05 June, 2009

John Mills


Sir John Mills was an English actor, who made more than 120 films in a career spanning seven decades.


Mills was born at the Watts Naval School in North Elmham, Norfolk, England, and grew up in Felixstowe, Suffolk. He was educated at Norwich High School for Boys (which since its move after World War II to Langley Park, Loddon, is known as Langley School), 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. He made his acting debut on the stage of the Sir John Leman School in Beccles in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream when he played the part of Puck.

Mills took an early interest in acting, making his professional debut at the London Hippodrome in The Five O'Clock Girl in 1929. He also starred in the Noel Coward revue Words and Music. He made his film debut in The Midshipmaid (1932), and appeared as Colley in the 1939 film version of Goodbye, Mr Chips, opposite Robert Donat.

Mills joined-up in September 1939 at the start of World War II, and was posted into the Royal Artillery. He was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, and was discharged in 1941 due to medical reasons. He starred in his friend Noel Coward's In Which We Serve.

He took the lead in Great Expectations in 1946, and subsequently made his career playing traditionally British heroes such as Captain Robert Falcon 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). He often acted in the roles of people who are not at all exceptional, but become heroes due to their common sense, generosity and right judgement. Altogether he appeared in over 120 films.

For his role as the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter (1970) — a complete departure from his usual style — Mills won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 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.

He also starred as Gus the Theatre Cat in the filmed version of the musical Cats in 1998.

In 2002 Mills released his extensive home movie footage in a documentary/film entitled John Mills' Moving Memories, with interviews with Mills, his children Hayley, Juliet and Jonathon and Richard Attenborough. The film was 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 John Mills' friends and fellow cast members including Sir Laurence Olivier, Harry Andrews, Walt Disney, David Niven, Dirk Bogarde, Rex Harrison, Tyrone Power.

He was appointed a CBE in 1960. In 1976 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

In 2002, he received a Fellowship of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), the highest award given by the Academy, and was named a Disney Legend by The Walt Disney Company.

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 but notable cameos.

He died aged 97 on 23 April 2005 in Chiltern, Buckinghamshire, following a chest infection. A few months after Sir John's death, Mary Hayley Bell died on 1 December 2005.

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