He was a soap opera stalwart, landing his first contract role on The Edge of Night in 1964. Later in the decade, he was the male lead in Where the Heart Is, a barely remembered CBS soap which ran four years or so. In 1979, he landed the role for which he is best remembered, Palmer Cortlandt, on All My Children, a part he played for 30 years. He received 7 Emmy nominations for his work on the show, winning none.
Before snagging that role, Mitchell had toyed with retiring from acting. He had a lengthy stage career, but as he aged, roles dried up, and his final big stage appearance, in the Broadway flop Mack and Mabel, caused him to return to school, where he earned an MFA and landed teaching gigs at Julliard and Yale.
But his earlier stage career is why this gent is on my radar. He came late to the ballet studio (in his twenties), so his traditional technique was lousy. But his masculine style so impressed choreographer Agnes de Mille that she hired him anyway, for Bloomer Girl in 1944. Their collaboration lasted 25 years, during which Mitchell became a leading interpreter of de Mille's work. She placed him in the starring dance role of Harry Beaton in Brigadoon, and often hired him as her assistant as well as a leading dancer. Mitchell always stated that it was his acting ability which attracted de Mille to him, never considering himself a true dancer. In fact, he played many non-dance roles in his career, including Marco the Magnificent in Carnival, and conceited choreographer Paul Byrd in the Fred Astaire classic, The Bandwagon. His final film role was as another choreographer, in 1977's The Turning Point, opposite Anne Bancroft.
Though he also danced for Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion, he was known principally for his close ties to Agnes de Mille. This week's Dance Party is only a brief illustration of his style, and the clip, I'll be honest, is not one of my favorites. It's from the film Oklahoma, and the sugary sweet performance of Shirley Jones makes my teeth ache (I've heard she's actually a salty lady, but that persona never made it on film in any of her movie musical roles). The sequence is capped with a dream ballet, a technique which was used occasionally back in the day when a choreographer wanted a leading character to dance, but the performer didn't have the skill. In these days of triple threats, it's just as likely to see the stars themselves dance this routine (Hugh Jackman performed his own ballet in his revival of Oklahoma a while back).
But way back when, stars such as Shirley Jones and Howard Keel were not expected to dance, so dream sequences took over. Here is part of the dream ballet from Oklahoma, with James Mitchell playing "Dream Curly."
James Mitchell died last week at the age of 89.