Actor, Warren Mitchell – doubtless best remembered for his role as the loud-mouthed bigot, Alf Garnett from Til Death Do Us Part – died in November last year, aged 89. It was exactly two months before he was due to turn 90. Keryn Curtis spoke to his son, Danny, about a different legacy from his father.
You probably heard in the media about the death of actor, Warren Mitchell, last November. Well, I was also fortunate to attend a memorial ‘tribute’ to Mitchell, held last week at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, where Mitchell performed many times over a couple of decades.
It was an event organised by Mitchell’s Sydney-sider son, Daniel, or Danny as he is known. Billed as ‘An Evening without Warren Mitchell’ it was an opportunity for the Australian contingent in Mitchell’s life to come together and pay tribute.
There were many great stories told and memories shared, including a tribute from actor Mel Gibson, who met Mitchell in 1982 when they performed together in Sydney in the Arthur Miller play, Death of a Salesman. There were also two sensational musical performances from Mitchell’s talented grandchildren, Ella and Rowan Mitchell.
But what struck a different chord with me was Danny’s appeal to the members of the audience, very early in his tribute, to make sure we all have an end of life plan.
Quality of life or longevity?
“This is important,” Danny said, stepping up to the front of the stage area and looking around at all the faces in the theatre.
“If you are fifty or more, you need to make a plan. You need to think about what could happen in the end and you need to weigh it up: Quality of life? Or longevity? Quality of life? Or longevity? Quality of life? Or longevity?” he repeated, weighing the concepts up with his two hands.
It transpires that a big life, fame and modest fortune are no protection from a ragged end.
A huge list of problems
Warren Mitchell had overcome a range of health problems from his 60s onward, most notably a condition called transverse myelitis – an inflammatory disorder of the spinal cord leading to loss of muscle power, pins and needles, bladder and bowel dysfunction and lots of pain.
Danny says his father was told he would be in a wheelchair within a few years but, in his typically difficult, irascible way, Mitchell refused to have it. He threw himself further into swimming and other sports and “defied them all.”
However, when he had his first stroke in his late 70s, Mitchell was still battling with the ‘ghost pain’ that occurs with this disease. It often kept him from sleeping at night.
He kept working for another few years but his woes were not over. He was diagnosed with Lewy body disease, a form of dementia that has many Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms, as well as hallucinations and problems with spatial judgement. “He had a huge list of things wrong with him,” says Danny.
“They said pneumonia on the death certificate, but he’d been dying for three years,” Danny said.
A firm resolve
Witnessing his father’s slow death and poor quality of life was more than enough impetus for Danny to resolve not to end his own days this way.
“I don’t have an advance care directive yet,” he says, “but I have started the conversation and I’m seeing the GP this year.”
Warren Mitchell didn’t have one.
“We used to have wonderful, passionate arguments around the dinner table when I was younger but we never talked about end of life decisions.
“I only saw it come up once with dad – there was a guy in the street, who clearly had a lot of problems, and he was in a wheelchair. Dad said, ‘don’t let ever let me get to that stage. I want the pills’.”
“But he never talked about it. And once the condition took over him, he couldn’t see the reality of it.
“I was frustrated for the Warren who used to be; who just never followed through. He didn’t sort something out and for his last two years, he had terrible quality of life,” Danny says.
A long goodbye
Things were not looking good for Warren Mitchell when Danny flew to London to visit his father in January 2014. By this stage, Mitchell was confined to a hospital bed installed at his home in Highbury in North London and was slipping in and out of reality.
“He had 24/7 care and he wasn’t able to eat or drink or go to the toilet,” says Danny.
“I asked everyone to leave the room and I climbed on top of him on his little hospital bed and made him hug me. And I said goodbye to him.
“I got on the plane thinking I would be back in a month. But he died 22 months later! And in that time he used up vast amounts of resources which could have been better spent on any of his given charities.”
Ageing well, dying well
Danny Mitchell’s views about the end of his father’s life come only from a place of love and respect for the man he describes as MRM (my role model).
His mother, Connie, might be doing things differently, says Danny. For starters, she’s downsizing.
“Effectively she’s on her own in a five bed house. Within a week of dad dying, she was looking at real estate,” he says.
If an advance care plan is something you want to consider, Advance Care Planning Australia is a good place to start.
Danny Mitchell will be appearing in the Neil Simon play, Barefoot in the Park at the Ensemble Theatre, from 25 August this year, alongside actress Georgie Parker. He is also starring in a one man show designed to be performed in aged care homes, starting this month.