James Mitchell

James Mitchell
James Mitchell

James Mitchell had two distinct careers in the performing arts.   Initially he was an acclaimed dancer in Broadway musicals and films including “Oklahoma” in 1955 and “Carousel” in 1956.   In his later years he starred for many years(until his death)  in the day time TV series “All My Children”.   He died in 2010 at the age of 89.

Ronald Bergan’s “Guardian” obituary:

There are legions of actors who are deeply grateful for the existence of long-running television soap operas. James Mitchell, who has died aged 89, was one of them. He enjoyed playing the wily patriarch Palmer Cortlandt in the popular US daytime soap All My Children from 1979 to 2008. It came at the right time in his career. At 59, his dancing days were over and his film acting had failed to catch fire.

The majority of loyal fans of All My Children were probably not aware that the debonair, grey-haired Mitchell, still svelte and handsome, had been a leading dancer for many years, particularly associated with the celebrated choreographer Agnes de Mille. According to De Mille, Mitchell had “probably the strongest arms in the business, and the adagio style developed by him and his partners has become since a valued addition to ballet vocabulary”.

Mitchell, whose parents emigrated from England, was born on a fruit farm in Sacramento, California. He was three years old when his mother left his father and returned to England with his two younger siblings. His farmer father, feeling unable to bring up his son alone, gave him up to foster parents. They were vaudevillians and Mitchell first appeared on stage as part of their act. Some years later his father, who had remarried, claimed him back. Mitchell was devastated. Life on a farm was not for him and he decided to get back on the stage as soon as he could.

At 17, Mitchell made for Los Angeles, where he studied at City College. At the same time, he was introduced to modern dance at the school of the famed teacher and choreographer Lester Horton. Mitchell soon joined Horton’s Dance Theatre of Los Angeles and was one of the Lester Horton Dancers who appeared in a few Hollywood musicals in the early 1940s. He was also featured in a South Sea Island dance duet with Bella Lewitzky in White Savage (1943), a camp piece of Technicolor exotica starring Maria Montez.

In 1944, Mitchell began his long partnership with De Mille when she cast him as a dancer in the Broadway musical Bloomer Girl starring Celeste Holm. He also appeared in the original Broadway productions of Brigadoon (1947) and Paint Your Wagon (1951), both choreographed by De Mille.

In the meantime, Mitchell was beginning to get non-dancing supporting roles in some good movies. In Raoul Walsh’s genuinely tragic western Colorado Territory (1949), he played outlaw Joel McCrea’s nasty cohort; again with McCrea, he was a young doctor in Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950), and in two gripping Anthony Mann dramas, he was darkened and moustachioed as a Mexican migrant worker in Border Incident (1949), and darkened further as a Native American in Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Mitchell also shone in a few film musicals in which he could display his dancing skills. As bayou fisherman Mario Lanza’s friend in The Toast of New Orleans (1950), he has a spirited duet with Rita Moreno, and an erotic one with Cyd Charisse in an Arabian Nights number from Deep in My Heart (1954), a biopic of the American composer Sigmund Romberg. A year later, he was reunited with De Mille on the movie version of Oklahoma! for the 20-minute dream ballet.

Ironically, Mitchell did not dance in the best musical in which he appeared. In Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), he has the thankless role of Charisse’s manager, boyfriend and choreographer (an experience he disliked so much he refused to see the film) who is sniffy about his protege deserting the ballet for a Broadway musical. Not so Mitchell himself, who had leading roles in Carnival! (1961), as Marco the Magnificent, and Mack & Mabel (1974), as the movie director William Desmond Taylor.

From 1979, Mitchell settled into the role of Palmer Cortlandt, a man audiences loved to hate. “He adored playing mean,” explained the costume designer Albert Wolsky, Mitchell’s partner since they met on the film The Turning Point in 1977. Albert survives him.

• James Mitchell, actor and dancer; born 29 February 1920; died 22 January

The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *