July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

CHARISMA? NOT EXACTLY. TALENT? WITHOUT a doubt. But what really set Robert Mitchum apart from almost every actor of his or any other generation was a certain mystique. With his droopy bedroom eyes, lush baritone voice and burly, don’t-tread-on-me physique, he embodied the scary, thrilling nexus where violence and sensuality become one. And somehow he did it all with a cool nonchalance that never failed to charm.

Call him Brando Light, and Mitchum would no doubt have taken it as a compliment. At his death last week in Santa Barbara, Calif., at age 79, from the effects of emphysema and lung cancer, he had secured his reputation as one of the more venerated stars in the Hollywood firmament, an icon who never took himself or the movie business too seriously. “Training to be an actor,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, “is like going to school to learn to be tall.” But there was even more than met the eye. Famously hard-drinking, profane and with a love of fisticuffs, Mitchum nonetheless was sufficiently devoted to his craft that he continued to make movies right up to the time of his death. Perhaps more notable, for Hollywood at any rate, the hunky sex symbol managed to stay married to his wife, Dorothy, for 57 years. “He was just a very thoughtful, caring, generous person,” says his son Chris. “And it was hidden behind this crusty exterior that he developed to protect himself.”

In contrast to some other celebrated Hollywood tough guys, like Humphrey Bogart, who came from a distinctly genteel background, Mitchum was the genuine article. Born in Bridgeport, Conn., he was the elder son of James, a railroad worker who was killed in a switching accident when Bob was 2. Unable to support her three children, his mother, Anne, who died in 1990 at age 96, sent them off to various relatives. There followed a difficult, at times harrowing, childhood. He moved frequently and ran away from home for the first time at age 15. A year later he decamped again and hopped a freight train. In Savannah he was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to 180 days on a chain gang.

Not long afterward, 16-year-old Mitchum met a willowy, 14-year-old beauty named Dorothy Spence on a blind date in Camden, Del. Years later, Mitchum recalled that fateful evening in characteristically fond, but unflowery, terms. “We were driving around in somebody’s Model T,” Mitchum told PEOPLE in 1983. “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.’ ” They were married in 1940 and went on to weather two brief separations and rumors about Mitchurn’s alleged dalliances with such leading ladies as Jane Russell and Shirley MacLaine. Though Dorothy, now 77, said in 1983 that “everybody” warned her against taking up with Mitchum, her sights were set on “things beyond my little hometown.” (Along with Chris, 53, an actor, the Mitchums had two other children, James, 56, and daughter Petrine, 45.)

During the Depression, Mitchum worked as a coal miner, prizefighter and jazz saxophonist. Settling in California in the 1930s, he eventually took a job as a stagehand and drifted into acting, starting out playing heavies in Hopalong Cassidy movies. He went on to appear in more than 100 films, many of them turkeys churned out by RKO. But somehow Mitchum himself always seemed to shine through the dreary material. He received his only Oscar nomination for the heroic Lieutenant Walker in the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe. But his defining roles were in the noir classics Crossfire and Out of the Past and in his eerie portrayals of murderous psychopaths in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. “You could even say that Mitchum was film noir,” says director Martin Scorsese, who cast Mitchum in a cameo in his 1991 remake of Cape Fear and who praised the actor for giving expression to “the moody fatalism of the genre at its best.”

Mitchum was also developing a colorful résumé away from the camera, especially as a formidable barroom brawler. In one of his most famous bouts, in 1951, he got into a scuffle with Bernie Reynolds, a heavyweight boxer. Mitchum sent Reynolds to the hospital, but endured subsequent criticism in the press for having kicked his opponent in the face. “It wasn’t the Marquis of Queensberry rules,” Mitchum later conceded. “I brushed my foot across his head to say, ‘See, [expletive deleted], you see what I could do to you?’ ”

His disdain for studio officialdom was similarly legendary. Jane Greer, who starred with him in two movies, recalls that Mitchum complained to his RKO bosses about the location and size of his dressing room, to no avail. So the actor appeared in a public square at the studio clad only in a towel. In front of numerous witnesses, Mitchum called the general manager to a window, says Greer, and yelled, “Do I get the dressing room or do I drop the towel?” The bureaucrat caved.

But Mitchum’s most controversial escapade, one that generated nationwide headlines, was his conviction for possession of marijuana in 1948. He served 50 days and the verdict was later overturned on appeal, but that was almost beside the point. At a time when such scandals often destroyed Hollywood careers, Mitchum, by then a major star, managed to shrug the whole thing off, and in so doing only enhanced his roguish charm.

When meaty film roles became scarce, Mitchum shifted into television work, starring in the blockbuster miniseries The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. During the past year or so, despite failing health, he kept working on projects. After Christmas he fell at home and broke his hip. Although in pain, he hauled himself to a chair and tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent his family from rushing him to the hospital.

In the end, Mitchum remained true to the persona he had worn as comfortably as an old trench coat throughout his life: unsentimental, but never humorless. In Out of the Past he utters one of the great fade-out lines in movie history, one that could serve not only as his own epitaph, but also that of a bygone era. As Jane Greer tells him, “I don’t want to die.” Replies the laconic Mitchum: “Neither do I, baby…. But if I do, I want to die last.”

BILL HEWITT

MONICA RIZZO, ULRICA WIHLBORG and JEFFREY WELLS in Los Angeles

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