a work by Henry James. No such luck, of course. There’s probably a warehouse full of remaindered copies of that book somewhere.
“Then or now, I never found any consistent theme or emphasis in my work. I was always like a crazed hunter in the woods shooting anything that moved. No, I don’t contemplate writing any more novels, because I’d write some dreary story about a middle-aged producer getting divorced, you know, and falling in love with nubile young girls or something like that. The prospect doesn’t enrapture me. “Eddie Coyle is what might be called an old-fashioned film, except that there’s nothing old-fashioned about it because it’s creating it’s own technique. It’s a film about crime and criminals in which the emphasis is not on the action but on the people involved. The screenplay is very faithful to George Higgins’ novel, which I consider a work of true brilliancy. My main task in writing the screenplay consisted of organizing the material already at hand. The dialogue in the book, which the critics praised so lavishly, is the dialogue in the film.
“My feeling about the picture so far is generally more than affirmative. I have an extraordinarily good feel about it that scares me a little bit. I guess I would say that the whole test of the film is going to be in the first scene, in which we have two men—Mitchum and a young actor named Steven Keats—sitting down in a dingy cafeteria and talking to each other for several minutes about stolen guns. Mitchum plays a character called Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle—Eddie got the nickname after some hoods he was working for broke all his knuckles for some minor indiscretion. Eddie is a hood himself, a free-lancer—one of the so-called blue-collar workers of the underworld. And Keats plays a cold-blooded, no-nonsense gun dealer. And for several minutes, the two of them talk very seriously about guns. If at the end of that time, the audience feels that Mitchum really is Eddie Coyle and that what he’s doing or about to do is interesting, then we’ve got a hugely successful picture.
“And it’s happening—I can sense it building. Mitchum fits into the role amazingly well. We’d originally picked him to play Peter Boyle’s role, which shows you what foresight and cunning we had. I suppose we felt that Mitchum was too strong and, in a way, too good-looking. I wouldn’t say handsome. Too prepossessing, too forceful. “But we were wrong. I have to say I really don’t understand how Mitchum acts, what his techniques and resources are. It just happens. It’s kind of an event. It’s up there on the screen before you know it. He simply does it. It’s like Willie Mays, you know—running back to the wall and catching the ball over his shoulder. Mitchum’s a natural.
“Eddie Coyle is a small-time loser at the end of his rope, but the marvelous thing about Mitchum is that he doesn’t play him as a groveling, uncourageous man. He imparts to the role a quiet dignity the character in the book lacked, I think. Mitchum radiates a genuine presence. Above all, you can say about Mitchum that he is. “Oh, yes, it’s true that he has a reputation for outrageous behavior, but I haven’t experienced it personally. We haven’t had many direct dealings, but the contacts we’ve had have been more than cordial. Still, you have to remember that Robert Mitchum is a star. He’s starred in 115-odd films, and being a star marks you somewhat. A star is a nut. Just as Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me, and so are stars different from you and me. Mitchum is definitely different. No, I won’t attempt to itemize the particulars. “As you’re certainly aware, stars in general tend to be… difficult. For instance, I understand that Mitchum rarely, if ever, talks to reporters. Oh, yeah, sure, for whatever it’s worth, I’ll put in a good word for you. I’ll even lick his boots if it’ll help. If he’s wearing boots, that is. I wouldn’t lick his bare feet.”
The next morning a cold, salt rain drenches Boston, and the film troupe sets up shop inside Pier Five, a high vaulted and echoing warehouse that juts out over the slate-colored waters of Boston Harbor. Clammy as a tomb, the municipally owned building is blocks long, and its interior light is a perpetual dusky gloom because of its opaqued windows and skylights. The troupe’s objective for the day is to shoot two key scenes. The first shows Mitchum delivering a cache of hot guns to a bank robber and his mistress, played by Alex Rocco and Jane House. The location of the delivery is a Trotwood trailer, the long, unwieldy kind that takes the mobile out of home. At midmorning, while Yates rehearses the actors, electricians and sound men scurry in and out of the trailer, masking its windows with black gauze. The second scene, to be shot behind a canvas scrim a few yards from the trailer, shows Peter Boyle blowing Mitchum’s brains out in a parked car. The weapon to be used is a long-barreled .22 Magnum revolver loaded with live ammunition, but the brains are only putatively Mitchum’s. A ghastly wax effigy of him has been prepared for the scene, which everyone carefully avoids looking at.
Just before noon, Trina Mitchum arrives on the set. Mitchum’s only daughter, she’s a willowy, 20-year-old aspiring writer, pretty in a hesitant way, wearing two-toned sunglasses, a tan greatcoat, and crepe-soled boots. “Dad has kind of an aversion to reporters these days,” she reflects, expelling a long blue spume of mingled smoke and cold-breath. “Mainly, that’s because of a single guy, a writer named Brad Darrach. Darrach trailed Dad around for months in order to do a piece about him for Life. And Dad treated him like a friend—the whole family did. Well, for one reason or another, Life wouldn’t take the piece, and Darrach rewrote it for Penthouse, and it turned into something else, if you understand what I’m saying. Penthouse wanted stuff that Life wouldn’t have ever printed. You know—about Mom and Dad squabbling, and Dad’s various women, and Dad fighting with my brothers, Christopher and Jimmy, and me being some kind of acid crawlback or something like that. Well, sure, I went through that routine a little bit, I guess. Just as much as anybody my age growing up in California and being exposed to those things. But not very heavily, you know.
“The thing is, it was all so private. It hurt Dad, and made him mad, too. It did all of us. Oh, it was a fairly accurate story, sure, but I don’t think it was a fair story. I just don’t believe in invading people’s privacy to the point where you expose their family fights and stuff like that. I think, personally, if you can’t say something good about somebody, there’s no point in writing at all. “My Dad’s a pretty fair man, actually. Difficult to understand, but he’s a pretty fair man. He really is. When I was growing up, he wasn’t around too much, so I had a lot of freedom. When I was between eight and 14, we had a farm, and I spent a lot of time there. I ran around a lot and did whatever I wanted. There were no big rules or anything—no strict church training or any regimentation like that. The only thing Dad would get upset about was if one of us did something stupid. Then he got mad. Dad has a very low tolerance for stupidity. But that’s worked out for my benefit, really.
“My mother’s much the same way. She’s a great lady. Don’t ask me how she puts up with Dad—I don’t know. I don’t know if I could put up with him for 30-some years. She’s a very strong lady, though. She’s stood by him through everything, and I guess she’s put up with a lot and suffered a lot, but she keeps on going. She’s a beautiful lady, very stable, very steadfast. My mother’s always been there for me, too, and very steady. I haven’t just been tossed around like a lot of Hollywood brats. “Mom and Dad and I live in Bel Air. But Dad also has a 75-acre ranch out in the country. He usually keeps 30-odd quarter horses there. Yeah, they’re raced professionally, but I think Dad’s real interest is in improving their breed. Mom works all the business end of that. And she’s also very active in a charity called SHARE, which is a group of show business wives for mentally retarded children. She used to paint very well, but she hasn’t done anything like that for quite a few years. She keeps pretty busy with the horses and keeping the house together and everything. She’s quite domestic. She’s a Taurus. She just hangs in there.
