After 20 years of playing a comic strip character called Superstud, Mitchum at last is being recognized as the gifted actor he has always been. He is a master of stillness. Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness, but his forte is his indelible identity. Simply by being there, Mitchum can make almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.
— Director David Lean, to a reporter
On a clear, bone-cold morning in early November — the same day the nation is opting for four more years — the news flashes across Boston’s church-encircled Commons with the speed of a virus ravaging an old-folks’ home. Among the cast and crew assembled in the park to film George Higgins’ street-savvy study of New England hoodlum folkways, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the surprise announcement causes near pandemonium. The gaffers and grips, the electricians and sound men, all the technicians begin to mill about briskly on the thick-sodded grass adjacent to the ice-rimed children’s wading pool. Even the park’s casual strollers, walking their diarrheic poodles and mastiffs, begin to form small, excited queues, because word has it that Robert Mitchum . . . fabled wild boy of the road, myth-dripping bete noir of more than a hundred movies . . . is arising . . . and coming to the location site . . . before noon.
Peter Yates, the director, swaddled to his stringy gray helicopter hairdo in a bulky, fur-collared parka, flashes the V sign. “It’s a tribute to Bob’s professionalism, rayly,” the Scottish-born director drawls out of the corner of his mouth in a clipped mid-Atlantic brogue. “Bob’s only tahsk will be to feed lines to Richard Jordan off-camera, you see, which could be done by anyone here. But contrary to common myth, Bob takes filmmaking very seriously. And I’ve been absolutely astounded by his performance so far. This will be the finest role of his career, I assure you.”
“It’ll be his Zorba, ” the unit publicist chimes in nervously. The unit publicist — let us call him Portnoy in deference to his concordance of real and imagined complaints — is a thick-bodied, prematurely balding gnome who is not without interest. For one thing, he is mortally terrified of Mitchum. The week before, during a filming sequence at the Boston Garden, Big Bad Bob had hurled a styrofoam cup of beer at Portnoy’s photographer. The photographer had been too zealous in his work, that was all — “He got in too close and made Mitchum’s shit hot.” This morning, hopping from foot to foot to keep warm, Portnoy looks visibly relieved when Yates hospitably offers to introduce the visiting writer to Mitchum.
A blue-jowled Irish cop is controlling the queues of spectators massing along the park’s main path. “Can youse step back dere, lady? Dey’re fixin’ to take some movie heah.” A snaggletoothed little man in a twill hat asks the cop when Mitchum is supposed to arrive. The cop shrugs. “Zowie!” the little guy yodels, shadowboxing in the air. “I wouldn’t want ol’ Mitchum to belt me one, you know what I mean? That guy, he’s as tough as John Wayne — tougher, maybe.”
Over at the Beacon Street boundary of the Commons, a sleek black limo driven by a bullet headed Teamster named Harry docks at the curb, and Mitchum alights, wearing pitch-black shades and a dark topcoat. There’s a hush as he walks leisurely down the grassy glade toward the camera setup, moving in the loose, powerful stride that’s known in the trade as the Mitchum Ramble. On the way, squaring his door-wide shoulders, he surveys the park’s gnarled trees, the coveys of pigeons wheeling overhead, the State House dome glowing gold in the distance, the crowd of hushed onlookers in their orange-lined styrofoam parkas. Mitchum is a massive hulk of a man, with a jowly face battered as a used VW bus. Silently, he shakes hands with Yates. “Where we at, dad?” he asks.
As Yates smiles and begins to explain the setup, Mitchum glances around at the individual members of the crew, nodding, counting heads. Portnoy flashes him a sickly smile. Mitchum looks at Portnoy and doesn’t see him. Does not see him. Mitchum, it turns out, looks at a lot of people that way.
Mitchum studies the spectators, paying particular notice to several fetching college-age girls showing tantalizing expanses of panty-hosed shank and thigh between boot tops and coat hems. “Hot damn, dad, it’s great to get up durin’ the day,” he deadpans to Yates in a bass rumble. “I get to see some ladies with clothes on for a change.”
An hour or so later, after Mitchum has spoon-fed his lines to Richard Jordan and departed for the day, Peter Boyle, Jordan, Portnoy and the writer are taking lunch together at a small French restaurant a few blocks up the slope of Beacon Hill. Stabbing a fork into his tossed salad, Boyle throws back his head and laughs raucously when Portnoy asks what effect the success of Joe has had on him.
