Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Film actor Robert Mitchum was arrested for drug possession at the Hollywood Hills home of another actor. After pleading no contest at his arraignment, he served fifty days in jail. Three years later, a not-guilty plea replaced his earlier plea, and the case was expunged from the records. Known for often playing “heavies” and hard-boiled antiheroes, Mitchum became an even bigger star after his release from jail.

Summary of Event

Even as a young actor, Robert Mitchum projected self-assurance and strength on-screen, in addition to a sense of existential detachment that deepened as he aged. He began his movie career during World War II, appearing mostly in Westerns. In 1944, he signed a seven-year contract with RKO Radio Pictures. After a short time in the U.S. Army, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his impressive supporting performance in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). [kw]Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession (Aug. 31, 1948) [kw]Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession, Film Star Robert (Aug. 31, 1948) [kw]Drug Possession, Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for (Aug. 31, 1948) Leeds, Lila Ford, Robin Hughes, Howard Mitchum, Robert Leeds, Lila Ford, Robin Hughes, Howard Mitchum, Robert [g]United States;Aug. 31, 1948: Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession[00830] [c]Drugs;Aug. 31, 1948: Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession[00830] [c]Hollywood;Aug. 31, 1948: Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession[00830] [c]Law and the courts;Aug. 31, 1948: Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession[00830] [c]Public morals;Aug. 31, 1948: Film Star Robert Mitchum Is Arrested for Drug Possession[00830]

In the years following the war, Mitchum would become one of the only Hollywood stars who consistently played villains. Nevertheless, his performances displayed considerable versatility. Out of the Past (1947) was one of a string of B-films produced by RKO that featured Mitchum. It would later become celebrated as the quintessential example of American film noir; Mitchum’s resonant portrayal of private eye Jeff Bailey led critic Roger Ebert to state that Mitchum “embodies the soul of film noir.”

Robert Mitchum, left, and Robin Ford wait at Los Angeles County jail following their arrest for drug possession.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

As the Cold War;and film industry[film industry] Cold War developed, those who worked in the film industry came under scrutiny regarding their loyalty and their adherence to American values. The commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger, Harry J. Harry J. Anslinger, convinced many that marijuana was what he called a “killer weed,” the use of which would inevitably lead to using hard drugs.

Mitchum was quite conservative politically, but he also was a hard drinker and marijuana user. He and others in the film industry were put under surveillance in one of the periodic cleansing operations in which the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) publicly shames and punishes film celebrities.

In the summer of 1948, Mitchum was earning three thousand dollars per week, a princely sum at the time; however, his marriage was strained and his wife and children were living in Delaware. Always generous, he was taking bartender Robin Ford to dinner on the night of August 31. Ford, later described by Mitchum as a hanger-on, insisted that they stop at a cottage in Laurel Canyon—in the Hollywood Hills—presumably so Ford could make a phone call. The house had been rented to Lila Leeds, a twenty-year-old who earlier had been under contract to Warner Bros. studio. Another young woman with film aspirations, Vicki Evans, also lived at the house that Mitchum and Ford reached around midnight.

Narcotics officers from the LAPD had arrived at the cottage two hours earlier and were watching the place from outside, listening through open windows as Leeds received telephone calls from Ford. Leeds offered marijuana cigarettes to Mitchum and Ford, which they accepted. Within minutes, Detective Sergeant Alva M. Barr and Sergeant J. B. McKinnon entered the house, guns drawn, and arrested the party of four. The police report of the raid indicated that Mitchum had been under surveillance for eight months and that the house at 8443 Ridpath Drive had been bugged for five months.

Mitchum was convicted of one felony count of conspiring to possess; his case was submitted without defense. RKO head Howard Hughes wanted Mitchum to fight the charges, but the actor refused any preferential treatment. He spent one week in a county jail, then forty-three days (February 16-March 30, 1946) at a prison farm in Castaic, California, north of Los Angeles.

The arrest and trial generated headlines for weeks, and Mitchum’s prison stay was documented by photographs that appeared in Life magazine. The brawny star was shown posing in his prison uniform and performing various tasks. Known for his sarcastic sense of humor, the actor described his incarceration as “like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff.”

