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As the New York Film Festival Honors Robert Mitchum, Remembering His Flirt with Holocaust Denial

Speaking to Esquire in 1983, the great actor had some choice things to say about the Jews

Liel Leibovitz
July 28, 2017

I love Robert Mitchum. If I ever did something deserving of a biopic, and if I could choose anyone, dead or alive, to play me in that biopic, it would be Robert Mitchum. When you look at Robert Mitchum act, you understand he’s not acting at all: he’s still the boy who punched out his elementary school principle, the kid who got put on a goddamn chain gang at fourteen, the young man whose first job, a machininst with Lockheed, was so stressful it made him go temporarily blind. Robert Mitchum has soul and grit, and to watch him and DeNiro play the same role in their respective adaptations of Cape Fear is to understand all the terrible things that have happened to American Manhood in the last fifty years. So when I heard the announcement this week that the New York Film Festival this fall will honor Mitchum with a special retrospective of his movies, I was thrilled.

And then I remembered that bit with denying the Holocaust.

It was 1983, and Mitchum was 65. He was talking to Esquire. Asked about the slaughter of six million Jews, Mitchum said this in response: “so the Jews say.”

“So the Jews say?” the interviewer, Barry Rehfeld, asked, amazed.

“I don’t know,” Mitchum replied. “People dispute that.”

It was far from his sole pearl of wisdom. “How do you say ‘trust me’ in Jewish?” he later asked Rehfeld. “Fuck you.” Then, it was onwards to a string of recollections about Jewish friends he’d had growing up, including Mel Blumberg, whose uncle, a rabbi, would tell stories about the angels climbing Jacob’s Ladder only to piss on the sinners below. To be fair, in the course of the same interview, Mitchum was also deeply dismissive of blacks, the Irish, and women.

Confronted with his comments, Mitchum argued that he was in character throughout the interview, portraying, he said, the racist Coach Delaney, the character he played in That Championship Season. The reporter ought to have understood that, and the whole thing, he wrote in a letter, a prank gone awry and “a tragedy of errors.” A Robert Mitchum character would’ve called bullshit on Robert Mitchum’s nonsensical explanation, a lame attempt to weasel out of a tough spot that is decidedly very un-Robert-Mitchum-like.

I’ll still go and see his films. I’m still excited about the retrospective. But as I watch his tough mug on the screen, I may have a thing or two to say. Hey, Robert, know how you say “I’m a big fan of yours” in Jewish? You guessed it.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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