“Dad’s pictures? No, I haven’t seen them all. A lot of them I have. I never saw Night of the Hunter, which I’ve heard is his best performance. That’s the one where he’s the murderous preacher with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his fingers. I saw Ryan’s Daughter, though, and it was great. I walked out of the premiere with tears streaming down my face. I was very touched by that. “Dad’s always had the reputation of being an outrageous oddball—’the last of the iron-assed loners,’ blah-blah-blah—but he’s always been pretty straight with me. One time when I was a little kid, though… Oh, it was funny; it cracked me up. Back then, he used to take me out for a drive every Sunday morning before everybody else was up. We’d stop at Schwab’s and buy the paper, and he’d always buy me a hand puppet. I had this great collection of hand puppets. So one morning, we drove down to Venice, a crazy little town south of L.A. We were driving along and suddenly a policeman stopped us. We were driving on the sidewalk, and Dad hadn’t even noticed. He just got a little reprimand, but it was pretty embarrassing for him. Pretty embarrassing.”
Despite the fact that Mitchum has been married to his wife, Dorothy, for 32 years, he has the reputation of running through women like a stray dog through tall cane, and sure enough, when Mitchum emerges from his two-room camper, he’s trailed by two pretty admirers—”Girl A and Girl B,” as Peter Boyle snickeringly dubs them. “Gahdamn, man,” Boyle mutters, ogling the two women in a parody of lust. “Ol’ Bob’s entourage is swelling. I had either one of those babies, I’d die of terminal euphoria. Zowie! You know what the 2001 theme is? That’s the sound of Mitchum waking up.” Girl A is a leggy United Airlines stewardess named Dawn, who looks as dumb and sweet as her name. Girl B, no girl at all, really, is an aging, elfin beauty named Sascha, who speaks with a heavy Scandinavian accent. Both women cling closely to Mitchum, but he more or less ignores them, breaking away first to greet and embrace Trina, then to banter with a circle of Teamsters that includes the boss of the teamos, Howie Winter, a dapper-dressed, pinchfaced little man whose thin smile bears no connection to mirth.
The Teamsters pose a constant and calculatedly deliberate menace to the picture’s successful completion. Any infringement of the union’s rules, and the picture shuts all the way down, that’s it. Most of the drivers are self-acknowledged heavies associated either now or in the past with the notorious Bunker Hill Gang, which has been linked to 75-odd gangland killings in the last decide. Characteristically, the teamos swagger around the set as if they themselves are the stars, chattering casually about warehouse shortages, last month’s murder, and the gamier particulars of barnyard sex. Driving for the stars is lucrative, too. Billy Wynn, Mitchum’s pug-jawed Irish attendant, receives a full day’s pay for sitting in Mitchum’s camper, emptying an occasional ashtray, and keeping the fridge well-stocked with beer. At the union’s base rate, that amounts to upwards of $60 a day. Harry, Mitchum’s limo driver, draws the same for driving the actor to the set, then out to lunch somewhere, then back to his hotel.
The teamos guffaw and pound Alex Rocco on the back when he saunters up and joins the group. Interestingly enough, Rocco was a Boston Teamster before he trekked west to play the role of Moe Green in The Godfather. While he was a teamo, Rocco was indicted for one of those gangland-type slayings linked to the Bunker Hill Gang. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence after Rocco retained F. Lee Bailey as counsel. The teamos affectionately refer to Rocco as “Bobo.” Glancing around at the loud clatter of a grip’s ladder overturning, Mitchum’s gaze chances to fall on Portnoy, who’s standing nearby shivering in his mittens and parka. Mitchum’s smile shuts off like a shade being permanently drawn, and he mutters something about a lost ball in the far weeds that sets the teamos to horse-laughing. Portnoy tries to play it cool and composed, but he’s been on the picture for weeks now, and he’s developed a noticeable twitch in his right cheek.
During the delay before his scene is shot, Boyle grows increasingly manic. He says he wants to do a film with “lots of laughs and pretty broads with greasy DAs.” Boyle does the twist to show what he means. Peter Yates summons Boyle for the murder scene in the car. Boyle rubs his palms together and cackles evilly: “Well, little girl, time to splatter yo’ daddeh’s blood all over that windshield.” “Ugh,” Trina shudders, “that sounds worse than a T. Rex concert.” Behind the canvas scrim, Yates regards the wax effigy, his hands on his hips. “The only thing that alarms me is that we may set fire to the thing,” he murmurs to no one in particular. “For this scene,” Boyle leers, “I need a combo of speed, cocaine and dope”. Handling the Magnum pistol gingerly, Boyle clambers into the back seat of the car behind the dummy, and when the cameras begin to roll, fires seven deafening shots into the fake head. “Cut,” Yates calls out. “That’s a print. Excellent, Petah.” “Sure makes you feel like a man,” Boyle grimaces.
Boyle gets out of the car, hitches up his pants, and winks at the writer: “Well, that’s it, lad—my last scene in the picture. Now I’ll have to find a whole new set of neurotic problems. Thirty minutes from now, you know, I won’t be able to bum carfare outta this joint.” As a farewell gesture to Boyle, Mitchum gets together a luncheon party for 15 at Jimmy’s Restaurant on the Fish Pier. As the host, Mitchum sits at the head of the table, flanked by Yates and Trina. The writer, oddly enough, ends up at the far end of the table, adjacent to Girl A and Girl B. Girl A—Dawn, the airline stewardess—says that she’s on a diet, and not much more except that she “admires” Mitchum. Girl B—Sascha—turns out to be an advertising photographer who works in Spain, and she tells an amusing story about Sal Mineo’s reputed predilection for nuns. She also says at one point that she can’t abide men under the age of 45. “They’re useless,” she declares emphatically. Mitchum’s bio says he is 54.
After the meal, as the party is straggling out to the lobby in twos and threes, somebody points out Mitchum’s signed photo on a wall decorated in pointillist style with framed pictures of celebrities: “Hey, look—Kirk Douglas!” Mitchum, who has belted back four or five doubles during the meal, regards the picture with a flat, baleful stare. “Would you believe that fucker was hanging down at the bottom when we came in here? No shit.” Outside, the teamos are impatiently waiting in a convoy of cars at the curb. One of the neckless ones gestures angrily to Peter Boyle. “Wheh’s Peter Yates?” “He said he was looking for his smother,” Boyle tells him. “What in hell’s that?” “His coat, I think.” “Well, fuck ‘im—let ‘im walk back,” the driver snorts in a gun-metal voice and accelerates away into the traffic.
