Warren Mitchell might be the finest actor in England of his generation, which overlaps with Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, and Alan Bates. Mitchell is certainly among the best of his profession from that era and the rival to any of those actors; the difference is that Mitchell has made his career almost exclusively in England. Born Warren Misell to an Orthodox Jewish family in London in 1926, he grew up over his grandmother's fish-and-chips shop in the East End. Misell's mother died when he was 13 and his father did his best holding the family together on his own. At around the same time, young Misell was partly alienated from his family when he chose to fulfill his obligation to the football team for which he was playing by participating in a game on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar.
Misell made it on his own as an actor through some lean years; after training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he married, had a family, and watched as his wife got steadier work than he did for many years while he raised the family. Misell's earliest professional credits on stage and screen date from 1954, when the 29-year-old actor, having changed his name to Warren Mitchell, appeared in a production of Can-Can at the Coliseum in London and made an appearance in the feature film Passing Stranger. He did The Threepenny Opera at the Royal Court Theatre, found some television work, and played ever larger roles in movies through the 1950s. Science fiction fans will remember him as Professor Crevett in The Crawling Eye; it was one of many avuncular and older-man roles that Mitchell played successfully in his thirties, following a pattern slightly similar to that of his colleague Lionel Jeffries. His screen work fairly exploded in the late '50s and kept Mitchell busy in character roles for the next decade. American audiences of a certain age may remember him as Abdul in the Beatles's feature film Help! (1965), and he also did some delightful work in episodes of The Avengers.
In 1966, Mitchell got the role that turned him into a star when he won the lead in the television series Till Death Us Do Part. In the series, created by Johnny Speight, Mitchell played belligerent, bigoted, working-class, right-wing zealot Alf Garnett, head of a family that included his long-suffering wife, slightly bubble-headed daughter, and dedicated socialist son-in-law. Mitchell became an instant star on the series, which was an immediate hit in England and was popular enough to attract attention from America, where it was translated by producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin into All in the Family and became a star vehicle for Carroll O'Connor, in Alf's transatlantic equivalent, Archie Bunker. Mitchell ended up playing the role of Alf Garnett in numerous follow-up seasons and revivals, as well as a feature film, and the part became a defining point in his career. It also proved to be very controversial, as Mitchell brought so much humanity, and just enough gentleness, to the role of Alf Garnett that one could not be entirely repulsed by the character. Many pundits and columnists felt that he made the bigoted, racist figure too appealing, but others found him to be a compelling presence in the highly repulsive, deeply flawed character, which is the goal of any real actor.
Luckily for his career, Mitchell was able to quickly move into other, better, and different roles, on stage and television, and now he had the recognition to get the offers. This culminated with a wave of recognition, highlighted by the Society of West End Theatre Award (the British equivalent of the Tony Award) for his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in 1979. Amid essaying roles in a vast range of modern and classical works, Mitchell also portrayed Shylock in the public television production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In more recent years, Mitchell has been acclaimed for his King Lear as well, and entered the 21st century as one of the most highly regarded and popular actors in England.