“Oh, it’s been unbelievable. My life’s just fallen apart. Believe me, I don’t recommend stardom to anybody. If this is stardom, I’m in the wrong movie. Where’s that waiter? Garcon? Garcon? Ah, yes — red wine for the three of us, please, and a bottle of beer for this scandal scribbler. Do you have Kronenberg beer? Yes, make it Kronenberg. Make it a six-pack, in fact. The man’s thirsty.”
“Un pac d’ six,” Jordan, a young, good-looking New York actor, murmurs with a smile.
Boyle feigns a double take: “Oh, you speak fluent and mellifluous frog, too, eh? Well, you’re fired.”
“As a matter of fact, I do speak fluent frog. I acted in French in my last picture. Opposite Genevieve Bujold, which was fun. Before that, I made three Westerns” — Jordan makes a sour face — “all of them bad. Valdez Is Coming, Lawman, and Chato’s Land, directed by Michael Winner. Whom I despise, I might add.”
“Winner is a loser, eh? I saw Chato’s Land. I was driving across the country stoned on several strange substances. I stopped to see the movie — I was too stoned to drive any further. I remember that Charles Bronson spoke only a few lines, and I was struck by that, because I was once into that silence trip myself. I’ve noticed that there’s a silence revival lately, and I can really understand that.”
“When were you into a silence trip?” Portnoy asks curiously.
Boyle droops his head toward his vichyssoise in mock-penitence: “Back in the Fifties. I was an early-Fifties Jesus freak. I did it for about a year — I never spoke when I wasn’t supposed to speak. I was an acolyte in the Order of the Christian Brothers. Yeah, yeah, I know — the Friends of the Winos. But I took it very seriously at the time. I pursued, you know, God, somewhat unsuccessfully for several years as a professional religious person, and then I forsook that life and took myself back to the world and, through a series of incredibly stupid errors, became an actor. And after many hard, bitter years of struggle, I’ve achieved the immense fame I have now. Wealth. Happiness. Beautiful women throwing themselves at me. Believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Ahead of me, I can see only more stardom with liberal doses of obscurity.”
Laughing along, Portnoy capsizes a chunk of bread in the pool of orange sauce on his plate. “About that FTA thing, Pete,” he asks, “why did you leave that show, anyway? Was that another fickle-fad impulse?”
Boyle grimaces theatrically. “Strictly speaking . . . um, possibly. No, I don’t know. I felt the show hadn’t become a kind of satirists’ cooperative, which I’d thought it was going to be. I just sort of got out of it. I didn’t feel free enough to — Satire and revolution don’t really go together. I mean, if I want to do a bit about a dumb cunt — well, you see the problem. Fonda and Sutherland are a little serious, yeah. So-o-o . . . I’ve just been making a lot of pictures and breaking, you know, a few hearts. Christ, counting this one, I’ve got four unreleased pictures, did you know that? I played in Slither with James Caan, Steelyard Blues with Jane and Don, and I went down to Durango to make Dime Box, Texas with Dennis Hopper.”
“I have a funny feeling about this picture,” Jordan says hesitantly. “I mean, I think we’re moving along on it awfully fast.”
Boyle drains off the last of his wine and nods in agreement: “Yup. Could be a lot of re-shooting on this baby. No way to know, really.”
“Mitchum’s great, though,” Portnoy ventures optimistically. “I keep telling people Eddie Coyle will be Mitchum’s Zorba, and I really believe that.”
Boyle yawns and stretches and pats his belly with an air of satisfaction: “Yeah, you could be right. I really like Mitchum. The thing about him is that he’s so fantastically hyper-kinetic. I mean, questions of tolerance and energy and all that stuff — he’s just not quite human.”
“The elemental male,” Jordan muses.
“Yeah, all that stuff. The broads and the booze — I don’t understand how he keeps up the pace. The guy’s incredible in a lot of ways. He and I were talking one time and he was describing to me how you can bite somebody’s nose off, you know? How if you bite a guy’s nose off, he’ll bleed to death, choke in his own blood. I asked him if you had to bite hard, and he said no, you just go” — Boyle acts out a savage crunching of the jaws — “and that’s it, that’s all she wrote. It’s apparently a favorite form of homicide among primitive people. Ever since then when I’ve been around Mitchum, I’ve been a lit-tle careful. I don’t want him to get any sudden nipping notions.”
