Lewis Ernest Watts Mills
22 February 1908
|Died||23 April 2005 (aged 97)|
|Resting place||St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Denham, Buckinghamshire, England|
|Children||3, including Juliet and Hayley|
Sir John Mills  was an English actor who appeared in more than 120 films in a career spanning seven decades. He excelled on camera as an appealing British everyman who often portrayed guileless, wounded war heroes. In 1971, he received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Ryan's Daughter.(born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills; 22 February 1908 – 23 April 2005)
For his work in film Mills was knighted by Elizabeth II in 1976. In 2002, he received a BAFTA Fellowship from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and was named a Disney Legend by The Walt Disney Company.
John Mills was born on 22 February 1908 in North Elmham, Norfolk, the son of Edith Mills (née Baker), a theatre box office manager, and Lewis Mills, a mathematics teacher. Mills was born at Watts Naval School, where his father was a master. He spent his early years in the village of Belton where his father was the headmaster of the village school. He first felt the thrill of performing at a concert in the school hall when he was 6 years old. He lived in a modest house in Gainsborough Road, Felixstowe until 1929. His elder sister was Annette Mills, remembered as presenter of BBC Television's Muffin the Mule (1946–55).
He was educated at Balham Grammar School in London, Sir John Leman High School in Beccles, Suffolk and Norwich High School for Boys, where it is said that his initials can still be seen carved into the brickwork on the side of the building in Upper St Giles Street. Upon leaving school he worked as a clerk at a corn merchant's in Ipswich before finding employment in London as a commercial traveller for the Sanitas Disinfectant Company.
In September 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Mills enlisted in the British Army, joining the Royal Engineers. He was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, but in 1942 he received a medical discharge because of a stomach ulcer.
Mills then got a job with a theatrical company that toured India, China and the Far East performing a number of plays. Noël Coward saw him appear in a production of Journey's End in Singapore and wrote Mills a letter of introduction to use back in London.
Mills was promoted to leading roles in A Political Party (1934), a comedy. He was in a series of quota quickies: The River Wolves (1934); Those Were the Days (1934), the first film of Will Hay; The Lash (1934); Blind Justice (1934); Doctor's Orders (1934); and Car of Dreams (1935). He did Jill Darling (1934) on stage and was one of many names in Royal Cavalcade (1935).
Mills had the star role in an A film, Brown on Resolution (1935). It was back to quota quickies for Charing Cross Road (1935) and The First Offence (1936). He had another excellent part in an "A", playing Lord Guildford Dudley in Tudor Rose (1936). He did Aren't Men Beasts? (1936) on stage and worked for Hollywood director Raoul Walsh in O.H.M.S. (1937).
World War II
At the Old Vic he was in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1939), She Stoops to Conquer (1939) and Of Mice and Men (1939–40). He joined the army in 1939 but occasionally made films on leave. He went back to movies with Old Bill and Son (1940) and made Cottage to Let (1941), a war film for Anthony Asquith. Mills went back to supporting Will Hay in The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942) and he was one of many names in the war film, The Big Blockade (1942).
He was in Men in Shadow (1942) on stage, written by his wife. He achieved acclaim for his performance as an able seaman in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), a huge hit. Mills had another good support role in The Young Mr. Pitt (1942) playing William Wilberforce opposite Robert Donat. He was invalided out of the army in 1942.
Mills's climb to stardom began when he had the lead role in We Dive at Dawn (1943), a film directed by Asquith about submariners. He was top billed in This Happy Breed (1944), directed by David Lean and adapted from a Noël Coward play.
Also popular was Waterloo Road (1945), from Sidney Gilliat, in which Mills played a man who goes AWOL to retrieve his wife from a draft-dodger (played by Stewart Granger). Mills played a pilot in The Way to the Stars (1945), directed by Asquith from a script by Terence Rattigan, and another big hit in Britain. He did Duet for Two Hands (1945) on stage.
