Certainly there have been many phrases coined about Thomas Mitchell as one of the most recognizable and exemplary character actors of Hollywood’s golden years, but behind that elfish demeanor was a talent to fit many hats. He was a first-generation American of Irish immigrants who settled in New Jersey. The Mitchell family had a journalistic background, and after high school Thomas followed his father and brother into newspaper reporting.
However, the writing talent in him searched for more. He began turning out comic skits for the theater. Finally in 1913 he decided to become an actor. He met another future great screen character actor, Charles Coburn, a longtime Broadway stage actor—with his wife—who had formed his own company, the Coburn Players. Coburn provided young Mitchell with some much-needed experience in the works of William Shakespeare. In late 1916 Mitchell debuted on Broadway in the original play “Under Sentence” and would be a fixture on the Great White Way steadily… read more
I’ve never seen him play a bad guy(although I’m aware of at least one film- “Moontide”, playing a character that Charles Laughton made a late career out of- the sweaty, sleazy fat guy), but he’s capable of it. He played everything else. Drunken Doc Boone (“Stagecoach”), Simple Uncle Billy (“It’s A Wonderful Life”), Reporters and Editors (“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”, “While The City Sleeps”), Scarlett O’Hara’s father, Cary Grant’s mentor (“Only Angels Have Wings”). The list goes on and on. Permit me to say a word about the Irish. Natural-born storytellers (and aren’t actors part of that process?), the cliché of having a spark in their eye as they bring you further along, well it has to come from some truth, somewhere. And Mitchell was one of the great examples of the sparkling-eyed, whopper-telling, man of the old sod. Even when Uncle Billy is being brutalized by George Bailey for losing the $5000, you can almost detect a glint of “You think this is bad? Did I ever tell you about the time…?”. Finally, I think it’s worth noting that when Levinson and Link first created the character of “Lt. Columbo” for the play (that was later adapted by them into the TV-movie pilot) “Prescription Murder”, they cast Thomas Mitchell as the apologetic detective. Who got a standing ovation every night. And that was when they thought “Maybe the policeman should have more lines than the clever murderer?”