Investigations by Hughes and by Mitchum’s attorney found evidence of a direct link between the marijuana raid and Dorothy Mitchum’s testimony against her husband’s former business manager, Paul Behrmann, who was subsequently convicted of embezzlement. Furthermore, it was discovered that Ford had been the one who alerted police that Mitchum would be at Leeds’s home in Laurel Canyon the night-early morning he was arrested. The case was reopened by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, and Mitchum’s sentence was overturned on January 31, 1951, a ruling that received little press notice.

Mitchum’s September, 1948, arrest was not his first, nor was it his last. He had been arrested eleven times for minor infractions. He spent one week on a chain gang in Georgia for vagrancy when he was a teenager and was jailed for two days after a family fight in 1945. Later altercations, often involving excessive drinking and fighting, most notoriously with a heavyweight boxer, confirmed Mitchum’s reputation as a tough guy, off-screen as well as on. Biographer Lee Server claims that Mitchum continued smoking marijuana until late in life. Perhaps this smoking habit influenced the teenagers who were polled in 1968 and voted Mitchum “coolest celebrity.”

The actor’s conviction on drug charges affected his career in general as well, but only to a point. U.S. president Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;film censorship Dwight D. Eisenhower banned the showing of Mitchum’s films in the White House. Colonel Hess, Dean E. Dean E. Hess did not want Mitchum to portray him in the historical drama Battle Hymn (film) Battle Hymn (1957). What affected the actor most, however, was deeply personal: the dismissal of his son from the private school where he was enrolled.

The RKO films starring Mitchum that were released soon after the actor’s arrest—Rachel and the Stranger (1948) and Blood on the Moon (1948)—and the Republic Pictures production The Red Pony (1949), were all successful. Hughes had rushed The Big Steal (1949) into production, hoping to keep Mitchum out of jail, but the request was denied by the court; consequently, the shoot went on hiatus until after Mitchum’s release. His re-entry into film production was a drunken one, as he arrived intoxicated at the filming site in Mexico.

Despite his deserved reputation as a hell raiser, the enigmatic Mitchum also was widely respected as an intelligent, unpretentious, hard-working, technically skilled performer who managed an active career for more than a half a century, a rarity in the notoriously fickle movie industry. Although Mitchum was a consistently bankable actor across genres, two villainous portrayals—as the singing preacher in Night of the Hunter (1955) and the ex-con rapist in Cape Fear (1962)—stand among his best and among the most menacing in American film history. Also notable were subtle performances as a circumspect schoolmaster in Ryan’s Daughter (1970), an aging hood in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and a world-weary detective in Farewell, My Lovely (1975).

Mitchum’s last starring roles were on television, playing military officers in two blockbuster miniseries (The Winds of War in 1983 and War and Remembrance in 1988). He starred in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and appeared in small roles in the last years before his death in 1997 from lung cancer and emphysema. Certainly not all of the more than one hundred films in Mitchum’s filmography are noteworthy, but this intuitive actor often made a weak picture better and a good picture memorable. Many contemporary critics consider Mitchum the most underrated actor of his generation.


Film scholar Richard Dyer claims in his book Stars (1979) that while the careers of some Hollywood stars are seriously damaged, even destroyed, by scandals, Mitchum benefited from the publicity surrounding his imbroglio with marijuana. Already known as one of the film industry’s most swaggering bad boys, the actor solidified his reputation as an adventuresome maverick tough enough to handle a jail sentence (albeit a short one) with ease.

Studio head Hughes, although initially worried about the financial repercussions of Mitchum’s arrest, was impressed by the actor’s ability to serve his time unfazed. Hughes also was surprised by the surge of support, curiosity, and sensation that accelerated the wayward star’s box-office appeal. Leeds, Lila Ford, Robin Hughes, Howard Mitchum, Robert

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belton, John. Robert Mitchum. New York: Pyramid Books, 1976. An excellent analysis of the actor’s performances over his career, through 1975. Includes a filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Jerry, ed. Mitchum In His Own Words. New York: Limelight, 2000. Interviews with the self-deprecating, articulate actor, conducted between 1970 and 1991. Also includes Mitchum quotations, a chronology, a filmography, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Server, Lee. Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. This biographical account is based on many rare documents and scores of interviews with Mitchum’s family, friends, and colleagues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tomkies, Mike. The Robert Mitchum Story. New York: W. H. Allen, 1972. Draws on interviews with the actor and features extensive coverage of the marijuana arrest of 1948. Includes photographs and a filmography.

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