Mills had his greatest success to date as Pip in Great Expectations (1946), directed by David Lean. It was the third biggest hit at the British box office that year and Mills was voted the sixth most popular star.
Mills turned producer with The History of Mr Polly (1949) from the novel by H. G. Wells. It was directed by Anthony Pelissier and Mills said it was his favorite film. Pelisse also made The Rocking Horse Winner (1949) which Mills produced; he also played a small role. More liked at the box office was a submarine drama, Morning Departure (1950), directed by Baker. By this stage his fee was a reported £20,000 a film.
After Morning Departure Mills took almost two years off. The films he made on his return were not popular: a thriller, Mr Denning Drives North (1951); The Gentle Gunman (1952), where he and Dirk Bogarde played IRA gunmen for Basil Dearden; The Long Memory (1953), a thriller from Robert Hamer.
Mills played a supporting role in a movie for MGM, The End of the Affair (1955), with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson. More liked in Britain was another war story, Above Us the Waves (1955); this was sixth most popular film at the British box office that year, and helped Mills become the fifth most popular star in the country.
After Escapade (1955), Mills made the popular military comedy The Baby and the Battleship (1956), one of the biggest hits of 1956. Also on that list was another Mills comedy, It's Great to Be Young (1956).
Mills appeared in the thrillers: Town on Trial (1957) directed by John Guillermin and The Vicious Circle (1957). More popular with the public were the war films: Dunkirk (1958), the second most popular film of the year in Britain; Ice Cold in Alex (1958), directed by J. Lee Thompson; and I Was Monty's Double'(1958), directed by Guillermin.
In the 1959 crime drama Tiger Bay, directed by Thompson, Mills played a police detective investigating a murder that a young girl has witnessed. His daughter Hayley was cast, and earned excellent reviews.
Mills went to Australia to play a cane cutter in the Hollywood financed Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959).
Walt Disney saw Tiger Bay and offered Hayley Mills the lead role in Pollyanna (1960). Disney also offered John Mills the lead in the adventure film Swiss Family Robinson (1960), which was a huge hit. He did Ross (1960–61) on stage.
The Rank Organisation insisted Mills play the role of the priest in The Singer Not the Song (1961) opposite Dirk Bogarde. Mills and Baker reteamed on an interracial drama Flame in the Streets (1961) and an Italian-British war film The Valiant (1962).
After a cameo on the war film Operation Crossbow (1965), Mills made a third film with his daughter, The Truth About Spring (1965). He had a cameo in King Rat (1965) for Bryan Forbes, who then directed Mills in The Wrong Box (1966). Mills played Hayley's father-in-law on screen in The Family Way (1966). He then directed her in Sky West and Crooked (1966) from a script written by his wife.
He was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions, firstly in 1960 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews outside Pinewood Studios, and again in 1983 when Eamonn surprised him on the stage of London's Wyndham's Theatre at the curtain call of the play Little Lies.
Mills began to move into character roles, supporting Hugh O'Brian in Africa Texas Style (1967) and Rod Taylor in Chuka (1967). He went to Italy for a giallo, A Black Veil for Lisa (1968) and played William Hamilton in Emma Hamilton (1968).
Mills had a cameo in Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) for director Richard Attenborough and supported Mark Lester (though he was top billed) in Run Wild, Run Free (1969). He went to Australia to star in a convict drama, Adam's Woman (1970).
He was in Dulcima (1971) then had support roles in Young Winston (1972) for Attenborough, Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), and Oklahoma Crude (1973). On stage he did Veterans at the Royal Court, At the End of the Day (1973), The Good Companions (1974), Great Expectations (1975) and Separate Tables (1977).
Also on the small screen, in 1974 he starred as Captain Tommy "The Elephant" Devon in the six-part television drama series The Zoo Gang, about a group of former underground freedom fighters from World War II, with Brian Keith, Lilli Palmer and Barry Morse.
In the late 1970s Mills could still get lead roles in films, as shown by The "Human" Factor (1975), Trial by Combat (1976), and The Devil's Advocate (1977). He had filmed supporting roles in The Big Sleep (1978) and The Thirty Nine Steps (1978).