Late that afternoon, George Higgins is seated at the desk in his office on the 11th floor of the Post Office Square Building in downtown Boston. The day’s bone-chilling rain hasn’t let up, and the office is starkly lit and furnished, anonymous except for colored snapshots of Higgins’ young children on the wall and a stack of out-of-date New York magazines on the windowsill. Higgins is the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, his first published novel and a best-seller of 1972. Higgins is also a cop—specifically, a practicing assistant US district attorney for Massachusetts specializing in bank and postal fraud and bank robbery. The fact wasn’t lost to Norman Mailer in his jacket blurb for the book: “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.”
Higgins is delighted with the way his book is being filmed. “The script—I like it very much. I also like the people who’re in it very much. I particularly hit it off with Peter Boyle. He’s been over to my house a couple of times late at night looking for something to swallow, and I generally have something. I must admit, I’ve swallowed a little myself from time to time. But Peter’s gotten deeply into his part, and understands the character of Dillon as well as anybody, including myself. “See, I’m no judge of acting—at least, not that kind of acting. I’m a trial lawyer, and that’s acting of a different league. But Jane House certainly looks good, and the same applies to Mitchum. He really looks right for Eddie Coyle, which surprised me. When he was first being considered for the part, I was a little taken aback. I just hadn’t thought of him. I don’t know who I had in mind, if anybody, but it wasn’t Mitchum.
“Once you see Mitchum in the part, though, it’s amazing. He’s just perfect, his mannerisms and everything. I’ve watched only four or five minutes of the rushes, but he’s remarkable. I’ve been pretty busy here lately, so I’ve been on the set no more than a total of maybe four hours. My contact with Mitchum, so far, has been very slight. He’s a great raconteur, I’ll say that. In fact, I think he got into the wrong line of work. He should get himself a typewriter and stop fooling around with movie acting. He’s a natural-born storyteller. “Eddie Coyle germinated as a short story called ‘Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened’ which was accepted by the North American Review in the spring of ’70. A friend on the West Coast asked me if it was part of a novel. I honestly hadn’t realized until he asked that it was. I write from the first sentence. If I get that first sentence right, the whole book’s in it. I think it took me about four tries to get, ‘Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.’ Then I had the whole thing. I wrote the book in six weeks.
“I can’t articulate yet how its success has affected me. I’m just getting it sorted out. I’ll have a new book out in March, called The Digger’s Game. The Digger is Digger Dougherty. It’s probably fair to say that Digger is what Eddie Coyle could have been if Eddie had been more successful. “I don’t know for certain whether I’ll continue on with my legal work. The truth is, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. The likelihood is extremely strong that, yes, I will. I need the collision that I get with other human beings. I’m not a gregarious fellow. If left to myself, I’d go down to Nantucket and walk the beach. I do not initiate human contacts. This is something I’ve learned about myself. I need to have it forced upon me. I need collisions.”
That evening, over cocktails with the writer in the bar at the Holiday Inn on Blossom Street, Portnoy complains, long and loud. Robert Mitchum, Portnoy is firmly convinced, has every intention of driving the publicist smack into the clutches of a rubber room. “I’m supposed to write 40-odd press handouts about him, and the guy won’t even talk to me,” Portnoy moans with the look of a burnt-out tank fighter contemplating a drive. “I can’t even get close to him. I mean, what am I gonna do? “Uh-huh, yeah—movie stars are different than you and me. Right. Thanks a lot, pal. Ok, so Mitchum’s a superstar, he’s made 115 pictures, he’s worth five mill, blah-blah-blah. The point is, he’s a legend. I’ve heard wild stories about him all my life in New York and Hollywood.
“Did you know he once dropped a professional fighter in a bar with one shot? It’s true. The fighter later went three rounds with Marciano. And some director once told Mitchum at the start of a picture, ‘I’ve got a hot temper. When I get rattled, I shout at actors. But don’t let it worry you—next day I’ve forgotten all about it.’ Mitchum said he understood—’I’ve got a temper, too. When a director yells at me, I flatten him. But don’t let it worry you—next day I’ve forgotten all about it.’ And some other director got salty with him another time, so I’ve heard, and Mitchum tied the guy’s shoelaces together and hung him upside down from a lamppost.
“A weird cat. Somebody told me he once gave away a new car to a stranger in a bar. And do you recall those famous pictures with the topless actress at Cannes in ’54? Mitchum’s wife was looking on while he squeezed around on that babe’s knockers. That actress, by the way—Simone Silva, her name was—later tried to crash into movies in New York, and she was rejected everywhere because of those pictures, so she ended up snuffing herself. Pffft. “I mean, Mitchum has been the whole route. Even that dope bust back in ’48—my God, man, nobody but gangsters and shvartzes smoked dope back then! Jesus, I don’t know where to begin. Forty stories, hah! God, I’ve tried to figure it from every angle, and I just can’t understand why he dislikes me so.” Portnoy, bless him, is virtually quaking with anxiety, but the writer can’t resist the observation that even paranoids have real enemies. Portnoy grips both arms of his chair and juts his chin forward. “Whaddya mean by that?” he blurts suspiciously.
The next morning, while Mitchum, Alex Rocco, and Jane House are getting ready to resume their scene in the Trotwood trailer at Pier Five, Trina invites the writer into the warmth of her father’s camper, where she, Girl B—Sascha—the teamo Billy Wynn, and a mod-coiffed Connecticut restaurateur named Fred are passing around a hash pipe and listening to Sticky Fingers on a cassette machine. Everyone is crowded around a built-in formica table, on which lie a freshly-opened pack of Pall Malls, an ancient copy of Reader’s Digest, and eight or ten tightly rolled joints. Through the camper’s curtained window, Mitchum can be seen standing over near one of the pier’s open portals, silhouetted against a background of seagulls circling low over the rainy-day harbor. Wearing a pale yellow windbreaker and ink-black sunglasses, he’s standing abreast of Tim Wallace, his long-time stand-in and constant crony, and the two of them are chousing with Girl C and Girl D, a redhead and a blonde. Girl A, it seems, has gone back to the friendly skies of United.
Gazing anxiously out the window at Mitchum, Wallace, and the two women, Sascha is in a sulky mood, too. “Zat Tim Vallace,” she pouts in a poisonous little hiss, “he iss not a nize man at all. Vhy, last night, he tried to tell me where to sleep. I think he iss horrible.” With a wave to the two new ladies, Mitchum strides across the pier and clambers up into the camper, trailed by Howie Winter, the head-honcho Teamster. “Desperado time,” Mitchum growls and heads for the John, where he pisses splashily without bothering to close the door. Winter declines a seat at the table, but eyes the stockpile of joints hungrily. “Here, take some home with you,” somebody says, scooping him up a handful.