“The sexy reactions Mitchum gets from women are just incredible,” Jordan says, pushing away his plate. “Watch him in a restaurant or anyplace like that sometime. It’s like he’s dirty, but it’s OK.”
“Vic Ramos — you know, the casting director — Vic claims that Mitchum has seven balls, like a cluster of grapes,” Portnoy snickers.
Boyle claps his hand dramatically to his forehead: “And a brace of Sabines to hold them out of the dust — Fruit of the Loom won’t do! My God, lady, what’re you doing to me down there? Oops, she’s dead . . . and her eyes rolled just like a teenager. Long live the queen! But enough of this balderdash — what time is it?”
Portnoy peers at his watch and looks apprehensive: “Uh-oh, it’s three o’clock. We were supposed to be back 20 minutes ago.”
Gesturing expansively, Boyle rises from the table. “Ah, don’t worry about it, pal. Yates was late this morning; we can be late this afternoon. We get any flak, I’ll just say fuck you or somethin’ cool like that. You know — Up your giggy with a meathook, Mary. Jeez, it just struck me — wouldn’t it be fun to be a real movie star and get to act like one? ‘A round for the house, waiter.’ Get shit-faced snockered. Wow! Just like Robert Mitchum. That’d be somethin’, friends — that’d be somethin’ else.”
Back on the Commons late that afternoon, a cacophony of church bells peal vespers. Paul Monash, the writer-producer, is huddled deep inside his topcoat on a park bench, watching over the film technicians as they pack up the unit’s cumbersome equipment for the night. A slight, clear-eyed man wearing Beverly Hills denim and a McGovern button on his coat lapel, Monash has the odd habit of raking a hand quickly through his long, thick salt-and-pepper hair to emphasize his points.
“Boston is a splendid city. I always relish being here. I’m in flight from Los Angeles, among other things. I find it a very deadening place. I just wrote my wife a letter saying one of the things I will not do is live there, in California, at least not for awhile. It took me years of playing tennis to realize that I was getting tennis head instead of tennis elbow.
“Yes, that’s correct, I began by writing novels. You’ve read one of them? Incredible. Which one? Ah yes — How Brave We Live. How brave you are. Well, that book swiftly passed into, um, literary history. And there was another one, too — The Ambassadors. I rather hoped readers would mistake it for a work by Henry James. No such luck, of course. There’s probably a warehouse full of remaindered copies of that book somewhere.
“Then or now, I never found any consistent theme or emphasis in my work. I was always like a crazed hunter in the woods shooting anything that moved. No, I don’t contemplate writing any more novels, because I’d write some dreary story about a middle-aged producer getting divorced, you know, and falling in love with nubile young girls or something like that. The prospect doesn’t enrapture me.
“Eddie Coyle is what might be called an old-fashioned film, except that there’s nothing old-fashioned about it because it’s creating it’s own technique. It’s a film about crime and criminals in which the emphasis is not on the action but on the people involved. The screenplay is very faithful to George Higgins’ novel, which I consider a work of true brilliancy. My main task in writing the screenplay consisted of organizing the material already at hand. The dialogue in the book, which the critics praised so lavishly, is the dialogue in the film.
“My feeling about the picture so far is generally more than affirmative. I have an extraordinarily good feel about it that scares me a little bit. I guess I would say that the whole test of the film is going to be in the first scene, in which we have two men — Mitchum and a young actor named Steven Keats — sitting down in a dingy cafeteria and talking to each other for several minutes about stolen guns. Mitchum plays a character called Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle — Eddie got the nickname after some hoods he was working for broke all his knuckles for some minor indiscretion. Eddie is a hood himself, a free-lancer — one of the so-called blue-collar workers of the underworld. And Keats plays a cold-blooded, no-nonsense gun dealer. And for several minutes, the two of them talk very seriously about guns. If at the end of that time, the audience feels that Mitchum really is Eddie Coyle and that what he’s doing or about to do is interesting, then we’ve got a hugely successful picture.
