John Mills

    Sir John Mills.

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    Sir John Mills was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills on the 22 February 1908 at Felixstowe, Suffolk, UK...

    'How can you do justice to a life of 97 years? He was a great man.' - Sir Roger Moore

    Written 2005.  John Mills was the son of a mathematics teacher father. Mills' mother worked as a theatrical box office manager, and it was this world, rather than his father's academic milieu, which most attracted young Mills. After brief employment as a clerk in a corn merchant's office, Mills moved to London, where he enrolled at Zelia Raye's Dancing School.

    His first professional job was as a chorus dancer in The Five O'Clock Revue in 1929. Making as many contacts as possible, Mills was able to secure work on the legitimate stage, and in 1932 appeared in his first film, the Jessie Matthews vehicle The Midshipmaid. Learning his craft in "quota quickies," Mills rose to leading man in such prestige productions as Brown on Resolution (1935), Tudor Rose (1936), and The Green Cockatoo (1938).

    In 1939, he appeared in his first American film, Goodbye Mr. Chips, playing student Peter Colley. He starred in a number of morale-boosting World War II films, usually playing the personification of the calm, resourceful young British military officer; any chance for a real life career in uniform, however, was scuttled by Mills' duodenal ulcer. However, he contributed to morale by fighting the war on-screen, playing authoritative characters in such popular and important films as Noël Coward's In Which We Serve (1942, his first encounter with co-director and Croydon's finest, David Lean), We Dive at Dawn (1943), and This Happy Breed (1944, again for Coward and Lean).

    Coward wrote the part of Shorty Blake in In Which We Serve for Mills because he knew he needed the work. It was physically a very arduous film to make with lots of time spent in cold water in the tank. They were in that tank for nearly two weeks and it was absolutely filthy by the time they finished.

    He co-starred in Waterloo Road (1945) with Stewart Granger. The plot of the film meant that the story of both ran parallel to one another throughout the film with them meeting at the very end and Mills (the hero) knocking him out in a fight. Granger and Mills rehearsed for ten days; both were good boxers and as a consequence it was a really good fight. Almost all of it was made in Gainsborough's Islington studio, except the bit where Mills is running across live railway lines!

    The Way to the Stars (1945) was the third film Mills made with the director Anthony Asquith (1902-68). It was made in the hope that it would help Anglo-American relations.


    British cinema audiences loved Mills because though he was never the tallest (5ft 8) or possessed the looks of a matinee idol, his characters had British grit and quite determination which they could identify with.

    After the war, he starred in Great Expectations (1946). This movie gave Mills one of his greatest parts, as Pip, the former orphan who becomes a gentleman of means. Indeed, the movie is probaly the best screen rendering of a Dickens' novel.

    Mills knew they were onto something special with Great Expectations halfway through when they were shooting the river scenes with the paddle-steamer; when he saw the rushes he thought they were sensational. Indeed, Mills went on record to say that he felt it was Lean's best picture, in spite of the bigger films later on.

    Other internatonal hits followed including: The October Man, So Well Remembered (both 1947), Scott of the Antarctic(1948), The History of Mr. Polly (1949), The Rocking Horse Winner (also 1949, a particularly memorable performance), Morning Departure (1950), Mr. Denning Drives North (1951), The Long Memory (1952), Hobson's Choice (1954, again for David Lean), The End of the Affair (1955), Escapade (1955), War and Peace (1956, excellent as a Russian peasant), Town on Trial (1957), I Was Monty's Double (1958), and Tunes of Glory (1960), which saw him in top form as a callous army colonel who's about to crack up.

    In 1959, Mills acted opposite daughter Hayley (born 1946) in Tiger Bay and was upstaged by the precocious child, who was immediately signed by Walt Disney and brought to America. (John also worked for Disney, as the head of the Swiss Family Robinson in 1960.) Father and daughter worked together again in The Chalk Garden (1964), The Truth About Spring (1965), and The Family Way (1966).

    Also in 1966, Mills directed Sky West and Crooked (aka Gypsy Girl), his sole effort behind the camera, which again starred his daughter, Hayley Mills, and was written by his second wife, Mary Hayley Bell.

    Hayley and her partner Firdous, currently split their time between the U.S.and the UK.

    Mills' other daughter, Juliet (born 1941), is likewise an actress of note. She is married to the actor Maxwell Caulfield, currently to be seen in the BBC hospital drama Casualty. Juliet made her film debut as an infant in his In Which We Serve and also played with him in So Well Remembered, The October Man, The History of Mr. Polly and The Last Straw. Mills also has a son, Jonathan (born 1949), who lives in Australia. Jonathan's son, Henry is a champion surfer.

    The 1960s saw Mills evolve from leading man to character actor, with seeming ease, in films like The Singer Not the Song (1961), Tiara Tahiti (1962), King Rat (1965), The Wrong Box (1966, a very funny comic outing), Africa-Texas Style!, Chuka (both 1967), Lady Hamilton (1968), Oh! What a Lovely War and Run Wild, Run Free (both 1969).

    In 1970, Mills won a long overdue Oscar for his performance as the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter (1970), directed by David Lean. When he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, Mills was the only winner present at the ceremony to accept his acting award. The other three winners of Academy Awards for acting that year, George C. Scott, Glenda Jackson, and Helen Hayes, didn't attend the awards. ceremony.

    Since the early 1970s Mills has chosen to keep as busy as possible, taking supporting (and even cameo) roles in films of extremely variable quality: Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), Oklahoma Crude (1973), The Human Factor (1975), Dirty Knight's Work (1976), The Big Sleep, The Thirty-Nine Steps (both 1978), Zulu Dawn (1979), Gandhi (1982, one of his best latter-day appearances), Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984 telefilm, as an aging Dr. Watson), Sahara (also 1984 and utterly awful), Who's That Girl? (1987), and The Last Straw (1991). In 1993 he played the Blind Man in the cable-TV remake of Frankenstein.

    Mills has also done stage work. His Broadway work has included Ross, a 1961 dramatization of the life of T.E. Lawrence.

    In 1967, he made his American series-TV debut as British attorney Dundee in the weekly Western Dundee and the Culhane.

    In 1977, John Mills was made a knight of the British Empire; his very full life, both offscreen and on, was summed up three years later in his autobiography Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen, Please.

    His grandson, Crispian Mills (born 1973), son of Hayley, was lead singer of the psychedelic rock group, Kula Shaker from the mid to late 1990s. They signed with Sony; their second single went straight to number 2 in the UK charts, their flame burnt briefly until their 2nd album had disappointing sales and they split up. He was lead singer of The Jeevas, who were big in Japan before reforming Kula Shaker.

    In 2000 and at the age of 92, he and frail wife Mary, age 89, renewed their marriage vows at St. Mary's Church, next to their home, Hills House, in the vilage of Denham, Buckinghamshire, England. When they had wed 60 years earlier, he was denied a church service because he was serving in the Army during World War II.

    Before moving to Denham in 1976 they had lived at Wick House, on Richmond Hill, Surrey and opposite the park entrance. This is now owned by rock guitarist and Who band member, Pete Townshend.

    Sir John and Mary have been attached to Denham since their children were small. Daughter Juliet recalls:

    'I lived in Denham as a child. Mummy and Daddy bought Misborne Cottage, the most beautiful house in the village, for £800 in 1942. My first memories are of that cottage. Daddy and I were talking about it the other day, and he was remembering the first buzz bomb coming over the garden.'

    At that time, Hills House was owned by the actress Merle Oberon and her husband, who invited the Mills to use it for the christening party for their younger daughter, Hayley. The family moved on, to London, Wick House and an endless procession of convenient but soulless flats. Mary was at the dentist, on a cold winter's day in 1976, when she picked up a copy of Country Life with a familiar house featured on the cover. Sir John recalls:

    'She brought the magazine home and showed me the picture of Hills House. We went down the next day and walked across the orchard, which was under snow. I said, "Of course it's lovely, but much too big and costly. We can't possibly take this on." We bought it the next day. With carpets, curtains, fixtures fittings and chandeliers, it cost £100,000.'

    Hills House became famous for the showbiz parties the Mills' gave. Once, the likes of Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster and Jack Lemmon spent weekends at the wisteria-covered Tudor mansion and walked in the four-acre garden that Mary planted. Though they are now gone, Hills House remains a magnet for show-business figures and others, Stephen Fry and Dame Judi Dench are frequent visitors, and Tony Blair, accompanied by Cherie, their children, Kathryn and Leo, and Cherie's mother, recently came over from Chequers for lunch.

    Hills House is now on the market, for offers in excess of £2.5 million, and at the ages of 96 and 93 respectively, Sir John and Mary are finally moving on. Sir John says:

    'We've been amazingly lucky. Now it's time for us to move on. This is a very big house, with eight bedrooms, and Mary doesn't use the stairs any more. We've found this marvellous bungalow in the village, just three minutes from here. There's a little swimming pool outside and lovely big rooms, and everything opens out on to the garden, so it's perfect for us; easy to look after, and the lightest house I have ever been in. It's really lovely'

    These days Mary suffers from dementia. Sir John is becoming physically frailer. He walks with some difficulty now, grows tired more easily than just a few years ago, and his eyesight has faded so much that he cannot discern the vaulted ceiling or the chrome kithchen of his new, modern house. And as well as a cook/housekeeper and gardener, the Mills employ a total of ten carers who work round the clock. But his mind and his speech are as precise as ever and he never lets appearances slip. Despite his age, Sir John maintains a diary that would daunt the young and fit. He swims 20 lengths of a pool each day, enjoys London theatre premieres and takes regular holidays.