In 1986 he did The Petition at the National and the following year did Pygmalion on Broadway. He provided a voice for When the Wind Blows (1986) and supported Madonna in Who's That Girl (1987). His best roles were on TV in Harnessing Peacocks (1993) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1994). Mills also starred as Gus: The Theatre Cat in the filmed version of the musical Cats in 1998.
In 2000, Mills released his extensive home cine-film footage in a documentary film entitled Sir John Mills's Moving Memories, with interviews with Mills, his children Hayley, Juliet and Jonathan and Richard Attenborough. The film was produced and written by Jonathan Mills, directed and edited by Marcus Dillistone, and features behind the scenes footage and stories from films such as Ice Cold in Alex and Dunkirk. In addition the film also includes home footage of many of Mills's friends and fellow cast members including Laurence Olivier, Harry Andrews, Walt Disney, David Niven, Dirk Bogarde, Rex Harrison and Tyrone Power. He portrayed a charming old gent as head of an art museum in the 1997 Mr. Bean. Mills's last cinema appearance was playing a tramp in Lights 2 (directed by Marcus Dillistone); the cinematographer was Jack Cardiff. They had last worked together on Scott of the Antarctic in 1948.
Personal life and death
His second wife was the dramatist Mary Hayley Bell. Their marriage, on 16 January 1941, lasted for 64 years, until his death in 2005. They were married in a rushed civil ceremony, because of the war; it was not until 60 years later that they were married in a church. They lived in The Wick, London, for many years. They sold the house to musician Ronnie Wood in 1971 and moved to Hills House, Denham, south Buckinghamshire.
Mills and Bell had two daughters, Juliet, star of television's Nanny and the Professor and Hayley, a Disney child star who appeared in Pollyanna, The Parent Trap and Whistle Down the Wind, and one son, Jonathan Mills, a screenwriter. In 1947, Mills appeared with his daughters in the film So Well Remembered. The three also appeared together decades later, on an episode of ABC's The Love Boat. Mills's grandson by Hayley, Crispian Mills, is a musician, best known for his work with the raga rock group Kula Shaker.
In the years leading up to his death, he appeared on television only on special occasions, his sight having failed almost completely by 1992. After that, his film roles were brief cameos.
|1933||The Ghost Camera||Ernest Elton|
|Britannia of Billingsgate||Fred Bolton|
|1934||A Political Party||Tony Smithers|
|The River Wolves||Peter Farrell|
|Those Were the Days||Bobby Poskett|
|The Lash||Arthur Haughton|
|Blind Justice||Ralph Summers|
|Doctor's Orders||Ronnie Blake|
|1935||Car of Dreams||Robert Miller|
|Royal Cavalcade||Young Enlistee|
|Brown on Resolution||Albert Brown||(later reissued in the UK as Forever England)|
|Charing Cross Road||Tony|
|1936||The First Offence||Johnnie Penrose||alternative title Bad Blood|
|Tudor Rose||Lord Guilford Dudley||Released as Nine Days a Queen in USA|
|1937||O.H.M.S.||Cpl. Bert Dawson|
|The Green Cockatoo||Jim Connor|
|1939||Goodbye, Mr Chips||Peter Colley – as a Young Man|
|1941||Old Bill and Son||Young Bill Busby|
|Cottage to Let||Flt. Lieutenant Perry|
|1942||The Black Sheep of Whitehall||Bobby Jessop|
|The Big Blockade||Tom|
|In Which We Serve||Ordinary Seaman Blake||(with daughter Juliet Mills)|
|The Young Mr. Pitt||William Wilberforce|
|1943||We Dive at Dawn||Lt. Taylor, R.N.|
|1944||This Happy Breed||Billy Mitchell|
|Victory Wedding||Bill Clark||Short|
|1945||Waterloo Road||Jim Colter|
|The Way to the Stars||Peter Penrose|
|1947||So Well Remembered||George Boswell||(with daughters Juliet Mills and Hayley Mills)|
|The October Man||Jim Ackland|
|1948||Scott of the Antarctic||Captain Scott
Captain R.F. Scott R.N.
|1949||The History of Mr Polly||Alfred Polly|
|The Rocking Horse Winner||Bassett||(also produced)|
|1950||Morning Departure||Lt. Commander Armstrong|
|1951||Mr Denning Drives North||Tom Denning|
|1952||The Gentle Gunman||Terrence Sullivan|
|1953||The Long Memory||Phillip Davidson|
|1954||Hobson's Choice||Willie Mossop||Nominated-BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role|
|1955||The Colditz Story||Pat Reid|
|The End of the Affair||Albert Parkis|
|Above Us the Waves||Commander Fraser|
|1956||The Baby and the Battleship||Puncher Roberts|
|War and Peace||Platon Karataev|
|Around the World in 80 Days||London Carriage Driver|
|It's Great to Be Young||Mr Dingle|
|1957||Town on Trial||Supt Mike Halloran|
|The Vicious Circle||Dr Howard Latimer|
|Ice Cold in Alex||Captain Anson RASC|
|I Was Monty's Double||Major Harvey||(also titled Hell, Heaven or Hoboken)|
|1959||Tiger Bay||Superintendent Graham||(with daughter Hayley Mills)|
|Summer of the Seventeenth Doll||Barney||(also titled Season of Passion)|
|1960||Tunes of Glory||Lt. Col. Basil Barrow (Battalion Commander)||Volpi Cup for Best Actor|
Nominated-BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
|Swiss Family Robinson||William Robinson|
|1961||The Singer Not the Song||Father Michael Keogh|
|The Parent Trap||Mitch Evers' Golf Caddy||Uncredited|
|Flame in the Streets||Jacko Palmer|
|1962||The Valiant||Captain Morgan|
|Tiara Tahiti||Lt. Col. Clifford Southey|
|1964||The Chalk Garden||Maitland||(with daughter Hayley Mills)|
|1965||Operation Crossbow||Gen. Boyd|
|The Truth About Spring||Tommy Tyler||(with daughter Hayley Mills)|
|King Rat||Smedley – Taylor|
|1966||The Wrong Box||Masterman Finsbury|
|The Family Way||Ezra Fitton||(with daughter Hayley Mills)|
Prize San Sebastián for Best Actor (tied with Maurice Ronet for The Champagne Murders)
|1967||Africa Texas Style||Wing Commander Hayes|
|Chuka||Colonel Stuart Valois|
|1968||A Black Veil for Lisa||Inspector Franz Bulon|
|Emma Hamilton||Sir William Hamilton|
|1969||Oh! What a Lovely War||Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig|
|Run Wild, Run Free||The Moorman|
|1970||Adam's Woman||Sir Phillip MacDonald|
|Ryan's Daughter||Michael||Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor|
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated-BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor
|1972||Young Winston||General Kitchener|
|Lady Caroline Lamb||Canning|
|1973||Oklahoma Crude||Cleon Doyle|
|1975||The Human Factor||Mike McAllister|
|1976||Trial by Combat||Colonel Bertie Cook||(also titled A Dirty Knight's Work)|
|1977||The Devil's Advocate||Blaise Meredith|
|1978||The Big Sleep||Inspector Jim Carson|
|The Thirty Nine Steps||Scudder|
|1979||The Quatermass Conclusion||Professor Bernard Quatermass|
|Zulu Dawn||Sir Henry Bartle Frere|
|1982||Gandhi||The Viceroy Baron Chelmsford|
|1986||When the Wind Blows||Jim||Voice|
|1987||Who's That Girl||Montgomery Bell||(credited as Sir John Mills)|
|1993||The Big Freeze||Dapper man|