“And it’s happening — I can sense it building. Mitchum fits into the role amazingly well. We’d originally picked him to play Peter Boyle’s role, which shows you what foresight and cunning we had. I suppose we felt that Mitchum was too strong and, in a way, too good-looking. I wouldn’t say handsome. Too prepossessing, too forceful.
“But we were wrong. I have to say I really don’t understand how Mitchum acts, what his techniques and resources are. It just happens. It’s kind of an event. It’s up there on the screen before you know it. He simply does it. It’s like Willie Mays, you know — running back to the wall and catching the ball over his shoulder. Mitchum’s a natural.
“Eddie Coyle is a small-time loser at the end of his rope, but the marvelous thing about Mitchum is that he doesn’t play him as a groveling, uncourageous man. He imparts to the role a quiet dignity the character in the book lacked, I think. Mitchum radiates a genuine presence. Above all, you can say about Mitchum that he is.
“Oh, yes, it’s true that he has a reputation for outrageous behavior, but I haven’t experienced it personally. We haven’t had many direct dealings, but the contacts we’ve had have been more than cordial. Still, you have to remember that Robert Mitchum is a star. He’s starred in 115-odd films, and being a star marks you somewhat. A star is a nut. Just as Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me, and so are stars different from you and me. Mitchum is definitely different. No, I won’t attempt to itemize the particulars.
“As you’re certainly aware, stars in general tend to be . . . difficult. For instance, I understand that Mitchum rarely, if ever, talks to reporters. Oh, yeah, sure, for whatever it’s worth, I’ll put in a good word for you. I’ll even lick his boots if it’ll help. If he’s wearing boots, that is. I wouldn’t lick his bare feet.”
The next morning a cold, salt rain drenches Boston, and the film troupe sets up shop inside Pier Five, a high vaulted and echoing warehouse that juts out over the slate-colored waters of Boston Harbor. Clammy as a tomb, the municipally owned building is blocks long, and its interior light is a perpetual dusky gloom because of its opaqued windows and skylights.
The troupe’s objective for the day is to shoot two key scenes. The first shows Mitchum delivering a cache of hot guns to a bank robber and his mistress, played by Alex Rocco and Jane House. The location of the delivery is a Trotwood trailer, the long, unwieldy kind that takes the mobile out of home. At midmorning, while Yates rehearses the actors, electricians and sound men scurry in and out of the trailer, masking its windows with black gauze. The second scene, to be shot behind a canvas scrim a few yards from the trailer, shows Peter Boyle blowing Mitchum’s brains out in a parked car. The weapon to be used is a long-barreled .22 Magnum revolver loaded with live ammunition, but the brains are only putatively Mitchum’s. A ghastly wax effigy of him has been prepared for the scene, which everyone carefully avoids looking at.
Just before noon, Trina Mitchum arrives on the set. Mitchum’s only daughter, she’s a willowy, 20-year-old aspiring writer, pretty in a hesitant way, wearing two-toned sunglasses, a tan greatcoat, and crepe-soled boots.
“Dad has kind of an aversion to reporters these days,” she reflects, expelling a long blue spume of mingled smoke and cold-breath. “Mainly, that’s because of a single guy, a writer named Brad Darrach. Darrach trailed Dad around for months in order to do a piece about him for Life. And Dad treated him like a friend — the whole family did. Well, for one reason or another, Life wouldn’t take the piece, and Darrach rewrote it for Penthouse, and it turned into something else, if you understand what I’m saying. Penthouse wanted stuff that Life wouldn’t have ever printed. You know — about Mom and Dad squabbling, and Dad’s various women, and Dad fighting with my brothers, Christopher and Jimmy, and me being some kind of acid crawlback or something like that. Well, sure, I went through that routine a little bit, I guess. Just as much as anybody my age growing up in California and being exposed to those things. But not very heavily, you know.
“The thing is, it was all so private. It hurt Dad, and made him mad, too. It did all of us. Oh, it was a fairly accurate story, sure, but I don’t think it was a fair story. I just don’t believe in invading people’s privacy to the point where you expose their family fights and stuff like that. I think, personally, if you can’t say something good about somebody, there’s no point in writing at all.
