April 23, 2005

Oscar-Winning British Actor Sir John Mills Dies

British actor Sir John Mills, who won an Oscar in 1971 for his portrayal of a mute village idiot in "Ryan's Daughter," died on Saturday aged 97, a trustee for his estate said.

"Sir John died this morning at around 6:30 (1:30 a.m. EDT). He'd been ill for about a month with a chest infection," the trustee told Reuters. "He remained remarkably lucid until the end."

Mills made his name in patriotic films during and after World War II including "The October Man," "Scott of the Antarctic," "Dunkirk" and "Ice Cold in Alex."

Handsome and dapper, he embodied to many the archetypal British war hero, either as the cool-headed gentleman officer or the resigned working class soldier.

His first big break came in 1946, when he played Pip in a film version of Charles Dickens' novel "Great Expectations."

He always maintained his favorite movie was the 1960 production "Tunes of Glory," in which he co-starred with Alec Guinness as a highly-strung English officer given the job of leading a hostile Scottish army battalion.

He won the best actor award at the Venice Festival for the film and went on to take an Oscar as best supporting actor a decade later for "Ryan's Daughter," directed by David Lean.

A versatile actor, Mills had a minor role in pop star Madonna's 1987 film "Who's that Girl?" and made his final film appearance in 2003 in "Bright Young Things," directed by British comedian Stephen Fry.

In it, at the age of 95, he had a cameo role as a man snorting cocaine at a party.

Born on Feb. 22, 1908 in Felixstowe, eastern England, John Lewis Mills started in the theater at the age of 19, helped in part by his friendship with Noel Coward.

His output in the 1940s and 1950s was prolific. During his long career he appeared in more than 100 films.

He also fathered one of Britain's leading theatrical families. Both his daughters, Juliet and Hayley, are successful actresses who found their stage feet at an early age in some of their father's productions.

Mills, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1977, was divorced from his first wife, the actress Aileen Raymond, in 1940 after nine years of marriage. He is survived by his second wife, Mary Hayley Bell.

Oscar-Winning Actor John Mills Dies at 97

LONDON - Actor Sir John Mills, the quintessential British officer in scores of films, died Saturday after an Oscar-winning career spanning more than 50 years that included roles in "Gandhi" and "Ryan's Daughter." He was 97.

Mills died at home in Denham, west of London, after a short illness, a statement from his trustees said.

Actor and director Richard Attenborough said Mills was hospitalized last month with a chest infection, from which he did not recover.

Mills' roles ranged from Pip in David Lean's "Great Expectations" to the village idiot in Lean's "Ryan's Daughter," for which he won his Academy Award as best supporting actor in 1971.

But he took his place in film history as soldier, sailor, airman and commanding officer, embodying the decency, humility and coolness under pressure so cherished in the British hero.

On Mills' 80th birthday in 1988, historian Jeffrey Richards called him "truly an English Everyman. His heroes have been on the whole not extraordinary men but ordinary men whose heroism derives from their levelheadedness, generosity of spirit and innate sense of what is right."

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mills "made us proud to be British."

"Over many decades and countless films, he inspired us with his ability, warmth and spirit," Blair said.

Buckingham Palace said Queen Elizabeth II was sorry to hear of the actor's death.

Small, fair-haired, with a boyish face and very blue eyes, he was the son, the brother, the boy next door who went off to fight the Germans and only sometimes came back.

In "Forever England" he was the ordinary seaman who pins down a German battleship. In "Waterloo Road" he played an AWOL soldier. In Noel Coward's 1942 classic "In Which We Serve" he was a Cockney able seaman, and in Anthony Asquith's "The Way to the Stars," one of the most popular films of the war, he was a schoolmaster-turned-RAF pilot.

These performances were touching and restrained, within the wartime bounds of acceptable sentimentality, and they made his name.

"There was no one comparable really," Attenborough told British Broadcasting Corp. "He gave such a variety of impeccable performances. ... He will be hugely missed."

The two were friends and worked together on films including Attenborough's "Gandhi," in which Mills played the viceroy of India.

Age seemed hardly to touch him and he carried on in military roles for decades, eventually becoming the commander, as in "Above Us the Waves" in 1955. He was trapped in a submarine in 1950's "Morning Departure," toiled through the desert in "Ice Cold In Alex" (1958), and in "Tunes of Glory" (1960) he was the commander of a Scottish regiment, tormented by a fellow officer.

In a recent survey of British film legends by Sky television, voters puts Mills in 8th place all-time among British male actors.

