There is no mistaking the man sitting in the garden of Pasadena's Huntington Sheraton Hotel, where CBS' Promises to Keep is being filmed. The battle-fatigued eyes, the face shaped like a paper bag filled with slate, the skin textured like the worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle could belong only to Robert Mitchum, who is now loudly explaining how he'd handle foreign policy. "I'd load a C-130 with 20 tons of pig turds and drop it all over Beirut!"

For the cast and crew these wanton musings are a good sign that Mitchum is in fine, feisty fettle. The question "What kind of mood is Bob in?" is not unusual on any Mitchum set, but especially here, where the cast consists of seven Mitchum family members. To concern about a volatile star, add the awe and fear of a patriarch.

Promises to Keep (airing Oct. 15) features three generations of acting Mitchums. Robert, 68, son Christopher, 42, and grandson Bentley, 18, handle the lead roles. Chris' wife of 21 years, Cynthia, 41, and their daughters, Carrie, 20, Jenny, 8, and son Kian, 3, have background parts. The Mitchums will split $500,000 for their efforts.

The two-hour TV movie tells of a father who, after deserting his family 30 years before, tries to reach an understanding with his wife, son and grandson before he dies. The plot is particularly apt for the Mitchums. "The film doesn't parallel my growing up," says Chris, "but it certainly passes through the truth now and then." Robert Mitchum, whose father died when he was 2, is described by his family as a man who, through 45 years of marriage (to Dorothy Spence), has remained gruff, enigmatic and aloof.

Chris, a resident of Santa Barbara who seldom socializes with his parents in nearby Montecito, remembers that movies often kept his father away. But even when he wasn't working, Mitchum was never at home emotionally. "We used a lot of old family photos in the film," says Chris, the second of Mitchum's three children. (Jim, 44, a former actor, runs a publishing company in Santa Barbara; daughter Petrine, 32, is a film exec in Santa Monica.) "All the pictures are publicity stills. I thought, God, did we only get affection because there was a camera crew there?"

Promises to Keep is important to Chris, who contributed to the script's development for two years, because it represents a confrontation of sorts. Although Chris has appeared in 32 films (mostly action thrillers for the European market), his father has never praised or even discussed his career. "This project was the first time he had to come face-to-face with the fact that I really was in the business," says Chris. "I always hear the compliments secondhand. It's his style."

The style also applies to his grandchildren. Last winter Carrie appeared in a play at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in which she took her shirt off. When Mitchum came to see her backstage, Carrie says, his only remark was, "Nice to see you with your clothes on." She recalls sadly that "he told everyone else how wonderful he thought I was, but he told me nothing."

Mitchum isn't much more open with Carrie's brother. A kung fu student and numerology buff who wears an earring in each ear, Bentley (a drama major at USC) is a Mitchum rebel, '80s style. Yet there's little affinity between him and his grandfather. "He hasn't given me any direct advice," says Bentley, who's making his TV debut in Promises. Is Bob happy to be working with his kin? "I think he is," says Bentley, "or he wouldn't be doing it." Adds Chris, "If you ask him about emotion, you won't get an answer. That's an area that doesn't exist."

Indeed, Mitchum will trade a rambling anecdote for a pithy answer anytime, and so for the better part of an hour, inspired by the hotel garden, he holds forth on great hotels he has known. When pushed about his family project, he sets up a line of defense. What attracted him to the movie? "The fact that I was unemployed." What did he like about the script? "Its greatest allure was that it was only about two weeks' work." How does his wife feel about the family appearing together? "She feels relief that they're working." His answers become shorter; his weighted eyelids more sullen.

Bentley runs up after the interview. "How was he?" he asks. When told, Bentley shakes his head. "This morning he was happy. What happened?" Later another family member volunteers that Mitchum is back on the bottle. After his brief stay at the Betty Ford Center last year, says the anonymous-by-request kin, "he was okay for a while. But he's drinking again now...but not as bad as before."

Is Mitchum growing more aloof as he gets older? No, says Chris, "he started that way. He just won't open up. But I know my father loves me."

It's time to go back to work. Sitting alone under a tree, Mitchum is approached by one of the producers, who asks if his microphone is wired. "Whaddya think this thing is sticking out of my back?" he snarls.

The producer is stricken. For the family members present, veterans of the Mitchum wars, it's just a forgettable incident in life with Father.

  • Contributors:
  • David Wallace.