|1994||Deadly Advice||Jack the Ripper|
|1995||The Grotesque||Sir Edward Cleghorn||(also titled Gentleman Don't Eat Poets)|
|1997||Bean||Chairman||(credited as Sir John Mills)|
|1998||Cats||Gus the Theater Cat|
|2003||Bright Young Things||Gentleman|
|2004||Lights2||The Tramp||Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (previously worked on Scott of The Antarctic), (final film role)|
|1967||Dundee and the Culhane||Dundee||13 episodes|
|1974||The Zoo Gang||Thomas 'The Elephant' Devon||6 episodes|
|1978||Dr. Strange||Thomas Lindmer||TV Movie|
|1979||Quatermass||Professor Bernard Quatermass|
|1980||Tales of the Unexpected||William Perkins||Season 2, Episode 3 - Galloping Foxley|
|1980||Tales of the Unexpected||The Umbrella Man||Season 2, Episode 11|
|1980–82||Young at Heart||Albert Collyer||18 episodes|
|1982||Tales of the Unexpected||Sam Morrissey||Season 5, Episode 3 - Operation Safecrack|
|1982||The Adventures of Little Lord Fauntleroy||The Earl of Dorincort||TV Movie|
|1984||The Masks of Death||Dr Watson||TV Movie|
|1985||Murder with Mirrors||Lewis Serrocold||TV Movie|
|1985||Edge of the Wind||General Blair||TV play|
|1987||The Dame Edna Experience||Season 1, Episode 6 (as himself)|
|1989||A Tale of Two Cities||Jarvis Lorry||2 episodes|
|1993||Harnessing Peacocks||Bernard Quigley||TV Movie|
|1994||Martin Chuzzlewit||Mr Chuffey||3 episodes, TV Mini-series|
|1929||The Five O'Clock Girl||London Hippodrome|
|1930||Charley's Aunt||New Theatre|
|1931||The 1931 Revue||London Pavilion|
|London Wall||Duke of York's Theatre|
|Cavalcade||Theatre Royal Drury Lane|
|1932||Words and Music||Adelphi Theatre|
|1933||Give Me a Ring||London Hippodrome|
|1934||Jill Darling||Saville Theatre|
|1936||Red Night||Queen's Theatre|
|Aren't Men Beasts!||Strand Theatre|
|Talk of the Devil||Piccadilly Theatre|
|1938||Pelissier's Follies of 1938||Saville Theatre|
|A Midsummer Night's Dream||The Old Vic|
|She Stoops to Conquer||The Old Vic|
|1939||We at the Crossroads||Globe Theatre|
|Of Mice and Men||Gate Theatre/Apollo Theatre|
|1942||Men in Shadow||Lyric Theatre|
|1945||Duet for Two Hands||Vaudeville Theatre|
|1950||The Damascus Blade||UK Tour|
|Top of the Ladder||St James's Theatre|
|1951||Figure of Fun||Aldwych Theatre|
|1953||The Uninvited Guest||St James's Theatre|
|1954||Charley's Aunt||New Theatre/Strand Theatre|
|1961||Ross||Eugene O'Neill Theatre/Hudson Theatre, New York City|
|1963||Powers of Persuasion||Garrick Theatre|
|1972||Veterans||Royal Court Theatre|
|1973||At the End of the Day||Savoy Theatre|
|1974||The Good Companions||Her Majesty's Theatre|
|1975||Great Expectations||UK Tour and O'Keefe Centre, Toronto|
|1977||Separate Tables||Apollo Theatre|
|1982||Goodbye, Mr Chips||Chichester Festival Theatre|
|1983||Little Lies||Wyndham's Theatre|
|1986||The Petition||National Theatre/Wyndham's Theatre|
|1987||Pygmalion||Plymouth Theatre, New York City|
|From 1992||One-man show||Various venues|
Box office ranking
For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.
