Today is the birthday of Sir John Mills (1908-2005).
Considered one of the great British stage and screen actors of the 20th century, Mills differs from many in his generation in that he had no formal theatrical training and little experience with classics. He started out as a dancer and chorus boy in music hall, musicals and revues of the late 1920s. He became a favorite of Noel Coward, who cast him in his 1932 revue Words and Music and later the World War Two drama In Which We Serve (1942). Mills seemed to embody certain aspects of the popular idea of the British character: solid, dependable, dutiful — never flashy or flamboyant. He was often cast as military men or fathers, ordinary men driven to acts of heroism large and small but only by events, as opposed to an impulse to distinguish himself. An exception might be the title role in Scott of the Antarctic (1948) — at least it might have been in a truer account of Scott’s character; this particular film is sort of whitewashed (but enhanced by Mills amazing physical resemblance to Scott). But most of his characters over his 70 year film career (yes! 1932-2003) were men of reaction, carried along by events.
He had leads in two David Lean films Great Expectations (1946) and Hobson’s Choice (1954), and won an Oscar for his portrayal of a village idiot in Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter in 1970. He was the dad in Walt Disney’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1959). His daughter Hayley Mills also became a child star in Disney films (The Parent Trap); the two appeared in several films together, most notably in the 1966 topical comedy The Family Way (with a soundtrack by Paul McCartney!) That same year Mills also appeared in the now-classic all-star comedy The Wrong Box. Other interesting later work included 1969’s O! What a Lovely War, the made for television The Quatermass Conclusion (1979), Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), and a terrific 1994 BBC adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit. Another daughter, Juliet Mills, starred in the hit ABC sit-com Nanny and the Professor (1970-1971).
Here he is, 40 years into his career, accepting his best supporting actor Oscar from Maggie Smith (with a broken arm apparently!)
To learn more about show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc