John Mills was actor and patriarch

Hayley's father was a 1970 Oscar winner


April 25, 2005|By Dennis McLellan | Dennis McLellan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Sir John Mills, the Academy Award-winning actor and patriarch of one of Britain's leading theatrical families, died Saturday. He was 97.

Mills, the father of actresses Hayley and Juliet Mills, died at his home in Denham, west of London, following a short illness.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976, Mills' career spanned more than 70 years and more than 100 movies.

Mills won a best supporting actor Oscar and a Golden Globe for his role as the brain-damaged, mute villager in Ryan's Daughter, David Lean's 1970 romantic drama set in Ireland during World War I.

On film, Mills was best known for portraying rather ordinary men who display, as one observer once put it, "the qualities of English decency operating at every level of society."

After making his film debut as a sailor in the 1932 comedy The Midshipmaid, Mills went on to play Robert Donat's student Peter Colley as a young man going off to war in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and to co-star with Noel Coward in Coward and Lean's acclaimed World War II drama In Which We Serve (1942).

Mills' career encompassed numerous classic British films, including Lean's 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations, in which Mills played Pip as a young man.

Often cast in war dramas, Mills starred in Waterloo Road, Ice Cold in Alex, Dunkirk, The Colditz Story and I Was Monty's Double - as well as starring in Scott of the Antarctic, Hobson's Choice and Swiss Family Robinson. He also frequently turned up in supporting roles and smaller roles in films including King Rat, Oh! What a Lovely War and Gandhi.

Co-starring with Alec Guinness in the 1960 military drama Tunes of Glory, Mills gave one of his greatest film performances - and earned a Venice Film Festival award for best actor - playing a neurotic, nerve-wracked British martinet determined to restore order to his regiment.

Mills, who also produced and directed a number of films, appeared in more than 40 London stage productions, including Charley's Aunt, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Of Mice and Men, The End of the Day and Separate Tables.

He made his Broadway debut in 1961 - and earned a Tony Award nomination - playing the title role of Ross, Terrence Rattigan's play based on the life of T.E. Lawrence.

He also co-starred with Sean Garrison in Dundee and the Culhane, a short-lived 1967 western TV series.

Mills was married 64 years to novelist and playwright Mary Hayley Bell, whose novel Whistle Down the Wind became a 1961 film starring daughter Hayley.

John Mills worked professionally with both of his daughters, appearing in five films with Hayley, including Tiger Bay, her 1959 film debut. Daughter Juliet appeared in a number of films with her father, who also made a guest appearance on her 1970s sitcom Nanny and the Professor. John and Mary Mills' son Jonathan is a writer and has made surfing videos. And Hayley's son, Crispian Mills, is the former lead singer of Kula Shaker, a top U.K. pop band.

"He is a very instinctive actor and there is a great truth in his work," Hayley Mills said of her father in a 2002 interview with Australia's Daily Telegraph. "He has that ring of truth about him and a very emotional center to his being."

Born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills in Norfolk on Feb. 22, 1908, Mills was the son of the headmaster of a village school near Great Yarmouth in Suffolk, where Mills spent part of his early years.

"One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was to be born with a desperate desire to become an actor. I never remember at any age wanting to be anything else," Mills wrote in Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please, his 1980 memoir.

Mills is survived by his wife and their children and grandchildren.

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