But Mills started his career as a hoofer, a song and dance man in old Fred Astaire roles, far from the trenches.

Born Lewis Ernest Watts, the son of a Suffolk schoolmaster, he started work at 17 as a grain merchant's clerk but longed for the stage.

His older sister Annette, part of a dancing duo at Ciro's, the London nightclub, encouraged his ambitions and he moved to the capital and changed his name.

Mills recalled how he spent the mornings selling disinfectants and toilet paper to pay the rent, and his afternoons at tap dancing lessons.

"Then I got into a very tatty double act with a man called George Posford who played the balalaika while sang 'Sonny Boy' and that was how it all started," he added.

He was acting with at traveling troupe called The Quaints, in Singapore in 1929 when Noel Coward saw the show and suggested Mills look him up in London.

That led to parts in Coward's revues and eventually his war movies, where Mills swapped dancing shoes for uniform.

Mills' own military career in the Royal Engineers lasted little more than a year after the outbreak World War II, until he was declared unfit because of an ulcer.

Mills was married first to actress Aileen Raymond, then in 1941 to Mary Hayley Bell, an actress-turned-playwright.

Their son Jonathan is a screenwriter and daughters Juliet and Hayley are actresses.

Among Mills' many non-military films were "Great Expectations," "Hobson's Choice," "The Wrong Box," "Tiger Bay" with his daughter Hayley, and "Gandhi."

He was made a CBE, or Companion of the Order of British Empire, in 1960 and knighted in 1976.

Mills was wiry, fit and remarkably youthful in to old age, which his daughter Hayley attributed to "joie de vivre."

"Maybe what attracts people is that exuberant spiritual quality that they recognize is still present," she said in 1986.

At 80, Mills rejected any idea of giving up acting.

"I've never considered myself to be working for a living; I've enjoyed myself for a living instead," he said.

Mills is survived by his wife and their children. The funeral service will be held on April 27 in Denham.

Sir John Mills, Actor Who Played the Quintessential British Officer, Dies at 97

Sir John Mills, the celebrated British actor who portrayed war heroes, Dickensian upstarts and an extraordinary pantheon of English characters in a film, stage and television career that spanned much of the 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Denham, west of London. He was 97.

The cause of death was not announced, but The Associated Press quoted a trustee of Sir John's estate as saying he had been ill for about a month with a chest infection. He had been almost blind since 1992, when the retinas of his eyes failed, though he continued acting, appearing earlier this year as A Tramp in a short titled "Lights2."

In a career that spanned 70 years and included more than 100 films and scores of plays in London and New York, Sir John delivered touching, restrained performances that caught cherished notions of what it meant to be a Briton - self-effacing, decent, sentimental, even mawkish, but reliable, cool under fire, the ordinary seaman who pins down a German battleship, the schoolmaster-turned-R.A.F. pilot.

In films, he was the Cockney seaman in Noël Coward's classic "In Which We Serve" (1942), the sailor boy-next-door who goes to war in "This Happy Breed" (1944), the adult orphan Pip in David Lean's "Great Expectations" (1947), the compulsive disciplinarian commander of a Scottish regiment crushed by Alec Guinness's old-boy clique in "Tunes of Glory" (1960), and the Viceroy of India in "Gandhi" (1982).

On stage, Sir John, who began as a song-and-dance man in the 1920's, captivated London audiences with his first major hit as the American, George, in the 1939 production "Of Mice and Men." But he also performed Shakespeare and appeared in many West End plays, including three written by his wife, Mary Hayley Bell - "Men in Shadow" (1942), "Duet for Two Hands" (1945) and "The Uninvited Guest" (1953). He made his Broadway debut in 1961 as Lawrence of Arabia in Terence Rattigan's "Ross."

A small, wiry athletic man with intense gray eyes, wavy brown hair, a high forehead, an angular face and a resonant baritone voice, Sir John became one of Britain's most versatile, beloved and busy actors - and found time for tennis, skiing, swimming, polo and fast cars, which he called his lone vice.

He made forays to America for stage and television work, but resisted the lure of Hollywood, making his base and most of his films in England. "I love it here, and my wife and I wouldn't be happy anywhere else," he once explained. "So if I lived in Hollywood, I would simply be rich and unhappy. What's the point in that?"

He extolled honesty as a key to his craft, advising young actors to imagine the ways in which a character speaks and thinks, and then to act in accordance with those images. "He will be telling the truth and never overact or underact," Sir John said.

