With all the hoopla circulating around the platinum anniversary of what was arguably Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, it’s worth remembering that this entire era was rich for more than just great movies. The decades on either side of 1939 were also the golden age for the screen’s great character actors. While the stars usually managed to squeeze out two, maybe three pictures a year, it often appeared that the character actors of this time were sprinting from one sound stage to the next. The good ones were very, very busy, and one of the greatest was Thomas Mitchell.
Born in 1892 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mitchell, the oldest son of immigrant Irish parents, got his start on stage after briefly pursuing a career in journalism. For a while, he toured with a Shakespearean theater company headed by fellow character actor Charles Coburn. He then turned his sights to Broadway and appeared in more than twenty plays between 1916 and 1960, some of which he also wrote and/or directed.
Sit around and watch enough TCM, especially the stuff that gets aired at five in the morning, and you might begin to wonder if Mitchell wasn’t legally mandated to appear in every third Hollywood film made between the mid-1930’s and mid-1940’s. He wasn’t, of course, but he made nearly fifty films during that period. By the time of his passing in 1962, his combined film and TV credits totaled 103, the first one being a breezy 1922 silent called Six Cylinder Love (one of his co-stars, also making his film debut, was Donald Meek, with whom Mitchell went on to make a cramped journey in John Ford’s Stagecoach).
If 1939 was a high point in American cinema, if was no less of a pinnacle for Mitchell’s film career. He not only appeared in five of that year’s greatest films, but he displayed his awesome versatility as an actor in each one: as Gerald O’Hara, the proud but doomed patriarch in Gone With the Wind; in his Oscar-winning turn as the drunken but ultimately heroic Doc Boone in Stagecoach; as the sympathetic pilot whose shoulder Jean Arthur cries on in Only Angels Have Wings; as Diz Moore, the sympathetic, drunken reporter whose shoulder Jean Arthur also cries on in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; and in his rousing turn as Clopin, the King of Beggars, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
(In case you don’t recognize him, the idealistic young poet in that scene is none other than Edmond O’Brien, perhaps best known as the more severely doomed victim, Frank Bigelow, in the 1950 noir classic D.O.A.)
Seven years later, Mitchell played what might be considered his most memorable role, that of Uncle Billy, the well-meaning but scatterbrained uncle and “ol’ building & loan pal” to Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
With the rise of television in the early 1950’s, Mitchell took to the airwaves as effortlessly as he did to the silver screen. He was a fixture in numerous anthologies and series. He maintained a presence on Broadway as well, taking over the lead from Lee J. Cobb in the original production of Death of a Salesman and winning the Tony Award in 1953 for Best Actor in a musical for Hazel Flagg (a musical version of the 1937 screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred)…without ever singing a note.
(That’s Mitchell in the center of the picture, kneeling, looking after the supposedly infirmed Hazel). 1953 was also the year Mitchell won the Emmy for Best Actor (apparently, at that time, given for a body of work rather than one specific production). The Emmy, the Tony, and his Oscar for Stagecoach made him the first actor to win the Triple Crown of the major acting awards.
Oh, and this…from the Little-Known Facts Department: Mitchell’s last work was a stage play entitled Prrescription: Murder in which he played the secondary role of Lt. Columbo. Yes, that Lt. Columbo. The play’s leads were Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten (with Mitchell, right), but Mitchell’s performance as the bumbling detective was key, thanks to his performance, and while the play was on the road, the role was expanded, ultimately becoming the character Peter Falk made famous in his T.V. role.
Mitchell did what all great supporting actors do…he supported. While he may have sometimes moved menacingly close to the scenery, the flats ultimately never reveal any bite marks. Between his elfish charm, his sparkling eyes, and the way he could toss out one-liners with ease…he never overwhelmed the frame, but you always knew he was there. And that, in turn, made the scene, or even the film, better (except, perhaps, 1944’s Wilson. No one could have saved that clunker). While some of his films may have lapsed into obscurity, Mitchell never will.