Zipping up his fly, Mitchum strolls up to the table, and noticing the burnt-out pipe, hurriedly empties it. “You children left a hod,” he rumbles in a mock-scolding tone, “and we can’t have that. Never leave a hod layin’ around, children.” “How’s the scene going?” Fred asks with a grin. Mitchum pulls a tall can of Budweiser out of the refrigerator, tosses the tab in the sink, and drains half the beer away in a gulp. “No fuckin’ way will we ever make it,” Mitchum grunts. “Like the Pope says, no fuckin’ way. That damned trailer’s too crowded.” “Sounds like you need some midget prop men.” “Yeah, well, we got one. He’s only this high, but he’s this wide. Can’t get the fucker through the door.” Mitchum smiles at Trina. “You seen any of the rushes yet, Treen?” “Saw that scene with the gal who plays your wife. She’s a pretty thing.” “Oh, yeah—Helena Carroll. She’s built just like a Belgian mare.”
Mitchum acknowledges the writer’s presence with an amiable nod: “You met my friend Fred here? The first time I ran into Fred I asked him what he did, and he said ‘fuck you.’ Nice guy, Fred. Just like a high-steppin’ dog. He goes to parties out on Long Island, Fred does. He’s family. Uhm… you gonna be around awhile? Maybe we can talk a little, later on.” One of the assistant directors raps on the windshield to announce the lunch break. Everybody hurries off to the waiting cars—all except the writer. No fucking way is he going to leave that camper. When Mitchum returns from lunch, he has clearly been exercising his elbow, perhaps both of them. His gait is unsteady, his speech is thickly burred, and he is, in fact, distinctly one step over the fucked-up line as he draws two cans of Bud from the fridge, waggles a beckoning finger at the writer, and sags onto a clothing-strewn couch at the rear of the camper.
“Very seldom have I a trailer,” he mutters darkly. “On most locations, there is one, usually, yes. But there’s rarely room for me. Rarely room for me. People crowd in—friends, strangers. I try to tell ’em, but they won’t listen. ‘Stand back, jack. No?’ Ka-whap!” Laughing mirthlessly, Mitchum swigs a lug of beer and lets one eyelid droop toward a brooding wink. Perching on a tiny edge of the couch, the writer relays The Great Writer Tom Wolfe’s admiration and curiosity about Thunder Road, filmed and released in 1958 but still a perennial favorite with the hotrodding drive-in audiences of the South. Mitchum nods gravely: “Yeah, it was received for true, for real. Still is. That was my original design, and I figured it that way. I wrote the story—the original story—and the title song. The screenplay I felt neither ambitious enough nor qualified to do, because those dissolve-cuts and all that kind of shit are largely technical. Beyond me, and boring, too.
“How come I haven’t done more of that sort of thing? How come I’m not out diggin’ a ditch between takes, you know? I choose not to work. I’ve got a gig goin’ that’s probably not the most satisfactory expression in the world—not is anyone’s—but it’s the course of least resistance. It does me well, and everyone else well, so why should I belabor myself? I mean, I do my good works quietly and elsewhere, and I can’t make a profession of it. It’s denied me. I can’t make a profession out of doing better because I learned early on that if you do better, you do well, you don’t get to do better—you just get to do more. You know—’While you’re resting, would you mind carryin’ this anvil upstairs?’ Like that shot. So, for me, it’s no strain—just the course of least resistance. Do it until it poops out, you know, and then maybe wheel in once a year like Lionel Barrymore and play Scrooge—wrap it up and go back to the Bahamas or whatever happens. Cure my arthritis and spike myself out—whatever.
“Yeah, it’s true, I work a lot of pictures. I guess I do. I guess I do because we’ve gone through a period of some flux and change in our industry, and the effect has become somewhat boring. The effect per se—just that, you know. The innovative or innovative effect has become boring because it’s so obviously designed as effect. Those anal shots up through somebody’s wisdom teeth and all that whirling-light jazz, you know, is not too much fun. The main thing that we lack now is writers. We’ve developed some really serious current speakers as actors, mainly because of the import of British slum morality into this country and the reawakening of the children to the fact of what goes on beneath the Victorian collar and bosom. Not so with writers, though. They’re mostly still hung up on the tickity-pop-poop kick.
“Sure, I like George Higgins as a reportorial writer—actually, as a novelist, too. I was impressed by his book largely because I think that work like his is necessary. I think it’s necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality. I know a little something about the criminal mentality. I think I comprehend the freakers, too, and very well. I know enough about the criminal mentality to know that it is so designed only by the stricture of the statutes. I mean, if a certain act wasn’t illegal, those guys wouldn’t be criminals, dig? Like that. But they get away with it or don’t, right? Or they bargain for it or don’t. Now, Mr. Higgins is a very ambitious fellow, a man of very strong opinions, and he’s on the staff of public protection. He warns Peter Yates that I’m associating with known criminals, warns him that I’m going to get busted or tainted or something. Well, fuck, there’s hardly anyone you can-talk to in Boston without—you know. Anyway, it’s a two-way street, because the guys Higgins means are associating with a known criminal in talking to me. A point is a point. If somebody wants to cock his finger and rap on the table in a court of law, the point remains. So if they want to bust you for a faulty taillight, daddy, you’re busted.”
Mitchum laughs, this time with genuine amusement, and rises to fetch two more cans of beer. Sprawling back on the couch, he rumples a hand through his already tousled hair and lights one Pall Mall from the butt of another. “I don’t know. I’ve known a lot of cops. When I was in Vietnam, I met a lot of cops—fighting cops. They were humanists—actually humanists. And they died for it, didn’t they? A lot of them died for it. They felt that people really deserved a chance, that everyone deserves to live, and they were going to fight for that. But then they died, a lot of them.
“I went to Nam in ’67, I guess it was. To find out what was happening. Some people in the Defense Department kept nudgin’ me—’Why don’t you go find out?’ Next thing I knew, I was fallin’ off an airplane at Ton So Nhut—February 3rd and it’s 117 degrees. I went waughhh, and they said, ‘Wait’ll summertime, man. It gets hot.’ It was hot all the time, and I was very impressed. I was very encouraged, enormously encouraged by what I saw. You get semisophisticated or cynical, you know, and it’s quite humbling to find that there are still people of high purpose and straight direction.
“I dealt mostly with Special Forces—the Green Beanie. I saw people teaching people—trying to teach them, oh, the legend about the chicken and the egg, and not to drink out of toilets—all kinds of very basic things. They were truly concerned, totally concerned. They’d come back from long search or battle stretches and immediately check into the village to see how the school was progressing. No, sir, it definitely wasn’t set up for my benefit. No way. No way for my benefit. I came in hot. They didn’t know who was comin’ in. I ended up thinking—well, they still make good people. Good, honest people who give of themselves for other people. Like somebody’s grandmother, like that.
