Nominated twice for an Oscar, first for The Hurricane (1938), he won the Best Supporting Actor award for Stagecoach (1939); later, he would be nominated three times for an Emmy Award. He was nominated twice, in 1952 and 1953, for his role in the medical drama The Doctor, winning the Lead Actor Drama award in 1953. Nominated again in 1955, for an appearance on a weekly anthology series, he did not win. Mitchell won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, in 1953, for his role as Dr Downer in the musical comedy Hazel Flagg, based on the 1937 Paramount comedy film Nothing Sacred, rounding out the Triple Crown of acting awards. In addition to being an actor, he was also a director, playwright and screenwriter.
Mitchell was born to Irish immigrants in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He came from a family of journalists and civic leaders. Both his father and brother were newspaper reporters, and his nephew, James P. Mitchell, later served as Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of Labor. The younger Mitchell also became a newspaper reporter after graduating from St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth. Soon, however, Mitchell found he enjoyed writing comic theatrical skits much more than chasing late-breaking scoops.
He became an actor in 1913, at one point touring with Charles Coburn's Shakespeare Company. Even while playing leading roles on Broadway into the 1920s Mitchell would continue to write. One of the plays he co-authored, Little Accident, was eventually made into a film (three times) by Hollywood. Mitchell's first credited screen role was in the 1923 film Six Cylinder Love.
Mitchell's breakthrough role was as the embezzler in Frank Capra's film Lost Horizon (1937).
Following this performance, he was much in demand in Hollywood. That same year, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in The Hurricane, directed by John Ford.
While probably better remembered as Scarlett O'Hara's loving but doomed father in Gone with the Wind, it was for his performance as the drunken Doc Boone in Stagecoach, co-starring John Wayne (in Wayne's breakthrough role), that Mitchell won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. In his acceptance speech, he quipped, "I didn't know I was that good."
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Mitchell acted in a wide variety of roles in productions such as 1940's Swiss Family Robinson, 1942's Moontide, 1944's The Keys of the Kingdom (as an atheist doctor) and High Noon (1952) as the town mayor. He is probably best known to audiences today for his role as sad sack Uncle Billy in Capra's Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with James Stewart.
From the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Mitchell worked primarily in television, appearing in a variety of roles in some of the most well-regarded early series of the era, including Playhouse 90, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater (in a pilot episode that became the CBS series Johnny Ringo), and Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. In 1954, he starred in the television version of the radio program, Mayor of the Town. In 1955, he played Kris Kringle in The 20th Century-Fox Hour remake of the 1947 classic film, Miracle on 34th Street, opposite Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey. In 1959, he starred in thirty-nine episodes of the syndicated television series, Glencannon, which had aired two years earlier in the United Kingdom.
Mitchell played the corrupt Judge Matthew Hedrick in the episode "Dark Verdict" (November 24, 1959) of NBC's Laramie western series. L. Q. Jones portrays John MacLane, a friend of series character Jess Harper (Robert Fuller). MacLane is falsely accused of the murder of a doctor and is apprehended by a lynch mob led by James Hedrick, played by Warren Stevens, the son of Judge Hedrick. The trial is stacked against MacLane, who is quickly convicted and hanged. Judge Hedrick then serves as defense attorney for the lynch mob in a trial before the circuit judge. The mob is released on grounds that the homicide was without criminal intent, leniency is recommended by the jury, and the suspects must be retried under individual indictments, a technicality that outrages Jess Harper. Series character Slim Sherman (John Smith), who had tried to defend MacLane in his trial, cautions Jess against precipitous action, and the two come to temporary blows. Jess and Slim find that Judge Hedrick, grieved by his own corruption, has committed suicide. Walter Coy plays the prosecutor, and Harry Dean Stanton portrays Vern Cowan, the doctor's real killer.
In the early 1960s, Mitchell originated the stage role "Columbo," later made famous on NBC and ABC television by Peter Falk (Bert Freed played the part on live television before Mitchell portrayed Columbo on stage); Columbo was Mitchell's last role.
Mitchell died at the age of seventy from peritoneal mesothelioma in Beverly Hills, California. His ashes are interred at the Chapel of the Pines.
Awards and honors
In 1953, Mitchell became the first person to win the "triple crown" of acting awards (Oscar, Emmy, Tony). He remains one of only a handful of individuals to have won each of these awards. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for 1939's Stagecoach. In 1952, he won the Best Actor Emmy (Comedy Actor category), and the following year a Tony Award for best performance by an actor, for the musical Hazel Flagg (based on the Carole Lombard film Nothing Sacred). He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his work in motion pictures at 1651 Vine Street and one for his work in television at 6100 Hollywood Boulevard.