Stage & Screen Legend John Mills Dies, Aged 97Date: 25 April 2005
Sir John Mills (pictured), one of the leading British actors of the 20th century, has died. Born on 22 February 1908, he died on Saturday 23 April 2005 – fittingly, also Shakespeare’s birthday and St George’s Day. He was 97.
Mills was only seven when he first decided he wanted to go onto the stage. His first theatre job was as a chorus boy in The Five O’Clock Girl at London’s New Cross Theatre. At the same time, he formed a cabaret act with a friend called The Rhythmic Duettists which attracted the attention of Noel Coward, who Mills later deemed the greatest influence on his career.
On Coward’s recommendation, Mills was cast in a leading role in a stage production of Charley’s Aunt. Subsequent stage credits included Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cavalcade, The Good Companions, the 1962 Broadway production of Terence Rattigan’s Ross, for which he received a Tony Award nomination, and his one-man show, An Evening with John Mills. His last major West End appearance, in 1986, was opposite Rosemary Harris in Brian Clark’s play The Petition at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Despite his theatrical grounding, it was for his film work that Mills became best known. Considered one of the true English screen legends, he made more than 100 films over a 60 year career. His reputation was established by playing a series of soldier heroes in myriad patriotic films during the Second World War.
However, Mills will probably be best remembered for his collaborations with director David Lean, with whom he made five films: In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Great Expectations, Hobson’s Choice and 1971’s Ryan’s Daughter, which won him an Academy Award for his performance as a village idiot.
Despite near blindness and the illness of his wife of 60 years, Lady Mills, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Mills continued to act well into his 90s. His last film was 2003’s Bright Young Things, directed by Stephen Fry, who had been friends with him since the late 1980s. In a tribute in the Sunday Telegraph, Fry said: “To be close to him in the last 15 or so years of his life was one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life. He was inspiring, simply remarkable, and England won’t be quite the same without him.”
Mills was knighted in 1976 for his services to British entertainment. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his actor-daughters Hayley (child star of films including Pollyanna, Whistle Down the Wind and The Parent Trap) and Juliet and his son Jonathan, a film producer.
- by Terri Paddock