“Sure, they were over there to fight a war, which is wrong in principle maybe, but that wasn’t their doing, was it? Not their doing at all. There are always the advantagists, the opportunists who make a lot of money out of other people’s misery. Then, of course, there’s that French combine which controls the rights to the rice supply which feeds five-eighths of the whole world, which is the main reason for the whole caper anyway, why everybody’s hassling. And there are all the individual people who wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, a war’s on—let’s go get a piece of the action.’ Same way on both sides. Little slant-eyed people wake up and say, ‘Let’s grab something. Why not, as long as it’s happening.’ Get a bicycle or something. And ultimately, of course, there’re all the manufacturers who build battleships and airplanes and stuff like that. All of which is not wasteful, because it employs people—it’s just a different form of commerce. It’s a form that I don’t endorse, but there it is.
“The single thing that I’m grateful for that’s come out of the whole war mess has been some recognition of the need for communication. I’ve gone sometimes on dangerous waters in the interest of communication, because I believe in it. I believe that everyone in the world should have at least the privilege of knowing what’s happening all at the same time. One thing I’ve learned is that the greatest fuckin’ slavery is ignorance, and the biggest commodity is ignorance—the dissemination of ignorance, the sale and burgeoning marketing of ignorance.
“Nah, I didn’t bother to vote yesterday. I’m an anarchist, anyway. I haven’t really been interested in voting since they took Norman Thomas off the ticket. I don’t think it makes any difference who has his duke in the till, really. I mean, you can bring on Liberace or somebody simpering about the idealism of the hard-working miners, and, ‘My brother George who plays the violin is a Jew,’ and so forth and so on. Well, the idea is marvelous—really marvelous. And as I say, people go out and fight and die for it. But life is life, you know, so the new leader of Bangladesh goes to London to have his gall bladder removed, and takes over a whole floor at Claridge’s, and has an entourage of 200 people—two private jets he flies on. His attitude is fuck those starvers. Fuck those starvers. Wise up, cranapple—right? Take your best shot. Well, what you do about it is do something about it. You put one brick on top of another—make it better. If you come to get it, get it. Like the Incas did to the Conquistadores—when the Spaniards came for the Incas’ gold, the Incas pried open the Spaniards’ mouths and poured ’em full of the shit—all the molten gold they could fuckin’ hold.”
Mitchum drains his beer and gets another. He makes a wincing face when the writer asks about the writing he’s rumored to have done over the years. “I don’t write. Nah. Yeah, there was a play at one point. Yeah, it was called Fellow Traveler, and, yeah, it was optioned by the Theater Guild. How’d you know about that? I thought you looked like a persistent motherfucker. Whatever happened to the play? Nothin’. I put it back in a drawer. There were so many critical notes on it… Eugene O’Neill read it, and his notes were longer than the play. I’d done it hastily when I was about 18 or 19 years old…
“It was about Harry Bridges bein’ deported. He’s shipped out of the country because of his union activities, and he organizes the ship in transit. When there’s a fire in the hold, Bridges is suspected of sabotage, so they put him ashore on a cannibal island in the South Pacific. There’s nobody there but a little toothless Barry Fitzgerald Englishman who’s married to a giant Negress native. Umn… then the next visitor is a sort of Peter Ustinov bearded member of the OGPO. Finally, there’s a wedding caremony, and Bridges is given the biggest—always the biggest—the biggest, fattest broad on the island. And he’s also awarded a trophy—the shrunken head of the OGPO guy. The play winds up with a minstrel song. It was nothin’, really. It was written before the war, and it did prognosticate the forthcoming Japanese situation. Those honchos at the Theater Guild thought it was something’ remarkable, though.
“I really don’t remember how O’Neill got involved. Somebody sent the manuscript to him, I guess. And I got summoned into the sacrosanct inner sanctorum of the esoteric Theater Guild, and I thought, oh, shit. The whole time I was there, I was tryin’ to suppress an erection. “The play was just a piece of shit. Looked like it was written by a lefthanded retarded child in crayon. Maybe there were one or two good sections in it. What I should do, really, is sit down and write it right, just for the hell of it. Or burn it up. That’s what I should do—burn it up. I don’t know—it all tied together. I suppose I could’ve pursued it. The choice came down to workin’ with little theater groups in Ontario or bein’ a movie queen here in Boston. Which was the best way to go?
“Writing—I don’t know. When I first got to Hollywood, I wrote night club routines and song lyrics, which paid very well. The only thing is, I got married, and workin’ at home you have to spend all your time around this one broad, and I said fuck it, no way. I was a fuckin’ ferret-faced 22-year-old, fuckin’ broken-nosed—” One of the technicians sticks his head in the camper door: “Pardon the interruption, Bob, but it’s a wrap for today. You can change your clothes if you want to.” With a woozy wave of the hand, Mitchum sways to his feet and fumblingly strips to his jockey shorts. When he’s changed to canary-yellow bellbottoms and a jersey pullover, he sinks back down on the couch and gropes around on the floor for his beer can. He grimaces again when the writer inquires about the poetry he’s written.
“I quit writin’ the stuff, you know, because you throw it in the wastebasket and somebody picks it up and your mother thinks it’s precious or something. One time here in Boston, I was on the radio with a disk jockey named Robert Kennedy and he suddenly started reading something I’d written. Yeah, suddenly. Suddenly in the middle of a conversation, he suddenly read this poem on the air. I thought, how fuckin’ dare he? “Barnaby—you know, the bullfighter—Barnaby Conrad had a place in San Francisco where you were sort of encouraged to write on the shithouse wall. I wrote something’ or other on there and Herb Caen reported it verbatim. At least I hope he knew what he was talkin’ about, because—well, that’s why I had to quit. I didn’t know what the fuck I was talkin’ about. I ran into Dylan Thomas one time and I told him, ‘You lost me with this and that.’ And Dylan said”—Mitchum mimics Thomas’ rich Welsh basso—”‘Christ, I lost me fuckin’ self. I’ll have to get Caitlin to explain to me what I was talkin’ about.’ And that happens, you know. You become so fuckin’ secret and abstract that you can’t interpret your own stuff.
“I haven’t done anything, really. I wasn’t doin’ anything, really. It was all very private and personal, and I really wasn’t doin’ anything. Fuckin’ horrible junk. But I guess it was the only way I could speak. And I found myself either desperately inarticulate, seeking scan and rhythm, or hopelessly, esoterically over-articulate—and either way it was hopeless. I guess I thought I would become the darling of the ladies’ literary society and they’d pat me on the ass and endow me with profound meanings that I really never had and knew nothing about.