    Sir John, the greatest star of his era, still acts in big budget productions, the latest being Martin Scorsese's One Life Later. Shot at Pinewood Studios, and half a day's work for the great man, Sir John plays a sage.

    Mary, who he married in 1941, is his second wife. He married Aileen Raymond in 1931 and they divorced in 1941. Aileen is the mother of the Saint actor Ian Ogilvy (born 1943).

    His contemporaries are all dead now but their memories are preserved in the photographs and mementoes he will take with him. Stephen Fry gave him Noel Coward's silk dressing gown and that hangs in its plastic wrapper in the downstairs loo, a symbol of the Mills' talent for combining grandeur and informality.

    John Mills Dvds @

    © - Paul Page (2011)

    Death Announced


    Date: 23rd April 2005

    Oscar-winning actor Sir John Mills has died at the age of 97, a member of his staff has confirmed.

    (July 2005 | Blog added: details of Sir John's grave and former home can be found by clicking here)

    She said: "Sir John Mills died peacefully at home after a short illness."

    Sir John was one of Britain's best-loved actors and had a career spanning more than 100 films.

    The archetypal English gentleman, Sir John graced stage and screen for more than 60 years, starting as a £4-a-week chorus boy at the London Hippodrome in 1929.

    His greatest triumph was winning a Hollywood Oscar in 1971 for playing a deformed mute in Ryan's Daughter.

    Sir John Mills died on the same day as the Zidane movie was filmed. Basically it is a multitude of cameras on Zinedine Zidane through 90 minutes of a football match he played for Real Madrid in the Bernabéu. The passing of John Mills is mentioned in the half-time interval of the movie

    He starred in a succession of David Lean films - In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Hobson's Choice and as Pip in Great Expectations.

    Star of more than 100 films, Sir John, who was knighted in 1976, will probably be best-remembered for his patriotic roles in such films as Ice Cold In Alex, Above Us The Waves, Dunkirk, Scott Of The Antarctic and Tunes Of Glory - one of his personal favourites.

    Top director Lord Attenborough dubbed him "truly remarkable".

    He told BBC's Radio 4 yesterday: 'He was almost unequalled as a world British star. There was nobody who gave such a variety of impeccable performances. He is my oldest friend and he's been a sort of hero to me. I shall miss him very much.'

    TV veteran and movie expert Michael Parkinson called him "a wonderful versatile actor and a true Englishman".

    Stephen Fry, who directed Bright Young Things and had been visiting Mills in his final days, said: 'It's marvellously typical of him to leave the party on St George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday and death day. He was a remarkable man. He became almost the only actor in the 20th century who was a genuine leading man; Brits can be marvellous at playing Nazis, but such was his authenticity as the English hero, people often forgot how good he was. He was the last of a particular generation, not just of actors, but of Englishmen to whom modesty was more important than ego.'

    Corin Redgrave, whose father Michael worked alongside him in Way to the Stars, said: 'He decided to visit my father once, and by total coincidence, he turned up one minute after he died and was there when I was distraught. He was an extraordinarily decent and happy man.'

    Michael Gambon, who worked with Mills in the TV series Tales of the Unexpected, said: 'He was a gentleman. He was entertaining because he was always telling stories.'

    Michael Winner, the film director, said: 'He was a very dear friend. He was the great, great professional at all times. The length and variety of his career speaks for itself.'

    A spokeswoman at Buckingham Palace said: 'The Queen was sorry to hear of Sir John Mills's death.'

    Prime Minister Tony Blair said: 'John Mills was a great actor who inspired us with his ability, warmth and spirit.'

    Cilla Black, a former neighbour of Sir John in Denham, said: 'We've lost a true national treasure.'

    Dame Vera Lynn said Sir John was 'always a real gentleman'.

    Sir John died on Saturday morning (St George's Day) at home in Denham, Buckinghamshire after a chest infection that lasted several weeks.

    He is survived by his wife, playwright Mary Hayley Bell, who has Alzheimer's disease, his son, Jonathan, and daughters Juliette and Hayley, both actors.

    The couple wed in 1941 and remained devoted to each other. Sir John had previously been married to Aileen Raymond, whom he married aged 19.

    Sir John was almost blind after his retinas in both eyes failed while he was touring with a one-man show in 1992.

    In 2001, he cracked two ribs in a fall at his home and he spent time in hospital with a chest infection the following year.

    His family are travelling from the United States and are expected to arrive by Monday.

    There will be a funeral service for family and friends at St Mary's Church in Denham on Wednesday. A memorial service is expected to take place at the end of June.


    Sir John Mills Books

    Sir John Mills Dvds @ (direct link)

    Sir John Mills Books @ (direct link)


    Sir John Mills

    Biography   Books

    Ryan's Daughter   We Dive at Dawn

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