- 1945 – 4th
|*1946 – 8th
- 1947 – 4th (6th most popular overall)
- 1948 – 3rd (4th most popular over all)
- 1949 – 3rd (8th most popular over all)
- 1950 – 4th (6th most popular overall)
- 1954 – 10th
- 1955 – 2nd (5th most popular overall)
|*1956 – 10th
- 1957 – 6th
- 1958 – 6th
- 1961 – 5th
- Brian McFarlane, "Mills, Sir John Lewis Ernest Watts (1908–2005)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2009 available online. Retrieved 28 August 2012.
- Pulleine, Tim (25 April 2005). "Obituary: Sir John Mills". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
- "BBC Radio 4 - Desert Island Discs, Sir John Mills". BBC.
- Mills, John. Chapter 1 Up in the Clouds, Gentleman Please Published by Orion.
- "British actor: Lewis Ernest Watts Mills". Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 October 2009.
- "JOHN MILLS, Britain's No. I Star". South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus. Vol. L, no. 38. New South Wales. 18 May 1950. p. 26. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "THE LIFE STORY OF John Mills". Voice. Vol. 26, no. 46. Hobart. 14 November 1953. p. 4. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Anna Neagle Most Popular Actress". The Sydney Morning Herald. No. 34, 331. 3 January 1948. p. 3. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, Uni of California, 2016
- "TOPS AT HOME". The Courier-Mail. No. 4087. Brisbane. 31 December 1949. p. 4. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "John Mills To Direct, Produce". The News. Vol. 50, no. 7, 719. Adelaide. 1 May 1948. p. 7. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "FILM GOOD TIMES". The Canberra Times. Vol. 63, no. 19, 559. 27 April 1989. p. 26. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Fortieth birthday was lucky for John Mills". The Australian Women's Weekly. Vol. 17, no. 1. 11 June 1949. p. 40. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Australian Angles". The Sunday Herald (Sydney). No. 125. New South Wales, Australia. 17 June 1951. p. 12. Retrieved 15 September 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "WHAT NEWS IN FILMS? GOOGIE DITCHES STAR PART TO SEE AUSTRALIA". Sunday Times (Perth). No. 2913. Western Australia. 3 October 1954. p. 1 (MAGAZINE). Retrieved 21 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Dirk Bogarde favourite film actor". The Irish Times. Dublin, Ireland. 29 December 1955. p. 9.
- "BRITISH. FILMS MADE MOST MONEY: BOX-OFFICE SURVEY". The Manchester Guardian. Manchester (UK). 28 December 1956. p. 3.
- Vagg, Stephen (17 November 2020). "John Guillermin: Action Man". Filmink.
- "Alec Guinness "world's biggest box-office attraction". The Manchester Guardian. Manchester (UK). 2 January 1959. p. 5.
- Obituary, The Age, 25 April 2005, p.9
- "Biography of a Water Rat". www.gowr.co.uk.
- Victory Wedding. British Film Institute. Retrieved 29 April 2020
- "The Adventures of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1982)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
- "'Bloomer Girl' to Play Instead of Jolson Opus". Los Angeles Times. 23 March 1946. p. A5.
- "FILM WORLD". The West Australian (SECOND ed.). Perth. 28 February 1947. p. 20. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "Anna Neagle Most Popular Actress". The Sydney Morning Herald. 3 January 1948. p. 3. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "Bing Crosby Still Best Box-office Draw". The Sydney Morning Herald. 31 December 1948. p. 3. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- "Bob Hope Takes Lead from Bing in Popularity". The Canberra Times. 31 December 1949. p. 2. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "TOPS AT HOME". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane. 31 December 1949. p. 4. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "The Dam Busters". The Times. London, England. 29 December 1955.
- "The Most Popular Film Star in Britain". The Times. London, England. 7 December 1956.
- "BRITISH ACTORS HEAD FILM POLL: BOX-OFFICE SURVEY". The Manchester Guardian. 27 December 1957. p. 3.
- John Mills at IMDb
- It's Not Just Michael Powell: British Films of the 30s, 40s and 50s
- Sir John Mills Theatre – Eastern Angles
Profile] at the Nigel Kneale & Quatermass Appreciation