“My Dad’s a pretty fair man, actually. Difficult to understand, but he’s a pretty fair man. He really is. When I was growing up, he wasn’t around too much, so I had a lot of freedom. When I was between eight and 14, we had a farm, and I spent a lot of time there. I ran around a lot and did whatever I wanted. There were no big rules or anything — no strict church training or any regimentation like that. The only thing Dad would get upset about was if one of us did something stupid. Then he got mad. Dad has a very low tolerance for stupidity. But that’s worked out for my benefit, really.
“My mother’s much the same way. She’s a great lady. Don’t ask me how she puts up with Dad — I don’t know. I don’t know if I could put up with him for 30-some years. She’s a very strong lady, though. She’s stood by him through everything, and I guess she’s put up with a lot and suffered a lot, but she keeps on going. She’s a beautiful lady, very stable, very steadfast. My mother’s always been there for me, too, and very steady. I haven’t just been tossed around like a lot of Hollywood brats.
“Mom and Dad and I live in Bel Air. But Dad also has a 75-acre ranch out in the country. He usually keeps 30-odd quarter horses there. Yeah, they’re raced professionally, but I think Dad’s real interest is in improving their breed. Mom works all the business end of that. And she’s also very active in a charity called SHARE, which is a group of show business wives for mentally retarded children. She used to paint very well, but she hasn’t done anything like that for quite a few years. She keeps pretty busy with the horses and keeping the house together and everything. She’s quite domestic. She’s a Taurus. She just hangs in there.
“Dad’s pictures? No, I haven’t seen them all. A lot of them I have. I never saw Night of the Hunter, which I’ve heard is his best performance. That’s the one where he’s the murderous preacher with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his fingers. I saw Ryan’s Daughter, though, and it was great. I walked out of the premiere with tears streaming down my face. I was very touched by that.
“Dad’s always had the reputation of being an outrageous oddball — ‘the last of the iron-assed loners,’ blah-blah-blah — but he’s always been pretty straight with me. One time when I was a little kid, though . . . Oh, it was funny; it cracked me up. Back then, he used to take me out for a drive every Sunday morning before everybody else was up. We’d stop at Schwab’s and buy the paper, and he’d always buy me a hand puppet. I had this great collection of hand puppets. So one morning, we drove down to Venice, a crazy little town south of L.A. We were driving along and suddenly a policeman stopped us. We were driving on the sidewalk, and Dad hadn’t even noticed. He just got a little reprimand, but it was pretty embarrassing for him. Pretty embarrassing.”
Despite the fact that Mitchum has been married to his wife, Dorothy, for 32 years, he has the reputation of running through women like a stray dog through tall cane, and sure enough, when Mitchum emerges from his two-room camper, he’s trailed by two pretty admirers — “Girl A and Girl B,” as Peter Boyle snickeringly dubs them. “Gahdamn, man,” Boyle mutters, ogling the two women in a parody of lust. “Ol’ Bob’s entourage is swelling. I had either one of those babies, I’d die of terminal euphoria. Zowie! You know what the 2001 theme is? That’s the sound of Mitchum waking up.”
Girl A is a leggy United Airlines stewardess named Dawn, who looks as dumb and sweet as her name. Girl B, no girl at all, really, is an aging, elfin beauty named Sascha, who speaks with a heavy Scandinavian accent. Both women cling closely to Mitchum, but he more or less ignores them, breaking away first to greet and embrace Trina, then to banter with a circle of Teamsters that includes the boss of the teamos, Howie Winter, a dapper-dressed, pinchfaced little man whose thin smile bears no connection to mirth.
The Teamsters pose a constant and calculatedly deliberate menace to the picture’s successful completion. Any infringement of the union’s rules, and the picture shuts all the way down, that’s it. Most of the drivers are self-acknowledged heavies associated either now or in the past with the notorious Bunker Hill Gang, which has been linked to 75-odd gangland killings in the last decide. Characteristically, the teamos swagger around the set as if they themselves are the stars, chattering casually about warehouse shortages, last month’s murder, and the gamier particulars of barnyard sex. Driving for the stars is lucrative, too. Billy Wynn, Mitchum’s pug-jawed Irish attendant, receives a full day’s pay for sitting in Mitchum’s camper, emptying an occasional ashtray, and keeping the fridge well-stocked with beer. At the union’s base rate, that amounts to upwards of $60 a day. Harry, Mitchum’s limo driver, draws the same for driving the actor to the set, then out to lunch somewhere, then back to his hotel.
