Sir John Mills CBE (22 February 1908 - 23 April 2005) was an English actor who appeared in more than 120 films in a career spanning seven decades. On screen, he often played people who are not at all exceptional, but become heroes because of their common sense, generosity and good judgement. He received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Ryan's Daughter (1970).
Mills was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills at the Watts Naval School in North Elmham, Norfolk, and grew up in the Norfolk village of Belton, where his father was the headmaster of the village school and in Felixstowe, Suffolk, where he lived in a modest house in Ham's Road. His older 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 merchants in Ipswich before finding employment in London as a commercial traveller for the Sanitas Disinfectant Company.
In September 1939, at the start of World War II, Mills enlisted in 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 took an early interest in acting, making his professional début at the London Hippodrome in The Five O'Clock Girl in 1929. He also starred in the Noël Coward revue Words and Music. He made his film début in The Midshipmaid (1932), and appeared as Colley in the 1939 film version of Goodbye, Mr Chips, opposite Robert Donat. In 1942, he starred in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve.
Mills took the lead in Great Expectations in 1946, and subsequently made his career playing traditionally British heroes such as Captain Scott in Scott of the Antarctic (1948). Over the next decade he became particularly associated with war dramas, such as The Colditz Story (1954), Above Us the Waves (1955) and Ice Cold in Alex (1958).
From 1959 through the mid-1960s, Mills starred in several films alongside his daughter Hayley. Their first film together was the 1959 crime drama Tiger Bay, in which John plays a police detective investigating a murder that Hayley's character witnessed. Following Hayley's rise to fame in Pollyanna (1960) and the 1961 family comedy The Parent Trap, John and Hayley again starred together, in the 1965 teen sailing adventure The Truth About Spring, the 1964 drama The Chalk Garden (with Deborah Kerr in the lead role), and the 1966 comedy-drama The Family Way, in which John plays an insecure, overbearing father and Hayley plays his son's newlywed wife.
As Colonel Barrow in Tunes of Glory, Mills won the best Actor Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. For his role as the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter (1970) — a complete departure from his usual style – Mills won an Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His most famous television role was probably as the title character in Quatermass for ITV in 1979. 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. 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' 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.
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. Their combined age was 186 years, a cinema record.
His first wife was the actress Aileen Raymond, who died only five days after he did. They were married in 1927 and divorced in 1941. Raymond later became the mother of actor Ian Ogilvy.
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; and it was not until 60 years later that they had their union blessed in a church. They lived in The Wick, London, for many years. They sold the house to musician Ronnie Wood in 1975 and moved to Hills House, Denham.
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. In 1947, Mills appeared with his daughters in the film So Well Remembered. Mills's grandson by Hayley, Crispian Mills, is a musician, best known for his work with the alternative rock group Kula Shaker.
Despite having always voted Conservative, Mills publicly supported Tony Blair's Labour Party in the 2001 General Election.
In the years leading up to his death, he appeared on television only on special occasions, his sight having failed almost completely in 1992. After that, his film roles were brief yet notable cameos.
He died aged 97 on 23 April 2005 in Denham, Buckinghamshire, following a chest infection. Lady Mills died on 1 December 2005. Sir John and Lady Mills are buried in Denham Churchyard.
Mills was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1960. In 1976 he was knighted by the Queen.
In 2002, he received a Fellowship of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), their highest award, and was named a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company.
- The Midshipmaid (1932)
- Britannia of Billingsgate (1933)
- The Ghost Camera (1933)
- The River Wolves (1934)
- Blind Justice (1934)
- The Lash (1934)
- A Political Party (1934)
- Doctor's Orders (1934)
- Those Were The Days (1934)
- Car of Dreams (1935)
- Royal Cavalcade (1935)
- Brown on Resolution (later reissued in the UK as Forever England) (1935)
- Charing Cross Road (1935)
- The First Offence (1936)
- Tudor Rose (1936)
- O.H.M.S. (1937)
- The Green Cockatoo (1937)
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
- All Hands (1940, short film)
- Cottage to Let (1941)
- Old Bill and Son (1941)
- The Big Blockade (1942)
- The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)
- The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)
- In Which We Serve (1942)
- We Dive at Dawn (1943)
- This Happy Breed (1944)
- Victory Wedding (1944, short film)
- Information Please (1944, short film)
- Waterloo Road (1945)
- The Way to the Stars (1945)
- Great Expectations (1946)
- So Well Remembered (1947)
- The October Man (1947)
- Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
- The History of Mr Polly (1949)
- The Rocking Horse Winner (1949, also produced)
- Morning Departure (1950)
- Mr. Denning Drives North (1952)
- The Gentle Gunman (1952)
- The Long Memory (1952)
- Hobson's Choice (1954)
- Escapade (1955)
- The Colditz Story (1955)
- The End of the Affair (1955)
- Above Us the Waves (1955)
- The Baby and the Battleship (1956)
- War and Peace (1956)
- Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
- It's Great to Be Young (1956)
- Town on Trial (1957)
- The Vicious Circle (1957)
- Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
- Dunkirk (1958)
- I Was Monty's Double (1958)
- Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959)
- Tiger Bay (1959) — (with daughter Hayley Mills)
- Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
- Tunes of Glory (1960)
- The Singer Not the Song (1961)
- Flame in the Streets (1961)
- Tiara Tahiti (1962)
- The Valiant (1962)
- The Chalk Garden (1964) – (with daughter Hayley Mills)
- The Truth About Spring (1964) – (with daughter Hayley Mills)
- King Rat (1965)
- Operation Crossbow (1965)
- The Family Way (1966) – (with daughter Hayley Mills)
- The Wrong Box (1966)
- Africa Texas Style (1967)
- Chuka (1967)
- La morte non-ha sesso (1968)
- Emma Hamilton (1968)
- Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
- Run Wild, Run Free (1969)
- Adam's Woman (1970)
- Ryan's Daughter (1970)
- Dulcima (1971)
- Lady Caroline Lamb (1972)
- Young Winston (1972)
- Oklahoma Crude (1973)
- The Human Factor (1975)
- Trial by Combat (1976)
- The Devil's Advocate (1977)
- The Big Sleep (1978)
- The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)
- Dr. Strange (1978, TV film)
- Zulu Dawn (1979)
- The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)
- Gandhi (1982)
- The Adventures of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1982, TV film)
- Sahara (1983)
- The Masks of Death (1985, TV film)
- Murder with Mirrors (1985, TV film)
- Edge of the Wind (1985, TV film)
- Hold the Dream (1986, TV film)
- When the Wind Blows (1986)
- Who's That Girl (1987)
- Ending Up (1989, TV film)
- The Lady and the Highwayman (1989, TV film)
- Night of the Fox (1990, TV film)
- Harnessing Peacocks (1992, TV film)
- Frankenstein (1992, TV film)
- The Big Freeze (1993)
- Deadly Advice (1994)
- The Grotesque (1995)
- Hamlet (1996)
- Bean (1997)
- Cats (1998)
- The Gentleman Thief (2001, TV film)
- Bright Young Things (2003)
- Lights 2 (2005, Short film)
- The Good Companions (1974)
- Great Expectations (1976)
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Of Mice and Men
- Dundee and the Culhane (1967)
- The Zoo Gang (1974)
- Quatermass (1979)
- Young at Heart (1980–1982)
- Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)
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