The recipient of many awards, including a prize at the 1960 International Film Festival in Venice, he won an Oscar as best supporting actor in 1971 for his portrayal of a village idiot in "Ryan's Daughter," for which he studied the behavior of brain-damaged patients for months. Queen Elizabeth II named him a Commander of the British Empire in 1960 and knighted him in 1976.

Sir John was the father of one of England's leading theatrical families, and appeared with both his daughters in films. He found several roles for Juliet Mills, the first when she was just a few weeks old, in "In Which We Serve," and he introduced Hayley Mills as the defiant girl in "Tiger Bay," taking the role of the police superintendent himself. A son, Jonathan, is a film scriptwriter.

Sir John was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills on Feb. 22, 1908. His birthplace has been reported as Felixstowe, Suffolk, and as North Elmham, Norfolk. His father was a mathematics teacher and his grandfather a member of the London Corn Exchange, and while he was stagestruck he seemed destined for a career in business until he was 19, when he fled to the West End, determined to try his luck with a new first name, John.

He sold disinfectants and toilet paper to pay the rent, studied tap dancing and, in 1929, was cast in the chorus of a musical at the Hippodrome. A break soon developed. He joined a repertory company called The Quaints, and went on a yearlong tour in Asia, playing roles in dramas, comedies and musicals.

On tour, he met three people who were to be important to him - Aileen Raymond, a member of the troupe, whom he married in 1932 (they were divorced eight years later), Mary Hayley Bell, a 16-year-old girl in the audience in Tientsin who would become his second wife in 1941, and Noël Coward, who was impressed by his acting and became a lifelong friend.

Back in London, the young actor soon found parts in Coward's reviews and plays, including "Cavalcade" (1931), and in other productions. In 1938, he was invited to join the Old Vic Company and played Marlow in "She Stoops to Conquer," and Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." After his 1939 West End success in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," he was offered the lead in Maxwell Anderson's "Key Largo" on Broadway. But World War II intervened.

He joined the Royal Engineers and later won a commission in the Royal Monmouthshire Rifles, but an ulcer ended his military career in 1942, and he returned to the London theater. As his stage career progressed, he turned increasingly to films, acting in four or five a year, so many that he sometimes lost count. His role in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," brought him international stardom in 1939.

Many of his World War II movies were hailed by critics as gems of the genre, a mix of fine acting and patriotic themes. His heroes were not extraordinary men - citizen soldiers, seamen and airmen with boyish faces, the son or brother or boy next door who goes to war, is steady under fire and sometimes does not come home.

In Anthony Asquith's "Way to the Stars" (1945) he was a civilian schoolmaster who joins the R.A.F. In "Forever England" (1935) he was the able-bodied seaman confronting an enemy battleship, and in "Waterloo Road" (1945) he was a tormented soldier absent without leave. Sir John produced some films, including two comedies - "The Rocking Horse Winner" (1950), and "The History of Mr. Polly" (1949).

His later roles included the explorer Robert Falcon Scott in "Scott of the Antarctic" (1948), an inept sailor in "The Baby and the Battleship" (1956), Willie Mossop, a bootmaker clashing with his daughter, in "Hobson's Choice" (1954), Masterman Finsbury in "The Wrong Box" (1966), a submarine commander in "Above Us the Waves" (1955), Cpl. Tubby Bins in "Dunkirk" (1958) and General Kitchener in "Young Winston" (1972).

Sir John made his American television debut in 1956 in a production of Somerset Maugham's play "The Letter," and played a British officer in "The Interrogator," on NBC in 1962. His television work included a western series, "Dundee and the Culhane," in 1967, movie roles, many guest and comedic appearances and roles in "Tales of the Unexpected," in 1980.

In later years, there were other films and appearances, despite his failing eyesight. One of his last roles was a cameo - a man taking cocaine at a party in Stephen Fry's "Bright Young Things," in 2003.

Sir John, who is survived by Mary Hayley Bell and their three children, told David Frost in a 2002 interview that he would never retire. "It's something that I can hardly explain," he said. "It's such warmth that greets me, and I can even say the word love and I feel terrific. It's just wonderful."

Mills, the decent chap everyone loved

SIR JOHN MILLS, grandfather of the British cinema and one of the few Englishmen to deserve the description of screen legend, died yesterday, aged 97.
He leaves a canon of work stretching over 60 years and more than 100 films. It includes such memorable roles as Pip in Great Expectations; an army captain in Ice Cold in Alex and his 1970 Oscar-winning performance as the village idiot Michael in Ryan’s Daughter. He was knighted in 1976.

During the war he made so many films as the sanguine English hero that he once complained he played opposite more submarines than leading ladies.

