James Mitchell: Actor and influential dancer who helped establish the ‘dream ballet’ era in stage musicals

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The Independent Online

The dancer, choreographer and actor James Mitchell was a leading figure in the development of stage and screen dancing in the 1940s, particularly as assistant to and dancer for Agnes de Mille, whose work on Oklahoma! had ushered in the era of "dream ballets" in stage musicals.

In the Fifties he made some notable appearances on screen; he partnered Rita Moreno in The Toast of New Orleans, performed with Cyd Charisse in Deep in My Heart, and danced the role of "dream Curly" in the film version of Oklahoma! (1955).

Noted for his interpretive skills and his overt masculinity, Mitchell danced in the dream ballets of the shows Bloomer Girl and Billion Dollar Baby, and he won the Donaldson Award (a precursor of the Tony) for his creation of the character Harry Beaton in Brigadoon (1947).

The son of English emigrants, James Mitchell was born in Sacramento, California, in 1920, where his parents ran a fruit farm. When he was three years old, his mother returned to England and his father put him in the care of foster parents, the vaudevillians Gene and Katharine King. While studying drama at Los Angeles city college, Mitchell became fascinated by modern dance, and after receiving his degree in theatre he joined the company of Lester Horton.

Horton was an innovator who incorporated North American culture, music and dance into his work, along with Japanese influences, and is credited with moving modern dance into "total theatre". To finance his serious work, Horton created modern and ethnic dances for Universal Studios, and Mitchell can be glimpsed in several films, including Moonlight in Havana and Rhythm of the Islands (both 1942). He appeared in White Captive (1943), took part in the staged opera sequences in The Phantom of the Opera (1943), and is a chorus boy flanking Betty Grable as she sings "Pretty Baby" in Coney Island (1943).

In 1944 Agnes de Mille, who was choreographing Bloomer Girl (1944), her first musical since her groundbreaking work on Oklahoma!, hired Mitchell as principal dancer and assistant choreographer. It was a partnership that would last 25 years, with de Mille's biographer describing Mitchell as "the quintessential male de Mille dancer", and de Mille herself stating that he had "perhaps the strongest arms in the business, and the adagio style developed by him and his partners has since become a valued addition to ballet vocabulary".

Bloomer Girl is often cited as the first feminist Broadway musical. Set in 1861, its heroine helps runaway slaves and supports her aunt Dolly Bloomer in her support of women's suffrage and her campaign to change women's wear from hoop-skirts to bloomers. Its climax was an ambitious "Civil War ballet", led by Mitchell and Lidija Franklin, who performed an exquisite pas de deux.

Billion Dollar Baby (1945) was a satire on the Twenties, with Joan McCracken starring as a gold-digger who sheds her gangster lover to wed a billionaire. Jerome Robbins choreographed, and he cast Mitchell as "the dream Rocky" in the show's major ballet sequence, a dazzling piece of jazzy acrobatics. "At the violent climax of our pas de deux", recalled Mitchell, "I grabbed Joan by her neck and her heels and turned her completely upside down. And she was absolutely fearless about it." Though "wonderful" to work with, he found McCracken unstable because of her unreciprocated affection for Robbins. "Everyone was in love with Jerry," said Mitchell, "either with him physically, or with his talent."

Mitchell was then featured in Lerner and Loewe's first hit Broadway musical, Brigadoon (1947), for which he won the Donaldson Award as best male dancer of the year. He then toured the world with de Mille's American Ballet Theatre in such works as Rodeo and Fall River Legend. He returned to Hollywood when summoned by MGM, playing straight roles in Border Incident (1949), Stars in my Crown (1950) and Devil's Doorway (1950). In the Mario Lanza vehicle Toast of New Orleans (1950), Mitchell and Rita Moreno performed the exhilarating duet "Tina Lina", on a waterfront jetty.

Mitchell returned to Broadway to assist de Mille and to appear as the gold prospector Pete Billings in Paint Your Wagon (1951), then MGM cast him as Cyd Charisse's grouchy lover in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953). Though the film is a classic, the tribulations of its making have become legendary. Nanette Fabray called it "the coldest, unfriendliest experience I can ever remember", and Mitchell concurred. "I've never seen The Band Wagon. It was a miserable experience so I didn't go to see it."

Mitchell was happier performing his exotic, sensuous pas de deux with Charisse in Deep in My Heart (1954), and particularly enjoyed playing the "dream Curly" in de Mille's ballet in the film of Oklahoma! Bambi Lynn danced the role of Laurey, but in a break from tradition, Rod Steiger played Jud in the ballet as well as the rest of the film. "He was strong enough and could move well enough to do it. Jud doesn't have that much dancing in the ballet anyway. It was just basically picking me up, throwing me around, and looking mean."

Mitchell played his only top-billed film role in 1956, starring as a gunman-turned-preacher in The Peacemaker. He returned to Broadway in 1959 to play the dashing cad Captain Wickham in a musical version of Pride and Prejudice titled First Impressions, but it was an unhappy production with four choreographers succeeding each other, and Mitchell was never given the "big number" he had been promised.

He had a much better time on Broadway when he played Marco the Magnificent in Carnival (1961), a hit version of the film Lili, and he repeated the role in a London production. Its director, Gower Champion, cast Mitchell years later as William Desmond Taylor in Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel (1974). Mitchell choreographed and directed regional theatre, and toured in such shows as The Threepenny Opera (with Chita Rivera) and The King and I (with Ann Blyth). He also taught dance and movement at Yale University and Drake University in Iowa. He made his final film, the ballet-themed The Turning Point, in 1977.

Then, in 1979, he was offered the role of the icily ruthless tycoon Palmer Cortlandt on the daytime television soap opera All My Children. He played the part until 2008, winning seven daytime Emmy nominations along the way. "He really loved it," said his partner, costume designer Albert Wolsky. "The meaner he could be, the happier he was." Earlier this month he made his final television appearance on the show's 40th-anniversary episode. "When I go to the theatre to watch dance, my muscles twitch," he recently said. "I can't help but respond physically to music and the choreography. There is no doubt that the dancer is still present inside."

James Mitchell, dancer and actor: born Sacramento, California 29 February 1920; died Los Angeles, California 22 January 2010.