“I used to spend some time with William Faulkner, and Bill told me about his total bewilderment and frustration on that score. They always credit you for the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons. I remember when Bill got the Pulitzer Prize or whatever the hell it was, and he said, no, he couldn’t make it, he was gonna be drunk for another four weeks. I first met him when he came to California to write movies. He said he was there to write a treatment of something. We went all through it—I was a movie expert, see, a starlet. What, Bill finally asked me, was a treatment? “A similar thing happened to me with Bud Guthrie. I picked him up one morning goin’ to work and he said, ‘You had your breakfast?’ I told him no, and he poured me a glass of whiskey. I asked him what he was doin’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m doin’ this treatment for Paramount,’ blah-blah-blah. Stopped for a red light and he says, ‘What the fuck is a treatment, anyway?’ Hah!
“The secret of writin’ for the studios was to get yourself a hat and hang it up in some prominent place. I learned that when I was a studio writer. Just get a hat and hang it up, so when somebody asks, ‘Where is he?’—well, he’s gotta be here somewhere, his hat’s here. Handy little trick of the trade, you know.” Mitchum rises and steers a swaying course to the john, again relieving himself noisily with the door ajar. Trina is entertaining some friends in the front of the camper. “Can I offer these guys a beer, Dad?” she calls out. “Sure. What are we—Chinamen?” When Mitchum returns to his seat on the couch with a fresh beer, the writer asks him if he was set up for his sensationally publicized dope bust in 1948. Mitchum gingerly massages his jaw.
“I was. So what? Stranger things have happened. Listen, one night I was takin’ a leak in a restaurant in New York and a guy walked up next to me at the urinal and—whap!—he hit me. I took his best shot, but I didn’t fall down. So I went upstairs and I was havin’ dinner with Bob Preston. This was like five minutes later, and I had a kind of weal on my cheek. Bob asked me what had happened. I told him I was standin’ there pissin’ and some guy hit me in the head. The maitre d’ came up and said, ‘You still talkin’ about that?’ Meanwhile, the guy who belted me was on his head in a garbage can outside.
“Yeah… the bust was a setup. I don’t know all the details. I really don’t. I learned all the names later. I paid for it—took the hank. Man, what’s the difference? I had a bug in my chimney for six months. I was at the scene of the bust exactly seven minutes. At that time, there was a big war on between the L.A. Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. I got two years. Big deal, you know? I got off with six months. Served only 60 days. Any more time than that, they’d have had to pay a lot of travelers across the stage. They got what they wanted—a three-ring circus for a few weeks. Television cameras. “Real strange, you know. The charge was conspiring to possess. I don’t know—if somebody had handed me a joint to take with me on the road, I might have taken it, so it makes little difference if I was actually guilty or not guilty. Not guilty—I don’t know. Anything to get the hell out of the joint, because the minute I walked in I went sniff-sniff, and the place was hot, man. I walked over to pick up the phone and somebody said, ‘Where you goin’?’ I said, ‘Ah-hah, a lotta heat in this joint. What’re those two faces at the window?’ And those goddamn dogs—bam! Down came the door and I went uh-oh. One of the cops yelled, ‘Mitchum is raising his arm in a threatening manner.’ I said, ‘Hang me up, boys—I been had.’ Slightly yentzed. Roundly fucked.”
Mitchum throws back his massive head and guffaws uproariously.
“Yeah, that’s right. I got a ration of shit in the County Jail, but so what? I wasn’t like a virgin, you know. As a matter of fact, they tried to set me up again in there. They wanted to make me for the whole deuce. They didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t know which side of the fuzz it was, but somebody told me, ‘Watch it. They’re tryin’ to make you, rack you up in the joint.’ I said fuck it, put me in an individual cell. The food was better, anyway, and the security was better—better for me, better for them. A cell where they locked the doors every night—clang, clang, clang. That way I couldn’t bust out and hurt anybody. Hah!
“Well, it was the only thing to do when I found out they were maneuverin’ against me, plantin’ me with stoolies and all that kind of shit. Man, they can do anything they want, you know—charge you with some minor infraction of the rules, and you end up doin’ two big ones in Quentin. No fuckin’ way. I couldn’t hack that. And for nothin’, really. Fortunately, there were enough guys on my side who said, ‘Wait a minute—what’re you doin’ to this asshole? Why’re you tryin’ to break his balls?’ Really, I didn’t give a fuck. I didn’t try to hurt anybody. One or two cops made a move on me, but I said, ‘Look, enough of that shit. You want to go that route, I’ll meet you after school at the Y.’
“I get along with people very well, really. I do. I do. Really. Every now and then, some guy gets the hots and figures to go home and tell his old lady he just decked that motherfucker Mitchum. Why, she’ll shoot him, man! She’ll shoot him! ‘Robert Mitchum? You stomped his ass? Why, you dirty motherfucker!” Me, I’m easy. I don’t go through red lights. I don’t steal.
“Yeah, sure, I’d been busted before. When I was a kid, I was hitchin’ a ride on a freight and a fuzz batted me with his club. That was in Georgia, and I was sentenced to a chain gang. I worked for a while repairin’ rocks, then I took a walk and never went back. OK, so I was a bum. I was busted for the simple crime of poverty, that’s all. No big deal. Back at that time, there were no champions of poor people. But I didn’t consider myself particularly victimized. I didn’t think of myself as a baby. I was 15, and I chose to go to a flat joint instead of a punk farm.
“Nah, it wasn’t particularly hard to take. I got fed, you know. I guess it was depressing. The first night, I slept on the floor and the guy next to me was dyin’ of a tubercular hemorrhage. They kept him alive and turned him out on the road the next day so he wouldn’t die inside. They didn’t want the fuckin’ book work and all that shit. They didn’t want to dig him a hole.
“After my fugitive status began to be publicized, that county, Chatham County in Georgia, wrote that bust off for me. They said they’d dismissed me after five days. Actually, I’d been there 30 days when I ran off. The sentence was 180 days. An indeterminate, really. For being a ‘dangerous and suspicious character with no visible means of support’—the common charge of begging or vagrancy, you know. A leech on society. Well, it was quite a system. If you did good work, they could rent you out for two bucks a day, and it only cost them 36 cents a day to feed you. Fuck it. I didn’t do too good work. And I couldn’t handle so much shit, really. I was barely 15, you know, and listening all the time. The fellows who were kind to me were the murderers, you know, the long-timers. They were handlin’ my case, and they weren’t fuckin’ me. They handled my case. They wouldn’t let anybody take advantage of me.
“Like if I sold a bunk that didn’t belong to me or to anybody to a fish for two bits and somebody else threw the guy out of the bunk, the fish would corner me and say, ‘Listen, you little asshole, I paid you a quarter. What’s the fuckin’ deal?’ When that happened, some fuckin’ murderer would come up to him and say, ‘I’m Ebo City Pete,’ and that’s all it took. Those murderers helped me with my clothes and everything when I split.
“No, I don’t identify in my mind with criminals, but my exposure to them has helped my understanding. Oh, sure, sure, sure, sure. Sure. I know the freakers, you know—the burglars, the uptighters, those creeps who puke or jerkoff or something every time they make a score so you can pick up on their modus operandi.