He was still performing in his nineties, although the scripts had to be read to him because of his failing eyesight. A one-man show, An Evening with John Mills, kept his stage sensibilities sharp until the retinas in both his eyes failed.

“I think the secret of my success is that I’ve always tried to be an actor rather than a film star,” he said in 2001.

“I’ve stayed in Britain rather than gone after the big money in America. I’m very lucky to have been at it for so long, and it’s great to get a few perks now as a reward. People are still pleased to see me and I’m very flattered by that.”

One of his regrets would have been that he died before his second wife, Mary, a former playwright and novelist, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is wheelchair bound.

“One day Mary and I will leave this world, but we’ll be reunited in the next,” he once said. “Mary and I will be together always. Always. Now I’ve found her I’m not going to let her go.”

The couple had three children: Hayley Mills, a film star in her own right; Juliet, also an actress and married to Maxwell Caulfield who acts in Casualty; and Jonathan, a film producer. Hayley’s son Crispian, Sir John’s grandson, fronted the rock band Kula Shaker in the 1990s.

Mills and his wife were denied a full church service for their wedding in 1941 because he was serving in the army.

But 60 years on, the couple renewed their vows at a special service in the village church in Denham, Buckinghamshire, where they lived for more than 30 years and where Mills died yesterday after a short illness.

He was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills in Suffolk in 1908, the son of a village headmaster. From the age of seven he decided he wanted to go on the stage. His elder sister Annie was a professional dancer in a show that brought the charleston from New York to London.

Small for his age, he was bullied at boarding school until he spent a summer holiday learning martial arts and on his first day back at school broke his chief tormentor’s nose.

When he left school at 16, he moved to London and got a job as a door-to-door lavatory paper salesman but was sacked for taking too much time off to attend dancing classes.

His first stage job was as a chorus boy in The Five O’Clock Girl at the New Cross theatre for £4 a week. At the same time he set up a cabaret act with a man named George Posford. The act was called Posford and Mills, Rhythmic Duettists, and they finished their act with Mills down on one knee in a top hat singing Sonny Boy.

He met Noël Coward on a tour of the Far East and the two became great friends. Later Coward became godfather to his daughter Juliet.

It was on Coward’s recommendation that Mills got the lead in a stage production of Charley’s Aunt. He later said Coward was the greatest influence on his career.

Two years later, in 1932, he made his film debut in The Midshipmaid as one of a group of sailors who welcomed the actress Jessie Matthews aboard a ship. Later he played a former pupil of Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr Chips.

But it was the war years that were the making of him. He started playing soldiers and seamen in what were little more than propaganda films full of nasty Germans and brave Britons. He was promoted to submarine skipper in We Dive at Dawn and joined the RAF for The Way to the Stars.

The director David Lean cast him as the grown-up Pip in Great Expectations in 1946, before he returned to the officers’ mess for Ice Cold in Alex — in which his co-star Sylvia Syms exposed too much cleavage for the censor’s liking and their kiss had to be reshot with three buttons of her shirt undone instead of the original four — and Tunes of Glory, his favourite film in which he co-starred with Alec Guinness.

Lord Attenborough, one his great friends, cast him as Field Marshal Haig in the anti-war Oh! What a Lovely War, but his career fell into the doldrums for almost two decades as he was reluctant to leave these shores.

It was Lean who came to the rescue, casting him as Michael in Ryan’s Daughter. His last film was Bright Young Things in 2003 directed by Stephen Fry, in which he played a cocaine-sniffing aristocrat.

Fry said last night: “I saw him last week a few times. He was slipping away. But how appropriate for John to die on April 23, St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday. I adored him. He had no ego at all.

“John was a remarkably talented man, a wonderful hoofer in his early days, a terrific sportsman, too, who could have become a top footballer. He was also a really good photographer.”

Attenborough said: “He was unequalled as a British movie star. There was nobody who gave such a variety of impeccable performances.

“He was my oldest friend and he’s been a sort of hero to me. I shall miss him very much but I shall not be alone.”

Rosie Millard, who interviewed Mills for The Sunday Times Home section at his house last year, said: “He’d obviously had a happy life and spoke warmly of his three children and Lady Mills. He and Lady Mills would watch television together, holding hands. He was beautifully turned out, with a beautiful tie on and a pair of slippers with a crest on.”

The actress Nanette Newman, wife of the director Bryan Forbes, worked with Mills and was one of his best friends. The couple saw him last at his 97th birthday party less than two months ago. “He was remarkable,” said Newman. “He was the great British film actor. He remained true to Britain, too. Johnny was British to the core.”

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