From Raspberry World – Volume 2, Issue 6 (April / May 2008)
There’s always a guy. Sometimes, it’s a gal, but usually, when you’re sitting around with a pack of your mates and you’re watching old, er, “classic” films, one of you will look at the screen and say, “Ooh, look, it’s um er it’s that guy…”
The guy that you see in half the pictures to come out of Hollywood prior to 1960. He’s everywhere, in comedies, dramas, thrillers, westerns, historical romances, horror pictures, you name it, and in a variety of roles, the diversity of which would have challenged the late Lon Chaney. And in many cases, his name is Thomas Mitchell.
Thomas Mitchell was surely the king of the character actors. Between 1936 and his death at 70 in 1962, he was never out of work. His big breakthrough came in Capra’s Lost Horizon, though he’d made a few films before that. From there, he went on to appear as the boozy Doc Boone, in Stagecoach (1939), obnoxious but essentially good-humored reporter Diz Moore in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Scarlett’s ill-fated father, Gerald O’Hara, in Gone With the Wind (1939), Clopin, the King of Thieves, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), William Robinson in the 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson, and Doc Gibbs in Our Town the same year. He also turned up in Song of the Islands, Tales of Manhattan and The Black Swan (all 1942), as Pat Garrett in The Outlaw, Bataan and Flesh and Fantasy, in 1943, Buffalo Bill, Wilson, Dark Waters and The Keys of the Kingdom, all in 1944. He is perhaps best remembered (thanks only in part to inundation every Christmas season) as Uncle Billy, in the Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Before embracing television, he also appeared as a Joseph Foster in 1949’s Alias Nick Beal.
He didn’t completely turn his back on films, though in the 19’50s, he appeared High Noon (1952), Secret of the Incas (1954), Destry (1954), Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) and Handle with Care (1958). Most of his time in the 1950s, though, was in front of the television camera, appearing on such a wide variety of programs as Tales of Tomorrow (as Captain Nemo!), Lights Out, Studio One, Suspense, a starring run in Mayor of the Town in 1954, The US Steel Hour, Damon Runyon Theater, Climax!, Screen Directors Playhouse, The Alcoa Hour, General Electric Theater, Schlitz Playhouse, Lux Video Theater, The O. Henry Playhouse (as O. Henry, yet!), Kraft Television Theatre, Shirley Temple’s Storybook, Playhouse 90, another starring run in Glencannon, Laramie, The Untouchables, Zane Grey Theater and The Hallmark Hall of Fame. He finished up with the 1961 feature, Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles, along side Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, Hope Lange, Peter Falk, Ann-Margret and a parade of fellow character actors.
Most people don’t realize it, but like most memorable actors (whether we can remember their names or not), Thomas Mitchell was also an accomplished stage actor and a writer. He went to work as a reporter immediately after graduating high school, but discovered a love of and knack for writing comic sketches, and eventually co-wrote the play, Little Accident, which was filmed three times. Taking up acting, he at one point toured with Charles Coburn’s Shakespeare Company. Winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Stagecoach, he also won the Best Actor Emmy and a Tony award for Hazel Flagg (a musical version of Nothing Sacred), making him the first “triple crown” winner of acting awards. And as an interesting bit of trivia, he originated on stage the role of Lt. Columbo, later made a bit more famous by someone named Peter Falk. He has two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one for his film accomplishments, the other for his work in television – which seems fair, since his work is almost literally evenly split between the two media.
See what I mean? Thomas Mitchell was everywhere! Not only that, he was doing quality work with nary a breath of scandal. Whatever role he played, he blended in so well that he virtually disappeared in the story. Maybe it’s the actors who can do that who should be the more greatly lauded. Maybe it’s the highest praise we can bestow to an actor, that his or her own identity vanishes and we are reduced to sitting in front of our TV screen, wondering “Who is ‘that guy’?!?” Maybe. But for what it’s worth, sometimes it pays to know.
– K.C. Locke