“I tell ladies, I say, look—for protection, go to a sporting goods store and get one of those ship horns that comes in an aerosol can and makes a loud noise. A freaker breaks in, that’s all. Just trip that thing and he’ll spook out. But don’t ever try to face one down, because they’ll fuckin’ kill you. They will fuckin’ kill you. They’re crazy, right? Oh, I met ’em in fuckin’ jail, man. I’ve seen ’em fight with a razor blade on the end of a pencil—fight over some fuckin’ boy office burglar, slashin’ away at each other, kickin’ each other in the cunt. I always steered a wide berth. I want no part of people like that. No fuckin’ way.”
Mitchum swallows the dregs of his beer, stands erect, and hitches up his trousers. “Better go round up Miss Sascha and hit the road, I guess,” he mutters, yawning hugely. With a crooked grin, he points at the couch. “Maybe I’ll bed her down here tonight. Check her out tomorrow after all those warehousemen get at her. She told you she was what? She’s naive? Uh-huh. Oh, boy. Well, I’ll tell the man. I’ll tell the man when he comes in.”
Early the next morning, the weather is still chill and drizzly at the pier, so Tim Wallace, Mitchum’s stand-in, and the writer commandeer one of the teamo’s cars for shelter. A hulking porterhouse of a man, Wallace is a kind of physical parody of Mitchum. He has essentially the same facial dimensions, but his nose, mouth, and chin appear to have fallen in the oven. Snuggling deep into his horseblanket topcoat, Wallace jams his blue toboggan cap down over his ears and says that he’s been with Mitchum for 24 years now.
“Yeah, we started out together on a Western called Blood on the Moon, and I been with ‘im ever since. Dozens of pictures, yeah—I don’t know how many. I did a picture with ‘im in Rome, one in Canada. We did several down in Mexico. One in Africa—hah! When we were flyin’ back from Africa, this fat old black guy wearin’ a jellybean hat got on the plane, and he had a whole string of wives and servants with ‘im. He musta been a king or somethin’. So this guy give Bob the once-over and said, ‘I know who you are—I’ve seen your movies. Do you know who I am?’ Bob looked the guy up and down and said, ‘No, but you must be the head nigger around these parts.’ Hah!
“Bob and me, we get along real well, usually. Aw, we argue and squabble sometimes, just like anybody else. Over trivial things, you know. I look on ‘im like my brother, and we’ve had a lotta laughs together. Bob, he’s got a temper, though. Did you hear about ‘im dousin’ that photographer with beer last week at the Garden? It’s a good thing the fucker ran, man. Bob would threw ‘im outta the balcony.
“You gotta treat Bob with respect or—whap! Left to hisself, Bob’s a pretty easy-goin’ guy. He loves his quarter horses—that’s his big hobby. That and readin’. He reads alla time. He calls himself a ‘street intellectual,’ you know? He can recite lotsa that stuff, too—whole pages of Shakespeare and all those old guys like that.
“Yeah, I remember the dope bust. Fact is, I told ‘im—I’m not braggin’ or anything—I told ‘im please don’t go out with that big fellow. Bob Ford, his name was—he was a bartender around. I said don’t go out with ‘im because he’s no good—he’s a rat. The next morning, I wake up and look at the paper and there’s a picture of Bob and two girls and another fellow walkin’ into the Hollywood police station. Well, it was a setup, see—Ford was tradin’ Bob to the cops to clear a bust of his own.
“My own self, I think it was good that Bob served his time. By doin’ that 60 days, that made him bigger than ever. It made him a bigger man, and it made the public respect him. If he’d of got some creep-o shyster to squash the case for ‘im, I don’t think he ever would’ve amounted to anything. As it turned out, his career just blossomed like a flower.”
After a late lunch, Mitchum is visibly sloshed again, and clowning around outside his camper with Alex Rocco, Peter Yates, Tim Wallace and a couple of the Teamsters. Mitchum bellylaughs at the multicolored beanie Yates is wearing, and swings around to Wallace: “We’re gonna get you a hat, too. Made out of fuckin’ wood” “What kinda wood?” “Stinkwood, you cocksucker.” Laughing, Mitchum chances to notice Portnoy and the writer, who’re standing a discreet distance away. “Hah! There’s two cocksuckers!” “One cock and one sucker.” Portnoy mutters plaintively under his breath.
Mitchum turns back to the two Teamsters. One of them, Harry, claims to have once transported Howard Hughes into the Ritz Hotel in a wooden packing crate. “Some very talented thieves around this town,” Mitchum drawls, “but some of ’em suck, too.” Harry makes a leering face at the accusation and pretends to be masturbating and jabbing a thumb up his ass simultaneously. It’s the kind of bawdy, two-handed divertisement that Mitchum enjoys, and he hoots with harsh laughter. Alex Rocco seizes the moment to make some teasing comment about Mitchum’s bulging bay section. “Yeah, I’m gettin’ a gut,” Mitchum concedes with a philosophic shrug. “I’m lucky if I can stay under 190.”
“Well, you eat a lotta cunt,” Wallace puts in. “Plenty pro-teen in that.”
“Nah, you’re lyin’—I just breathe on it a lot. You ever see me doin’ any of that stuff? That’s against the law, man.”
“Listen, you guys, I gotta tell this story on Bob here. He was ballin’ this babe one time, see. He was in the saddle, see, and his nuts was swingin’ back and forth in the air, see. And this babe’s dog jumps up on the bed and takes his nuts in its mouth, see. Big sonofabitch—”
“The dog was like half Great Dane and half bull mastiff,” Mitchum muses. “Like a pony.”
Mitchum nods. “Yeah, big yellow-eyed mother.”
“So I walk into the room by accident, see, and this dog has hold of Bob’s nuts like a retriever would hold a bird. I couldn’t help it—I started laughin’—”
“So I walk into the room by accident, see, and this dog has hold of Bob’s nuts like a retriever would hold a bird. I couldn’t help it—I started laughin’—”
Mitchum grins. “I told him, don’t laugh. I very slowly got, uh… disengaged. And I smacked that motherin’ dog—whap!—clear across the room. I woulda shot it if I’d had a gun.”
“I tellya, I had water in my eyes from laughin’ so hard at ‘im. There was water all over the place, in fact. The bed was wet, you can bet your sweet ass on that.” Wallace cackles shrilly, then fixes the writer with a stern glare: “Don’t put that in your fuckin’ magazine, friend. It’s a true fuckin’ story, but jeez—Bob’s wife, you know…”
Mitchum yawns and stretches and strolls over to one of the pier’s open bays to look out across the harbor. It’s nearing dusk and bobbing blue buoys are already flashing and reflecting on the slate-gray water. After a minute’s hesitation, the writer follows. He has one final question: Did Mitchum, as legend had it, once actually piss on David O. Selznick’s immaculate white rug?
