A bum's life

Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I don't care"

Lee Server<em> Faber and Faber, 601pp, £20</em>

ISBN 057120

Before I read this book, I knew that Robert Mitchum had been to jail, that he drank, that he liked canoodling with women and smoking dope. But I didn't know how much he did these things. Now I know that he did these things all the time. He started smoking dope in his teens and carried on, relentlessly, until he was an old man. He had affairs with countless women, yet he was still married to his childhood sweetheart on the day he died. "He would never be particularly good at avoiding pleasure of any sort if it was offered," Lee Server tells us.

Of his long-suffering wife, Mitchum said: "People who've known me a long time tell her I was a bum when she married me, I'm a bum now, and I'll be a bum when I go." Importantly, Mitchum actually was a bum. When he was 14, his family ran out of money and sent him packing; for months he rode around the country on freight cars, smoking marijuana, "the poor man's whiskey", to get through the freezing, rattling journeys. The young Mitchum ate squirrels, begged on the streets, sometimes slept in police cells. He was arrested for vagrancy and spent time on a chain gang. He lost his virginity to a stripper. When he got into acting, it wasn't because of artistic ambition; he got a part as a bad guy to pay the rent.

He had been rootless from the start. His father, who had Irish and Native American blood, took his family from their native Connecticut to Charleston. Here, he died in a horrible accident at the navy yard where he worked. Mitchum was two years old. His Norwegian mother moved back to New England, but sent the young Robert to live with relatives on a farm. He always missed his father. Server writes: "He was jealous of boys whose dads were coming home after work, whose dads carried them on their shoulders or threw a baseball to them or took them fishing."

Server has done an excellent job here. He is comprehensive without seeming prurient. He is never over-analytical. He's a good storyteller, and he throws detail after detail at you. This is a book you can wallow in. You're never far from a fight or a steamy romance or a drinking binge - Robert Mitchum, after all, was like a Robert Mitchum character. He worked relentlessly, and played as hard as almost any film actor before or since. He never lost his wanderlust, sometimes taking off across country in his car, accepting hospitality from strangers along the way. He was ruthlessly unsentimental about his ability. "I have two acting styles," he once said. "With and without a horse."

Mitchum was perfect for his time. He started off in B-movies, "and then suddenly", as he put it, "there was this thing for ugly heroes". Another thing in his favour was the Second World War - when it ended, there were many parts for rugged-looking men. Mitchum was superb in 1947 as the cynical, edgy Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, and answered the need, in films such as Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, for a new type of anti-hero. His best roles were troubled, forceful men who were also intelligent - in other words, men like himself. Tellingly, when he read the script of Cape Fear, he saw Gregory Peck's character, the lawyer who was being harassed, as the bad guy - until the last reel, anyway.

The book stirs up all sorts of characters. Howard Hughes, priapic and obsessed with hygiene, makes a welcome appearance. There is interesting material on some of Mitchum's girlfriends. Ava Gardner liked "performing an intimate act known as a 'golden shower' ". He told Shirley MacLaine that her face was "treacherously beautiful . . . like some enchanted goblin's". He didn't fancy Marilyn Monroe. He worked, and roistered, almost until the very end of his life. As an old man, he was packed off to the Betty Ford Clinic; he peed in the swimming pool. At the end, he refused to co-operate with doctors, Server tells us, because he had "bought into the myth itself, as if it were real". Reading this, you'll come close to believing that yourself.

William Leith is the author of British Teeth: an excruciating journey from the dentist's chair to the rotten heart of a nation (Faber and Faber, £4.99)