The teamos guffaw and pound Alex Rocco on the back when he saunters up and joins the group. Interestingly enough, Rocco was a Boston Teamster before he trekked west to play the role of Moe Green in The Godfather. While he was a teamo, Rocco was indicted for one of those gangland-type slayings linked to the Bunker Hill Gang. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence after Rocco retained F. Lee Bailey as counsel. The teamos affectionately refer to Rocco as “Bobo.”
Glancing around at the loud clatter of a grip’s ladder overturning, Mitchum’s gaze chances to fall on Portnoy, who’s standing nearby shivering in his mittens and parka. Mitchum’s smile shuts off like a shade being permanently drawn, and he mutters something about a lost ball in the far weeds that sets the teamos to horse-laughing. Portnoy tries to play it cool and composed, but he’s been on the picture for weeks now, and he’s developed a noticeable twitch in his right cheek.
During the delay before his scene is shot, Boyle grows increasingly manic. He says he wants to do a film with “lots of laughs and pretty broads with greasy DAs.” Boyle does the twist to show what he means. Peter Yates summons Boyle for the murder scene in the car. Boyle rubs his palms together and cackles evilly: “Well, little girl, time to splatter yo’ daddeh’s blood all over that windshield.” “Ugh,” Trina shudders, “that sounds worse than a T. Rex concert.”
Behind the canvas scrim, Yates regards the wax effigy, his hands on his hips. “The only thing that alarms me is that we may set fire to the thing,” he murmurs to no one in particular. “For this scene,” Boyle leers, “I need a combo of speed, cocaine and dope”. Handling the Magnum pistol gingerly, Boyle clambers into the back seat of the car behind the dummy, and when the cameras begin to roll, fires seven deafening shots into the fake head. “Cut,” Yates calls out. “That’s a print. Excellent, Petah.” “Sure makes you feel like a man,” Boyle grimaces.
Boyle gets out of the car, hitches up his pants, and winks at the writer: “Well, that’s it, lad — my last scene in the picture. Now I’ll have to find a whole new set of neurotic problems. Thirty minutes from now, you know, I won’t be able to bum carfare outta this joint.”
As a farewell gesture to Boyle, Mitchum gets together a luncheon party for 15 at Jimmy’s Restaurant on the Fish Pier. As the host, Mitchum sits at the head of the table, flanked by Yates and Trina. The writer, oddly enough, ends up at the far end of the table, adjacent to Girl A and Girl B. Girl A — Dawn, the airline stewardess — says that she’s on a diet, and not much more except that she “admires” Mitchum. Girl B — Sascha — turns out to be an advertising photographer who works in Spain, and she tells an amusing story about Sal Mineo’s reputed predilection for nuns. She also says at one point that she can’t abide men under the age of 45. “They’re useless,” she declares emphatically. Mitchum’s bio says he is 54.
After the meal, as the party is straggling out to the lobby in twos and threes, somebody points out Mitchum’s signed photo on a wall decorated in pointillist style with framed pictures of celebrities: “Hey, look — Kirk Douglas!” Mitchum, who has belted back four or five doubles during the meal, regards the picture with a flat, baleful stare. “Would you believe that fucker was hanging down at the bottom when we came in here? No shit.”
Outside, the teamos are impatiently waiting in a convoy of cars at the curb. One of the neckless ones gestures angrily to Peter Boyle. “Wheh’s Peter Yates?” “He said he was looking for his smother,” Boyle tells him. “What in hell’s that?” “His coat, I think.” “Well, fuck ‘im — let ‘im walk back,” the driver snorts in a gun-metal voice and accelerates away into the traffic.
Late that afternoon, George Higgins is seated at the desk in his office on the 11th floor of the Post Office Square Building in downtown Boston. The day’s bone-chilling rain hasn’t let up, and the office is starkly lit and furnished, anonymous except for colored snapshots of Higgins’ young children on the wall and a stack of out-of-date New York magazines on the windowsill. Higgins is the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, his first published novel and a best-seller of 1972. Higgins is also a cop — specifically, a practicing assistant US district attorney for Massachusetts specializing in bank and postal fraud and bank robbery. The fact wasn’t lost to Norman Mailer in his jacket blurb for the book: “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.”