Mitchum sniffs and kisses a knuckle and then laughs hoarsely: “I did that, I did that, yeah, but it wasn’t an immaculate white rug, necessarily. I was in New York, and David called me up and said, ‘Bawb, how long’ve you been here?’ I said whatever it was—couple of weeks, two days or whatever. He said, ‘I’ve been here for some extended length of time and you haven’t called me.’ He was one of those sort of sybaritic, wet-mouthed Jews, you know, so I said, well, I’m sorry about that. He said, ‘Why don’t you come up and see me?’ He was stayin’ up in a floor-and-a-half penthouse suite at the Hampshire House, so I told him fine, sure.
“My wife was gone off somewhere, so I had to leave a note for her. I went down to the bar of the hotel and I was writin’ the note and I had a couple of belts—I don’t think I’ve ordered anything less than a double since I was 15 years old. For medicinal por-poises, of course.
“And I was walkin’ up the street past the Drake Hotel, and I saw Herman Mankewicz standin’ apart from his wife and her sister or his sister, whatever, neither of whom had any use for Herman at all. He was just standin’ huddled up, and they were glaring and righteous, you know—waitin’ for a cab or something. I said, ‘Hello, Herman,’ and I walked about 30 feet past, and he came after me and clutched me and dragged me back and said, ‘How about a drink?’ And those two women sighed heavily and followed him into the bar, and he ordered a double scotch for him and a double scotch for me. The ladies ordered a ladylike champagne cocktail and sat somewhat apart from us. By the time the bartender served the first round, Herman ordered another one. OK, now I’ve got like four double scotches goin’ for me, right?
“So I walked on up to the Hampshire House in a good, steady, manful stride, because I like to walk. As I go in the lobby, Barney Ross, the fighter, is just gettin’ off the elevator. He says, ‘Hey, man, I just made a score. How about a drink?’ I said, ‘Man…’ He says, ‘C’mon, c’mon.’ So we went in the bar and I had two more double scotches. That made it… how many? Whatever. Whatever. That’s eight now. Six straights, at least.
“So I go upstairs, and it’s the 30-something floor in the Hampshire House. Private elevator. I remember there was a piano, and a little reception office as you walked in. There’re four or five guys sittin’ around up there, and everybody is sort of lookin’ each at the other and wondering what’s to be done. And they say, ‘Are you waiting to see David?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know—yeah. He called me.’ Well, these guys had all flown in from somewhere on business. They just came in from the Coast, like they say, and they had to fly back and report to their wives or production managers or whatever their problems were. I had nothin’ going, really. I mean, David owned half of my contract at that time, but mine was just a social visit as far as I was concerned.
“So David came in just as someone was being ushered out. David says, ‘Bawb, my God, it’s difficult to catch up with you. Why don’t you have a drink?’ I said, ‘Uh, I don’t think so, really.’ ‘C’mon, why don’t you? I’ll have one with you.’ Well, OK, fine. So David has whatever he has, and I ask the girl for a double scotch and water. She handed it to me, and by this time I was sort of thirsting and hungover and dry, so I just drank it down and ordered another one.
“Finally, David’s last conquest or victim was shown out, and I walked into his office and sat down, and I was stoned out of my bird. David started talking, and he crossed his legs, you know, and he talked and he picked his lip, and he was rather dignified, and he kept talking. Me, I was feelin’ a weird sense of urgency that I couldn’t quite locate. I took my trench coat off. I had a hat somewhere. I’d left a hat in the office. I never wore one, but for some reason, I had a hat that day. So I took off my trench coat, and I took off my jacket, and David kept on talking. I finally put my jacket on again, and I put my trench coat on again, and he kept right on talking. He was the genius and I was the boy, see, so I just sat there and it finally dawned on me that my sense of urgency was the simple need to piss. So I finally just hunkered myself off to the side and sat there in the chair and pissed on the rug. And that shut him right down. That shut him down flat.
“So I got up—’Thank you very much’—and I walked out. As I was leaving, I hadn’t really finished pissing, you know, so I was waitin’ for the elevator, and they had a sandbox there, so I was pissin’ in the sandbox there, so I was pissin’ in the sandbox and the door opened and the lady receptionist stuck her hand out and said, ‘Your hat—you forgot your hat.’
“That was it. Hah! You can imagine David’s version of the story—’This degenerate sonofabitch comes and pisses all over my wife’s wig.’ Oh, man, I tell you.”
After dark falls, the company is still at work, and Sascha is saying her goodbyes before departing for New York and her flight home to Spain. Fussily patting at her hair and smoothing her skirt as she poses with Mitchum for pictures by the set photographer, she looks to be close to tears. Mitchum for pictures by the set photographer, she looks to be close to tears. Mitchum looks thirsting and hungover and dry.
Impulsively, Sascha hugs Trina, and Trina, visibly touched, responds with a kiss to Sascha’s parting embrace without discernible expression, then shrugs as she hurries away with the teamo who’ll drive her to the airport. “Sweet lady,” Trina remarks with a tentative little laugh. Mitchum sighs heavily. “Uh-huh. Built just like a Belgian mare,” he grunts, and walks away.
MEETINGS WITH MITCHUM
An audiovisual essay and text reflecting on Robert Mitchum and his roles in 70s crime dramas The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Yakuza, by Pasquale Iannone.
THE DICK CAVETT SHOW: ROBERT MITCHUM
“A bout of hysterical blindness suffered while working as a machinist for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation during World War II drove Robert Mitchum to a career as an actor. Married and the father of a young son, the cash-strapped Connecticut native settled for the arguably easier pay of playing bits in Hopalong Cassidy westerns, though he was thrown by his horse on the first day of filming and was terrorized by the mount until he learned to hit back. This and other wild stories fill Mitchum’s time on The Dick Cavett Show, taped in April 1971. A notoriously bellicose interviewee, Mitchum proves himself expectedly laconic and iconoclastic but disarmingly thoughtful while recalling his experience on a Georgia chain gang at age 15 (‘I was busted for mopery, with intent to gawk’) and his years as a RKO contract player, while reflecting on the vagaries of show business, on politics, and of the paradoxical loneliness of the life of a movie star. Mitchum was at a pivotal point in his career at this point, having put his back to rote studio work and pointed towards starring roles in such late life triumphs as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza (1975), and Farewell My Lovely (1975). The stories only get better as a thirsty Mitchum segues from Perrier to scotch in this rare and timeless time capsule of the life of an American legend.” —Richard Harland Smith, TCM
Robert Mitchum talks about being an actor in a 9-minute 1971 interview.
More amazing stories from the legendary actor.
In loving memory of Anthony Bourdain (1956–2018)
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Photographed by N/A © Paramount Pictures/Getty. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.