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The crammed press party at Beverly Hills' elegant Bistro tinkles convivially until the figure of Robert Mitchum, face as impassive as an Aztec's, bulks in the doorway. At 65, he looks years younger and as broad as ever. His 6'1" frame supports a paunch now, but his stiff-backed presence is almost insolently imposing. The babble of voices drops. People turn from the other stars present—Ali MacGraw, Polly Bergen, John Houseman among them—and whispers of "mitchummitchummitchum" whip around the room. Publicists and brass from ABC and Paramount, here to launch their biggest gamble of the year, the 18-hour maxiseries The Winds of War, crowd up. They paid him $1 million to play the lead in their $40 million adaptation of Herman Wouk's 1971 best-seller, and they want to show him off.

But Mitchum is, uh, unpredictable. A few weeks before the party, a New York woman photographer had accused him of hitting her in the face with a basketball while he was on a promo tour for his latest movie, That Championship Season. ("I'm the victim," claims Mitchum, who says she's capitalizing on an accident caused by blinding flashbulbs.) Then newspapers ran a photo of Mitchum with Season co-star Martin Sheen. Sheen smiling politely. Mitchum sticking out his tongue.

Now, his graying hair falling in little wings over his forehead, he steps into the party crush and wraps a meaty hand around what is clearly not his first drink of the evening. It dawns on the publicists—like an ulcer's first ping—that they have placed Hollywood's legendary dark star in a room with some 80 reporters and a free bar.

All goes well until the flacks herd the reporters into the dining room. The plan is for one Winds star to sit at each table and chat up the press. "I don't like crowds," says Mitchum, rooted to a small table in the bar. Dan Curtis, who has devoted four years to Winds as producer and director, cajoles, "Hey, Bob, come on in and eat." "I'll eat here," Mitchum rumbles.

Just then a short, affable publicist comes over and tells Mitchum he'd sure like to learn how to throw a punch someday. "Oh, yeah?" says Mitchum, slowly stubbing out a cigarette. Suddenly he's on his feet. "Let me show you something." Whoa, Bob. Ha, ha. "Let's eat," says Curtis, but Mitchum already has engulfed the publicist's tiny fists in his own. He shows him how to lock his wrist. He has him lean into pseudo punches, left, right, left. This goes on a long time. The publicist is wheezing. Finally someone wraps his arms around the smaller man. "Hey, what are you doing picking on our star?" Ha, ha.

Mitchum is led into the dining room and stashed at an obscure corner table. Tony Thomopoulos, the sleek head of ABC Entertainment, is introducing other brass and the Winds actors. Mitchum impulsively rises and drags Victoria Tennant, his striking blond co-star, away from her table to sit next to him. The evening is just beginning. A reporter asks Jan-Michael Vincent, who plays Mitchum's son in Winds, what he thinks of the guy. Vincent breaks into an appreciative grin. "He's Daddy Bad..."

Hell, Granddaddy Bad. Years before much of the audience for this week's Winds was born, Mitchum was in the headlines for antics much more...dramatic than those in the Bistro. Mitchum the brawler. Mitchum the pothead and two-fisted drinker. Mitchum the ladykiller. He has a standard reply to questions about those things. "The rumors?" he has said. "They're all true. Booze, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to."

He has made so much good copy and so many bad films that only recently have people really noticed his enormous impact. Since breaking into Hollywood—with a "28-inch waist, 48-inch chest and looking like a faggot's darling"—as a villain in a 1943 Hopalong Cassidy movie, Mitchum has worked consistently—some 125 "pictures" (as he calls them) over 40 years. He was the murderous preacher in 1955's classic The Night of the Hunter. The tough Marine stranded with nun Deborah Kerr in 1957's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. The Aussie drifter in 1960's The Sundowners. The memorable Philip Marlowe of 1975's Farewell, My Lovely. He won his one and only Oscar nomination (he didn't show for the ceremony) as the heroic Captain Walker of 1945's The Story of G.I. Joe, but only Mitchum wouldn't fudge about his own eight-month (he got a dependency discharge) Army stint. "I was a member of the keister police, a rectal inspector," he deadpans.