Higgins is delighted with the way his book is being filmed. “The script — I like it very much. I also like the people who’re in it very much. I particularly hit it off with Peter Boyle. He’s been over to my house a couple of times late at night looking for something to swallow, and I generally have something. I must admit, I’ve swallowed a little myself from time to time. But Peter’s gotten deeply into his part, and understands the character of Dillon as well as anybody, including myself.
“See, I’m no judge of acting — at least, not that kind of acting. I’m a trial lawyer, and that’s acting of a different league. But Jane House certainly looks good, and the same applies to Mitchum. He really looks right for Eddie Coyle, which surprised me. When he was first being considered for the part, I was a little taken aback. I just hadn’t thought of him. I don’t know who I had in mind, if anybody, but it wasn’t Mitchum.
“Once you see Mitchum in the part, though, it’s amazing. He’s just perfect, his mannerisms and everything. I’ve watched only four or five minutes of the rushes, but he’s remarkable. I’ve been pretty busy here lately, so I’ve been on the set no more than a total of maybe four hours. My contact with Mitchum, so far, has been very slight. He’s a great raconteur, I’ll say that. In fact, I think he got into the wrong line of work. He should get himself a typewriter and stop fooling around with movie acting. He’s a natural-born storyteller.
“Eddie Coyle germinated as a short story called ‘Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened’ which was accepted by the North American Review in the spring of ’70. A friend on the West Coast asked me if it was part of a novel. I honestly hadn’t realized until he asked that it was. I write from the first sentence. If I get that first sentence right, the whole book’s in it. I think it took me about four tries to get, ‘Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.’ Then I had the whole thing. I wrote the book in six weeks.
“I can’t articulate yet how its success has affected me. I’m just getting it sorted out. I’ll have a new book out in March, called The Digger’s Game. The Digger is Digger Dougherty. It’s probably fair to say that Digger is what Eddie Coyle could have been if Eddie had been more successful.
“I don’t know for certain whether I’ll continue on with my legal work. The truth is, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. The likelihood is extremely strong that, yes, I will. I need the collision that I get with other human beings. I’m not a gregarious fellow. If left to myself, I’d go down to Nantucket and walk the beach. I do not initiate human contacts. This is something I’ve learned about myself. I need to have it forced upon me. I need collisions.”
That evening, over cocktails with the writer in the bar at the Holiday Inn on Blossom Street, Portnoy complains, long and loud. Robert Mitchum, Portnoy is firmly convinced, has every intention of driving the publicist smack into the clutches of a rubber room.
“I’m supposed to write 40-odd press handouts about him, and the guy won’t even talk to me,” Portnoy moans with the look of a burnt-out tank fighter contemplating a drive. “I can’t even get close to him. I mean, what am I gonna do?
“Uh-huh, yeah — movie stars are different than you and me. Right. Thanks a lot, pal. Ok, so Mitchum’s a superstar, he’s made 115 pictures, he’s worth five mill, blah-blah-blah. The point is, he’s a legend. I’ve heard wild stories about him all my life in New York and Hollywood.
“Did you know he once dropped a professional fighter in a bar with one shot? It’s true. The fighter later went three rounds with Marciano. And some director once told Mitchum at the start of a picture, ‘I’ve got a hot temper. When I get rattled, I shout at actors. But don’t let it worry you — next day I’ve forgotten all about it.’ Mitchum said he understood — ‘I’ve got a temper, too. When a director yells at me, I flatten him. But don’t let it worry you — next day I’ve forgotten all about it.’ And some other director got salty with him another time, so I’ve heard, and Mitchum tied the guy’s shoelaces together and hung him upside down from a lamppost.
“A weird cat. Somebody told me he once gave away a new car to a stranger in a bar. And do you recall those famous pictures with the topless actress at Cannes in ’54? Mitchum’s wife was looking on while he squeezed around on that babe’s knockers. That actress, by the way — Simone Silva, her name was — later tried to crash into movies in New York, and she was rejected everywhere because of those pictures, so she ended up snuffing herself. Pffft.
“I mean, Mitchum has been the whole route. Even that dope bust back in ’48 — my God, man, nobody but gangsters and shvartzes smoked dope back then! Jesus, I don’t know where to begin. Forty stories, hah! God, I’ve tried to figure it from every angle, and I just can’t understand why he dislikes me so.”
