James Mitchell: A Star in Spite of Himself
By Seli Groves
June 2, 1988
For almost 10 years, James Mitchell has played the devilishly devious (but always delightful to watch) Palmer Cortlandt on ABC's ALL MY CHILDREN. Cortlandt, a man obsessed by a need to own or control everything - and everyone - of importance to him, sits in his high back leather chair in his study, deciding the destinies (or trying to) of his hapless son, Ross; his several wives, Daisy, Donna and Natalie; and his daughter, Nina, and her various lovers and husbands.
"What I find especially interesting about Palmer," Mitchell said, "is that in spite of all his efforts, he never really wins, does he? Here's a man, who obviously has a great deal of money. More than that, he wields a great deal of power. But there's always something he hadn't counted on that causes his plans to go awry."
From and actor's point of view, does Mitchell like the idea that his character often comes a cropper, or would he prefer that Cortlandt triumph - at least sometimes.
"It's more interesting to play someone who isn't perfect. Either perfectly good or perfectly bad can be," he smiled, "perfectly boring. Palmer Cortlandt's appeal to the audience is that in spite of all his money, and his power, and his determination to have his own way, he's just another human being - like everyone else - who can't wield total control over people and circumstances."
James Mitchell put his finger squarely on the secret of why some characters "work" and some don't. Cortlandt is an imperfect man and, therefore, a human being capable of making mistakes. But no matter how many times he trips up, he's determined to try again.
"He can also change," Mitchell said. "But the change is never drastic; it always comes out of his character. For example, he's always disliked Nina's (Taylor Miller) husband, Cliff (Peter Bergman), and has continually tried to break them up with varying degrees of success. But he dislikes Matt (Michael Tylo) even more."
Could Palmer accept any man as good enough for his little princess?
James laughed. "I think that's the problem. Palmer has always been extremely possessive of Nina. He felt he could protect her and give her everything she needs so that she would never need anyone else. When she turned to someone else, it upset him."
When Palmer and Nina were first introduced to the ALL MY CHILDREN audience, there were some who thought Palmer's adoration for his daughter hinted of incestuous longings.
Mitchell nodded. "Yes, I can understand that," he said. "First, let me assure everyone it wasn't that way at all. But the way he looked at her, well, it would be easy to misinterpret his feelings. In any case, the scenes between Palmer and Nina changed after that."
After almost a decade playing Palmer, Mitchell isn't surprised at anything he does. For example, Palmer threw his last former wife, Natalie (Kate Collins), out of his home after he discovered her affair with his son, Ross. His fierce, seething anger at the discovery made it clear to everyone that he could never forgive her.
"That the problem," Mitchell said. "Forgiveness would be difficult. But he could also never forget her, and we've come to learn that he's been trying to help her without her knowing about it."
James Mitchell's performing career has taken him around the world. As one of the country's finest dancers as well as actors, he's had lead roles in several Broadway musicals including "Mack and Mabel," "Carnival," "Paint Your Wagon," "Brigadoon" and the American Ballet Theater in New York, Europe and South American, and was a principal dancer with the Agnes de Mille Theater.
His movies including That's Dancing (a wonderful retrospective of movie dance numbers; The Turning Point (he was the stern, dedicated artistic director); The Bandwagon with Fred Astaire; Oklahoma (he was the dream sequence Curly); and Deep in My Heart with Cyd Charisse, with whom he also worked in the 1966 Academy Awards show.
Working with Astaire must have been a marvelous experience for the young dancer.
"It was. It's always so when you work with anyone as dedicated to what they do. This was true of Agnes de Mille and, certainly of Astaire.
"Fred Astaire would rehearse a number for weeks. By the time we were ready to film it, it was perfect," James smiled. "Sometimes what you saw on screen might last just a few minutes without realizing that weeks of preparation went into it."
The road not taken ... all of us can remember a point in our lives when we stood at a crossroads and had to choose between them. Wherever we traveled on, the one we choose, sometimes we can't help but wonder where we would have gone on the one not taken.
James Mitchell recalls one such road: "Years ago when I was on stage in New York, I had a chance to tour in a play with some of the biggest stars in theater at the time. I also had a chance to dance with an important company. I chose the dance - and while I've never been sorry, I've sometimes wondered where the other choice might have led me."
As it turned out, James Mitchell, dancer, has done very well as James Mitchell, actor, prompting a question about dancing and acting, and why dancers tend to make good actors.
"If that's so," Mitchell smiled, "it's because dancing is acting. All your emotions, everything you'd communicate with your voice, they're conveyed by your body movements."
Actors who sing are often given a chance to warble in the course of a storyline, but actors who dance never have the chance to do a jig or a jete. (One exception: Helen Gallagher in RYAN'S HOPE. Her character, Maeve, once figured in a dance contest story. She also does an annual Irish stepdance for St. Patrick's Day.)
Question for Mr. Mitchell: Would he ever do a terpsichorean turn on the series?
"I thought about that once," James said. "I suggested we do something for Nina's wedding, but it didn't happen."
James Mitchell was born in northern California. (For trivia buffs, the date is February 29 which means if you missed his birthday this year, he won't have another until 1992!) His background is largely English: "probably some Scottish and Welsh as well," he said.
He loves to travel. England and France are his two favorite places. "One of the most moving experiences I had during one of my trips to England was visiting the home of the Bronte sisters in Yorkshire. When you're there, on the moors, and you experience the eerie quiet and the rising mists they, as well as their books, become more real to you."
Over the years James Mitchell worked with some of the greatest stars in film and theater. Were they ever intimidating for the then young dancer/actor? "It's true that they were stars, and no one could forget that. But, for the most part, they treated the other people on the set or in the cast as fellow professionals."
Does his miss the glamour of New York opening nights when the audiences come to Broadway in glittering gowns and top hats and tails?
"They were wonderfully exciting times," James said, "and I'm glad I was part of it all," he said. "But that's the past. It's fine to remember, but you can't live in it."
Of course, poor Palmer may find the past intruding into his life in a way he won't appreciate. "They tell me," James Mitchell said, "that he's going to meet some relatives he'd just as soon never seen again."
Do they hold some sort of threat for Palmer Cortlandt?
"I hope so," he said. "It would be fun to see how Palmer reacts."
Any clues to what will happen to him?
"No. We haven't gotten into that yet. But Palmer, for all his failures, manages to be a survivor."