The Three Phases of Millie Perkins

A brief breakdown of the interesting career of Millie Perkins (b.1938). Today Perkins is almost exclusively known for one major role, but I became a much more enthusiastic fan once I discovered a lot of the lesser known work that came directly after.

That one role of course is the main character in George Stevens’ 1959 adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. Perkins was an unknown and a non-actress when Stevens cast her in the role. Much like Hitchcock’s discovery Tippi Hedren, she had worked entirely as a fashion model. Several years older than Anne, she was small, and had an elven, ethereal quality similar to Audrey Hepburn’s, Hepburn had originally been approached for the role but turned it down. (Hepburn had actually suffered under the Nazis in Amsterdam; the script may have been too close to home. But also she was 30 at the time; Anne Frank was half her age). At any rate, Perkins held her own in a cast that also included Ed Wynn, Shelley Winters, Lou Jacobi, Richard Beymer (shortly to star in West Side Story), Diane Baker (excellently cast as her older sister), and several from the original Broadway production.

The Diary of Anne Frank inaugurates Perkins’ brief studio period, the first of our phases. 20th Century Fox next offered her the title role in Tess of the Storm Country (1960), but she turned it down and Baker played it instead. That year she married Dean Stockwell; a portent of her preferred associations (she embraced the counterculture), though the marriage would only last two years. In 1961 she played a supporting part in Wild in the Country with Elvis Presley. This was followed by the title role in the Spanish film Dulcinea a.k.a. Girl of La Mancha (1962), and the romantic interest in 1964’s Ensign Pulver opposite Robert Walker. Directed by Joshua Logan, it was the sequel to Mister Roberts, but it fared poorly at the box office.

In 1964 she married writer Robert Thom, and this ushers in what I think of as the “psychotronic” phase of Perkins’ career. This includes Monte Hellman’s two 1966 low-budget acid westerns with Jack Nicholson, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, followed by AIP’s psychedelic hit Wild in the Streets (1968), which was written by Thom and reunited her with Winters. Then came Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974), which starred Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, who’d been in Ride in the Whirlwind. Then her Matt Cimber period, in which she appeared in the blaxploitation film Cocoa (1975) starring Lola Falana, Alias Big Cherry (1975), and the jaw-dropping The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), aslo written by Thom.

Thom passed away in 1979 and by then people were beginning to write “Whatever happened to…?” articles about Perkins, she had vanished that thoroughly. This caused her to resurface and she next enjoyed the busiest and most productive phase of her career as a familiar supporting player for a period of 25 years. No longer stick thin and gorgeous in the same way, she now became known for playing mothers. She was Mary, Mother of God in A.D. (1985), Gladys Presley in Elvis (1990), and Patty Duke’s mother in Call me Anna (1990, as well as mothers in At Close Range (1986), Wall Street (1987), The Chamber (1996) and The Lost City (2005). She appeared in Table for Five (1983) with Jon Voight and tons and tons of made-for-tv movies, along with recurring parts on Knots Landing, Any Day Now, and the soap The Young and the Restless, which was her last regular gig. She retired in 2006.