Portnoy, bless him, is virtually quaking with anxiety, but the writer can’t resist the observation that even paranoids have real enemies. Portnoy grips both arms of his chair and juts his chin forward. “Whaddya mean by that?” he blurts suspiciously.
The next morning, while Mitchum, Alex Rocco, and Jane House are getting ready to resume their scene in the Trotwood trailer at Pier Five, Trina invites the writer into the warmth of her father’s camper, where she, Girl B — Sascha — the teamo Billy Wynn, and a mod-coiffed Connecticut restaurateur named Fred are passing around a hash pipe and listening to Sticky Fingers on a cassette machine. Everyone is crowded around a built-in formica table, on which lie a freshly-opened pack of Pall Malls, an ancient copy of Reader’s Digest, and eight or ten tightly rolled joints. Through the camper’s curtained window, Mitchum can be seen standing over near one of the pier’s open portals, silhouetted against a background of seagulls circling low over the rainy-day harbor. Wearing a pale yellow windbreaker and ink-black sunglasses, he’s standing abreast of Tim Wallace, his long-time stand-in and constant crony, and the two of them are chousing with Girl C and Girl D, a redhead and a blonde. Girl A, it seems, has gone back to the friendly skies of United.
Gazing anxiously out the window at Mitchum, Wallace, and the two women, Sascha is in a sulky mood, too. “Zat Tim Vallace,” she pouts in a poisonous little hiss, “he iss not a nize man at all. Vhy, last night, he tried to tell me where to sleep. I think he iss horrible.”
With a wave to the two new ladies, Mitchum strides across the pier and clambers up into the camper, trailed by Howie Winter, the head-honcho Teamster. “Desperado time,” Mitchum growls and heads for the John, where he pisses splashily without bothering to close the door. Winter declines a seat at the table, but eyes the stockpile of joints hungrily. “Here, take some home with you,” somebody says, scooping him up a handful.
Zipping up his fly, Mitchum strolls up to the table, and noticing the burnt-out pipe, hurriedly empties it. “You children left a hod, ” he rumbles in a mock-scolding tone, “and we can’t have that. Never leave a hod layin’ around, children.”
“How’s the scene going?” Fred asks with a grin.
Mitchum pulls a tall can of Budweiser out of the refrigerator, tosses the tab in the sink, and drains half the beer away in a gulp. “No fuckin’ way will we ever make it,” Mitchum grunts. “Like the Pope says, no fuckin’ way. That damned trailer’s too crowded.”
“Sounds like you need some midget prop men.”
“Yeah, well, we got one. He’s only this high, but he’s this wide. Can’t get the fucker through the door.” Mitchum smiles at Trina. “You seen any of the rushes yet, Treen?” “Saw that scene with the gal who plays your wife. She’s a pretty thing.” “Oh, yeah — Helena Carroll. She’s built just like a Belgian mare.”
Mitchum acknowledges the writer’s presence with an amiable nod: “You met my friend Fred here? The first time I ran into Fred I asked him what he did, and he said ‘fuck you.’ Nice guy, Fred. Just like a high-steppin’ dog. He goes to parties out on Long Island, Fred does. He’s family. Uhm . . . you gonna be around awhile? Maybe we can talk a little, later on.”
One of the assistant directors raps on the windshield to announce the lunch break. Everybody hurries off to the waiting cars — all except the writer. No fucking way is he going to leave that camper.
When Mitchum returns from lunch, he has clearly been exercising his elbow, perhaps both of them. His gait is unsteady, his speech is thickly burred, and he is, in fact, distinctly one step over the fucked-up line as he draws two cans of Bud from the fridge, waggles a beckoning finger at the writer, and sags onto a clothing-strewn couch at the rear of the camper.
“Very seldom have I a trailer,” he mutters darkly. “On most locations, there is one, usually, yes. But there’s rarely room for me. Rarely room for me. People crowd in — friends, strangers. I try to tell ’em, but they won’t listen. ‘Stand back, jack. No?’ Ka-whap!” Laughing mirthlessly, Mitchum swigs a lug of beer and lets one eyelid droop toward a brooding wink.
Perching on a tiny edge of the couch, the writer relays The Great Writer Tom Wolfe’s admiration