He is, in short, the original Hollywood rebel—big, tough, rollicksome to know, and it is no act. That's one reason he's still in demand. After Winds (his first TV work), he filmed a TV movie that aired last fall, One Shoe Makes It Murder, with Angie Dickinson, and then played the aging former high school basketball coach of That Championship Season for $250,000. Another reason is his rock-solid reputation for always knowing his lines and showing up on time. Echoing a widely shared opinion, Winds' Curtis says flatly, "He's the biggest pro in the world."

Dressed in brown pants, a nondescript shirt and blue Pony sneakers from Season, he settles into the den of his modest home, 90 miles from Hollywood, and lights one of the day's 20 or so unfiltered Pall Malls. His acting talent? "I fill in the empty places and they pay me for it. It's better than working." His fame? "I'm a popular freak." He reflexively turns aside any direct question with a story, usually profane and often hilarious. Ask him, say, about Winds, a mammoth 13-month, 267-location effort during which he worked despite pneumonia and several injuries. "I spent most of my time falling on my ass in the snow and eating barley mush you could stand a telephone pole up in," Mitchum says. "Bo Derek called and wanted me to film Tarzan with her in Sri Lanka and the Seychelles Islands. I said, 'No, I'm committed'—and later I told Victoria [Tennant], 'Just think, I could be goofing on the beach in the Seychelles,' and she said, 'Yes, and here you are with a freezing flat-chested English girl in the middle of f------ Yugoslavia.' "

Judging by his tales (he can mimic any voice, any accent), Mitchum feels most comfortable seeing himself as the hopeless underdog, the guy with nothing to lose, slightly foolish maybe, but still plenty game. Comes naturally. Of Scotch-Irish, Blackfoot Indian and Norwegian ancestry, Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Conn, and raised partly on "$18 a month insurance money" after his railroadman father was killed in an accident when Bob was 2. His mother later married a newspaperman, and Mitchum (he has an older sister, younger brother and younger half sister) grew up in Delaware, Connecticut and New York. At 16, in the depths of the Depression, he left home, riding the rails, even serving a short time on a Georgia chain gang for vagrancy. By his mid-20s he had worked as a stevedore, pro boxer, CCC ditchdigger, jazz saxophonist, promoter and Lockheed sheet-metal shaper.

"Once I was riding a reefer [refrigerated car] into Idaho Falls, eating frozen pears, and it was so cold I had stuffed newspapers under my pants for warmth," Mitchum remembers. "Some guy had started a little fire in the car, and when I woke up my pants had burned off. So there I was at 2 a.m. in a cold, strange town, naked," Mitchum continues, then leans forward. "That's always been my challenge. 'So here you are, asshole, find your way out of this.' "

Mitchum's arrest for possession of marijuana in 1948 is an example. Caught with smoking joint in hand at a starlet's home in what some say was a setup, Mitchum served 50 days, though on review the conviction was expunged from his record. Nowadays, when even financiers are busted for trafficking in cocaine, it's hard to conjure up the grass-roots sensation of Mitchum's explosive trial. The press nationwide branded him a dope fiend. Preachers railed against him from pulpits. Mothers warned their daughters to shun his films. Despite the outcry, Howard Hughes, who had him under contract at RKO, kept him on the payroll at $3,250 a week and probably saved his career. "People started to say, 'Get me a Mitchum type,' " Bob remembers. "I still don't know what a 'Mitchum type' is. I've never courted anyone. My only concern was not to be ingratiating, not to flirt—to use the eyebrows, you know—and never to catch myself acting."

That worked for Mitchum as both a movie technique and a serviceable personal credo. His taciturn characters, often trench-coated or uniformed, two-fisted it on the screen, but sometimes the barroom scrapes didn't end when they turned off the camera. He fought, and beat, three sailors in 1957 while filming Fire Down Below in the Caribbean. In 1959 a fan blackened Mitchum's eye in Ireland after he persisted in denying that he was Kirk Douglas and signed his autograph with a rude suggestion. But the most famous dust-up involved heavyweight fighter Bernie Reynolds (later KOed by Rocky Marciano) while Mitchum was filming One Minute to Zero near Colorado Springs in 1951. "I was just leaving the bar when a guy said, 'I can whip that big prick.' So, hearing my name called, I turned around," Mitchum recounts. "I said, 'Holy Christ, what have I bought?' He was a double-tough kid in terrific shape." After the brawl Reynolds went to the hospital, and Mitchum was pilloried in the press again for allegedly kicking him in the face. "It wasn't Marquis of Queensberry rules," Mitchum now says. "I brushed my foot across his head to say, 'See, asshole, you see what I could do to you?' His friends put him up to it, to fight the 'actress,' the Hollywood 'fag.' "

Breaking for lunch at a local Mexican restaurant (beef burrito, seven margaritas), he finds the hostess has lost his reservation. She doesn't recognize him. ("That's Mitchum," he says. "M, as in mother.") Once seated, he weaves colorful word-portraits of the characters he's met. The Japanese underworld types while filming The Yakuza in 1974. The Tobago skin diver with "feet as wide as cigar boxes." The "pistoleros" down in Mexico, his favorite country and source of adventure, where Indians stare into his face and tell him, "Tu eres Indio." The Boston hard boys who came around while he was playing the doomed hood of 1973's The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He went to dinner with them, he says, and introduced them to fine wine. Later, back in California, he opened the door one night to find gangsters standing there. They filed in, each bearing on his shoulder a case of an excellent French vintage.

Gangsters like him, but they don't rival females as his most ardent fans. Women still react to his sleepy-eyed, smoldering sexuality, almost palpably menacing, which remains unique in movie history. Members of his fan club in the 1940s dubbed themselves the "Bob Mitchum Droolettes." Stories of his conquests are legion, and he was linked to co-stars like Jane Russell (1951's His Kind of Woman and 1952's Macao) and Shirley MacLaine (1962's Two for the Seesaw and 1964's What a Way to Go!). Mitchum blandly denies his reputation. "I always took the advice of [director] William Wellman: 'Keep your——-out of the business.' "

In fact, Mitchum has been married for nearly 43 years, despite brief separations in 1948 and 1953, to the former Dorothy Spence. A tall, slim, attractive woman, she was a 14-year-old beauty when the 16-year-old Mitchum met her on a blind date in Camden, Del. "We were driving around in somebody's Model T," Mitchum remembers. "I took one look at her and said, This is it. I'll be back for you. Stick with me, kid, and you'll be farting through silk.' " It was a successful blandishment. "I was already listening to other voices, other things beyond my little hometown," Dorothy now says. "Bob came along and heightened that. Everybody was against it. The principal of my school gave me a lecture about not seeing him." Bob adds: "I had to wrestle half the school for her."

Starting in a West Hollywood flat rented for $32.50, they raised their children—James, 41, a sometime actor; Christopher, 39, also an actor; and Petrine, 30, who works in the story department of a movie production company. "Sure, there were rough times," says Dorothy, who now has five grandchildren and one step-grandchild. "Sometimes the women used to just elbow me out of the way to get to Bob. But what people overlook is that Bob is a very family-oriented person. Whatever he does, he always comes back to the family."

Bob still mourns the 1968 sale of their 327-acre Trappe, Md. farm. They both profess to hate their present two-bedroom ranch-style house with pool on three acres overlooking the Pacific in the chaparral hills of Montecito. Friends say Dorothy Insisted on the move to the quiet hamlet to get Bob away from the influence of his carousing friends in L.A. It worked. "I answer my phone, open the mail, watch the evening news," says Mitchum of his daily routine. New scripts to consider are piled on a shelf in the den. Will he ever write an autobiography? "I see no public profit in it," he says.

It has been a long day. "I was a socialist, you know, a kind of conditional Communist, and I found out that this [American] way is the best way to work it out. You don't see anybody fleeing into Bulgaria, do you?" Mitchum suddenly says. "I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone else in this business. I always thought I could do better," he continues. "But you don't get to do better, you get to do more."

...The lavish party at the Bistro is in full swing. Polly Bergen, who plays Mitchum's flighty wife in The Winds of War, says of the man with whom she first co-starred in 1962's Cape Fear: "Bob Mitchum is the most caring, loving man I've ever met. He's always there for his friends, but he doesn't play the phony-baloney." Halfway through the dinner, Mitchum has had enough. Ahead lies a trip to Washington and maybe a tour with Tennant. Downstairs, he sinks into the seat of a rented limo. Hey, he was a good guy tonight. No broken crockery. "Don't spare the horses, driver," he says. "Take me home."