I can’t let the weekend go by without making mention of the sad passing of James Mitchell. James was, of course, best known in the soap world as Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children.
This is, of course, Mr. Mitchell’s moment to be honored and mourned, but as I considered his work on AMC, it also brought to mind another talented actor playing a similarly intense, Gothic role: Christopher Bernau and his portrayal of Alan Spaulding on Guiding Light.
I always thought of Bernau’s Alan and Mitchell’s Palmer as bookends, if you will – similarly talented actors both portraying strong, complex characters. Both characters were refined and intelligent. They weren’t always purely evil, though they had the capacity to inflict great pain. You could see the wheels spinning in each character’s head.
One of the spellbinding things about both Mitchell and Bernau was that much of the power in their performance was in their stillness. These were not scene-chewing, chest-beating characters. All Palmer Cortlandt had to do was focus an icy glare on you, and icicles would immediately form on your TV screen. Anyone can get attention for amping up the drama level, but Mitchell was amazing at giving Palmer so much life with just an expression or the tone of his voice.
I was late to discover AMC – I discovered in in college in the late 80s, and only because it was on after the soap I’d started to follow, Ryan’s Hope. I loved that era of AMC, because it was so filled with CHARACTERS – living, breathing, flawed people I wanted to see every day. I loved Jeremy and Natalie’s passion, Ross and his intensity, Brooke and her intelligence and warmth. Most of all, I really loved Palmer as a character – especially after he crossed paths with Opal, and very specifically after Daisy came back into the picture. Palmer/Daisy/Opal was MAGIC.
It intrigues me that both Mitchell and Bernau were also gay actors in a time where being gay was far less accepted. It was a complicated balancing act for actors, who could be “out” in the theater community but needed to remain “marketable” to the general public. It’s notable that Mitchell, who had to balance that duality in his personal and professional life, also had to play that on AMC, with Palmer Cortlandt a creation of the far more humble Pete Cooney.
Mitchell wasn’t simply Palmer, of course – he had several other high-profile roles, including dancing “Dream Curly” in the film version of Oklahoma! and an appearance in the dance-themed Shirley Maclaine movie The Turning Point.
Daytime still has some talented younger performers, but Mitchell’s passing marks another loss of a theatrically-trained actor – the kind of believable, engaging actor who used to make watching soaps such a joy. RIP, James and RIP, Palmer Cortlandt.