Though I never had the chance to see Thomas Mitchell on stage, his more than one hundred film and television credits—some of which include the greatest movies of all time—have always made him one of my favorite actors. I don't think I can pinpoint the first time I saw him in some old black and white film on TV, butchered by editing and littered with commercials, but I do recall being instantly drawn to his abilities in whatever the genre. He could seemingly play anything, and the degree of truth he brought to his characterizations make me wish that I could have experienced those qualities in the theatre. But it's hard to feel sad about that when celluloid performances of his will endure forever (digitally now). In 1939 alone, he appeared in five undisputed classics: Gone With the Wind (with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara); Only Angels Have Wings (with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with James Stewart and Jean Arthur—again), and Stagecoach (with John Wayne and Claire Trevor) for which he won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.
Not too shabby.
Thomas Mitchell in his Oscar winning role as Doc Boone in Stagecoach (1939).
Thomas Mitchell was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on July 11, 1892, the youngest of seven children. From an early age, Tommy (as everyone called him) took an interest in writing, mainly due to his father having been a newspaper reporter and one of his brothers becoming highly successful in the same field. Learning the trade on his high school paper, Mitchell forwent college in order to work directly for various print publications out of Newark, Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Then, almost on a whim, Mitchell swapped his writing for that of the newsroom to that of the theatre. He began cobbling together comedic sketches for local troupes, performing in them as well, taking him on a path towards playwriting and acting. He earned his professional stripes when he was cast in a traveling company led by Charles Coburn (later an Oscar winning actor himself), where he received classical training while touring the country.
Mitchell made his Broadway debut in 1916 in Under Sentence. When it closed quickly, two fellow cast members joined him on the unemployment line: Edward G. Robinson and Frank Morgan. Continuing with acting as well as writing, Mitchell went on to success with both, leading to his debut as a playwright in 1929, co-writing Little Accident, in which he also played a leading role. It ran for a year. He had made his first motion picture in the 1925 silent film Six Cylinder Love, but he didn't care much for movie acting. The plan was to dedicate himself to the theatre, but the struggles to make ends meet in the Great Depression made that impossible. Having turned down previous offers to sign long-term Hollywood contracts, Mitchell finally acquiesced. In 1936, he packed his things and ventured west with his wife and growing family.
Mitchell from top left clockwise: In The Hurricane (1937), Gone With the Wind (1939),
The Long Voyage Home (1940) and It's a Wonderful Life (1947).
In 1937, Mitchell appeared in six films and received his first Academy Award nomination for one of them—The Hurricane. "A disaster flick," it was one of the 150 or so major studio releases that year, and became the 13th highest grossing film. For the next dozen years, until the end of the 1940s, Mitchell appeared in forty films, even managing a couple of return trips to Broadway in between. One of which, the hit British import An Inspector Calls, offered him the title character, first played on the London stage by Sir Ralph Richardson.
Then in 1949, on opportunity presented itself to Mitchell that made for a tremendous challenge. Arthur Miller's game-changing Death of a Salesman had opened on Broadway in February of that year, featuring Lee J. Cobb's galvanic performance. It was decided that Mitchell would be the man to introduce America to Willy Loman on the first national tour, bringing the play to all who had heard of it, but couldn't necessarily make the trip to New York and see it. I've asked a number of theatre luminaries over the years if they ever saw Death of a Salesman in its original production, and though many mention how brilliant Cobb was in the role, almost as many cite Thomas Mitchell as being their first Willy Loman and how magnificent he was. Some say it was the finest performance they had ever seen an actor give on stage.
Mitchell as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
(that's a young Darren McGavin standing at the table as Happy Loman).
If you're at all curious (and why wouldn't you be?), and have the time to spend listening to it, below is a link to a three-record set of Death of a Salesman with Mitchell as Willy, recorded on April 24, 1950, a few months before he took over the Broadway production, prior to its closing. There's something about the Irish lilt in his voice that tends to make the dreaminess of the character sing a certain way. Almost a reverse-angle on his Thomas O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.
I haven't even mentioned some of the other great films and performances Mitchell gave in classics like Lost Horizon, High Noon, and of course, his Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He has my favorite line in the film, when upon hearing the news that the old Bailey Savings & Loan is going out of business, he joyously cries: "I can get another job! I'm only fifty-five!"
Before closing, here are two interesting bits of trivia: In 1953, when Mitchell was awarded the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for Hazel Flagg, he became the first to win the "triple crown" (the Oscar, Emmy and Tony). It also made him the rare (and first) winner of a Tony in a musical category for a non-singing role. And finally, in his last stage appearance, a year before his death from cancer in 1962, he starred in a Broadway bound mystery titled Prescription Murder, a play with a notable distinction: the character Mitchell played would go on years later to have a long life as the center of a TV series, created by the same authors, and portrayed by Peter Falk.
Yes, Thomas Mitchell was the first Lt. Columbo. Picture him in the rumpled raincoat and the ever-lit cigar. It's not hard. He would have been wonderful.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.