It’s an impressive body of work that most actors would love to have on their resumé: Gerald O’Hara, Vivien Leigh’s troubled father, in Gone with the Wind; Clopin, 15h-century Paris’ “King of the Beggars,” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s cynical press secretary Diz Moore; Cary Grant’s aviation mentor, Kid Dabb, in Only Angels Have Wings; and alcoholic medico Doc Boone in Stagecoach. That he played all of these roles, not just in his career, but in the same year is a testament to the versatility that made Thomas Mitchell an audience favorite for decades.
Born in July, 1892, to Irish immigrant parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mitchell set out to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps as a journalist, but was lured into acting after meeting another future Hollywood fixture, Charles Coburn, and started performing with Coburn’s Shakespeare company. After debuting on Broadway in 1916, Thomas would spend the next two decades acting, directing and writing on stage, with a one-time-only silent film role in 1923’s Six Cylinder Love.
A move to California in the 1930s led to a supporting turn in the 1936 drama Craig’s Wife with Rosalind Russell, and Mitchell gained notice the following year as an embezzler who gets a chance at a new life in Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, the first of four times he would work with director Frank Capra. Hollywood’s “golden year” of 1939 was certainly golden for Mitchell, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as the boozy sawbones in John Ford’s Stagecoach while also appearing in the four above-listed celluloid classics.
The 1940s saw Thomas play, among others, the father of the Swiss Family Robinson, a old seadog ally of pirate Tyrone Power in The Black Swan, Pat Garrett in Howard Hughes’s controversial The Outlaw, the proud pa of The FightingSullivans, another doctor in The Keys of the Kingdom, and, appropriately, frontier writer Ned Buntline in Buffalo Bill with Joel McCrea. He would have starred as the titular 19th-century lawyer in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but (in an accident reminiscent of his “GWTW” demise) he was thrown from a horse-drawn carriage and was hospitalized for four months with a fractured skull. His most familiar role to modern audiences was probably as James Stewart’s absent-minded Uncle Billy in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
After playing the mayor opposite marshal Gary Cooper in High Noon, Thomas spent much of the Fifties on television and the stage. Thanks to a role in the Broadway musical “Hazel Flagg” and an array of TV appearances (including Kris Kringle in a 1955 broadcast of The Miracle on 34th Street), he became the first actor to win an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. Mitchell’s last film role was as pool hall hustler “Judge” Henry Blake in Capra’s final film, Pocketful of Miracles, before succumbing to bone cancer in December, 1962.