The son of Irish immigrants, Thomas Mitchell came from a family of journalists and civic leaders; his nephew, James Mitchell, later became the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Following the lead of his father and brother, Mitchell became a newspaper reporter after high school, but derived more pleasure out of writing comic theatrical skits than pursuing late-breaking scoops. He became an actor in 1913, at one point touring with Charles Coburn's Shakespeare Company. Even when playing leads on Broadway in the 1920s, Mitchell never completely gave up writing; his play Little Accident, co-written with Floyd Dell, would be filmed by Hollywood three times. Entering films in 1934, Mitchell's first role of note was as the regenerate embezzler in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937). Many film fans assume that Mitchell won his 1939 Best Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Gerald O'Hara in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind; in fact, he won the prize for his performance as the drunken doctor in Stagecoach -- one of five Thomas Mitchell movie appearances in 1939 (his other films that year, classics all, were Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Those who watch TV only during the Christmas season are familiar with Mitchell's portrayal of the pathetic Uncle Billy in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). In the 1950s, Mitchell won an Emmy in 1952, a Tony award (for Wonderful Town) in 1954, and starred in the TV series Mayor of the Town (1954). In 1960, Mitchell originated the role of Lieutant Columbo (later essayed by Peter Falk) in the Broadway play Prescription Murder. Thomas Mitchell died of cancer in December of 1962, just two days after the death of his Hunchback of Notre Dame co-star, Charles Laughton.
photo credit: Warner Brothers
by Hal Erickson biography