Bob's Your Uncle

Lester Bangs nominated this photograph of Mitchum's reaction to being imprisoned for smoking a joint fifty years ago as among the seeds of rebellion that led to punk rock.
The Hollywood dope scene in the 1940s was hardly preoccupied with pot, booze and pills being more attractive to gregarious starlets wishing to promote an aura of self-confidence. But the southern Californian location of Los Angeles meant that Mexican marijuana was readily available and, if the elite weren't entranced by the herb's navel-gazing properties, the more creative types lower down on the pecking order - the writers and actors and musicians who mingled at bohemian tinseltown parties - were quite happy to get high together.

Tough guys got high, too, as Raymond Chandler had observed in 1941, in Farewell My Lovely: "Lots of tough guys smoked marijuana. And nice girls who had given up trying. American hashish. A weed that would grow anywhere. Unlawful to cultivate now. That meant a lot in a country as big as the USA."

Robert Mitchum encountered marijuana early, if not as a young teenager when he was picked up for vagrancy and sent to join a chain gang in the Savannah swamplands, then certainly during the Depression era when he lived the hobo life, riding the rails across country from coast to coast with the aristocracy of the road.

Mitchum had smoked joints when he worked the punch-press at a Toledo factory in 1936 and he'd toked when shaping steel for Lockheed. When he found himself a softer gig as an actor and began to get into the movies, Mr Mitchum didn't change his ways. He continued to consort with the kind of shady characters and scarlet women who populated the 'noir' films he starred in and, consequently, attracted the attention of the Narcotics Department of the LAPD.

So it was that on the night of 31 August, 1948, two narcs called McKinnon and Barr were staking out 8443 Ridpath Drive, an unprepossessing three room shack on a hillside in the Laurel Canyon district that the cops called 'Reefer Resort'. They observed Mitchum as he arrived around midnight with a buddy called Robin Ford. They watched the two men being welcomed by the householder, a 20 year-old platinum blonde actress called Lisa Leeds, and her room mate. Finally, hiding below the window sill, they saw Mitchum spark up a joint and, at that point, they busted in through the door without knocking.

The bust caused the cancellation of Bob's appearance the following day on the steps of City Hall, where he was scheduled to address a gathering for National Youth Week. It was also widely predicted to end his career. Indeed, Mitchum himself gave his profession as "former actor" when booked. To reporters, he confessed, "Sure, I've been using the stuff since I was a kid. I guess it's all over now. I'm ruined. This is the bitter end." But, a few minutes later, he did an about-face, claiming the arrest was a "frame-up".

Mitchum hired the hottest lawyer in Hollywood, Jerry Geisler, who managed to get his trial postponed until January 10, when he was found guilty of 'conspiracy to possess' marijuana. Despite submitting a written plea for probation - in which he did crawl somewhat to the judge - on 9 February, 1949, Mitchum was obliged to spend the next two months in the county jail. Laconic Bob wasn't too put out by it, though. A famous photograph records his reaction and Bob's sardonic expression says something like, 'Don't confuse me with someone who gives a shit'. He later described prison as being "like Palm Springs without the riff raff."

Mitchum was to cool to care. Photographs from the jail showed prisoner 91234 mopping floors, his quiff flopping over his famously lidded eyes. He did his time without complaining and emerged with his career miraculously intact after Howard Hughes of RKO bought out his contract and put out a shelved Mitchum movie, Rachel And The Stranger, to test public opinion. Audiences cheered and applauded whenever he appeared on the screen.

Under the circumstances, Robert Mitchum never bothered to draw attention to the fact that his case was reviewed in 1950 by another judge, who changed his plea to Not Guilty and removed his conviction from the records. Maybe Bob wasn't told why the authorities changed their minds. Probably he couldn't care less, but the evidence points to entrapment and, possibly, a failed attempt at extortion: Ford was in cahoots with the police; Leeds' bungalow had been bugged and the press had been tipped-off in advance.

Mitchum emerged from captivity with his popularity undiminished and went on to enjoy and long and distinguished career before dying his sleep in 1997, aged 79.