John Mills

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).

    Early life

    Mills was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills in Felixstowe, Suffolk, the son of Edith (Baker), a theatre box office manager, and Lewis Mills, a mathematics teacher.

    He lived in a modest house in Gainsborough Road Felixstowe until 1929. 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 the Second World War, Mills enlisted in the British Army 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.[]

    Personal life

    The Wick on Richmond Hill in Richmond, Greater London, was the family home for many years

    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. The three also appeared together decades later, on an episode of ABC's The Love Boat. Mills's grandson by Hayley, Crispian Mills, is a musician, best known for his work with the raga 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.



    Year Title Role Notes
    1932 The Midshipmaid Golightly
    1933 Britannia of Billingsgate Fred Bolton
    The Ghost Camera Ernest Elton
    1934 The River Wolves Peter Farrell
    Blind Justice Ralph Summers
    The Lash Arthur Haughton
    A Political Party Tony Smithers
    Doctor's Orders Ronnie Blake
    Those Were the Days Bobby Poskett
    1935 Car of Dreams Robert Miller
    Royal Cavalcade Young Enlistee
    Brown on Resolution Albert Brown (later reissued in the UK as Forever England)
    Charing Cross Road Tony
    1936 The First Offence Johnnie Penrose alternative title Bad Blood
    Tudor Rose Lord Guilford Dudley Released as Nine Days a Queen in USA
    1937 O.H.M.S. Cpl. Bert Dawson
    The Green Cockatoo Jim Connor
    1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips Peter Colley - as a Young Man
    1941 Cottage to Let Flt. Lieutenant Perry
    Old Bill and Son Young Bill Busby
    1942 The Big Blockade Tom
    The Black Sheep of Whitehall Bobby Jessop
    The Young Mr Pitt William Wilberforce
    In Which We Serve Ordinary Seaman Blake
    1943 We Dive at Dawn Capt. Lt. Taylor, R.N.
    1944 This Happy Breed Billy Mitchell
    1945 Waterloo Road Jim Colter
    The Way to the Stars Peter Penrose
    1946 Great Expectations Pip
    1947 So Well Remembered George Boswell
    The October Man Jim Ackland
    1948 Scott of the Antarctic Captain Scott
    Captain R.F. Scott R.N.
    1949 The History of Mr Polly Alfred Polly
    The Rocking Horse Winner Bassett (also produced)
    1950 Morning Departure Lt. Commander Armstrong
    1952 Mr. Denning Drives North Tom Denning
    The Gentle Gunman Terrence Sullivan
    1953 The Long Memory Phillip Davidson
    1954 Hobson's Choice Willie Mossop Nominated-BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
    1955 Escapade John Hampden
    The Colditz Story Pat Reid
    The End of the Affair Albert Parkis
    Above Us the Waves Commander Fraser
    1956 The Baby and the Battleship Puncher Roberts
    War and Peace Platon Karataev
    Around the World in 80 Days London Carriage Driver
    It's Great to Be Young Mr. Dingle
    1957 Town on Trial Supt. Mike Halloran
    The Vicious Circle Dr. Howard Latimer
    1958 Ice Cold in Alex Captain Anson
    Dunkirk Binns
    I Was Monty's Double Major Harvey (also titled Hell, Heaven or Hoboken)
    1959 Summer of the Seventeenth Doll Barney (also titled Season of Passion)
    Tiger Bay Superintendent Graham (with daughter Hayley Mills)
    1960 Swiss Family Robinson Father Robinson
    Tunes of Glory Lt. Col. Basil Barrow (Battalion Commander) Volpi Cup for Best Actor
    Nominated-BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
    1961 The Singer Not the Song Father Michael Keogh
    Flame in the Streets Jacko Palmer
    1962 Tiara Tahiti Lt. Col. Clifford Southey
    The Valiant Captain Morgan
    1964 The Chalk Garden Maitland (with daughter Hayley Mills)
    1965 The Truth About Spring Tommy Tyler (with daughter Hayley Mills)
    King Rat Smedley - Taylor
    Operation Crossbow Gen. Boyd
    1966 The Family Way Ezra Fitton (with daughter Hayley Mills)
    Prize San Sebastián for Best Actor (tied with Maurice Ronet for The Champagne Murders)
    The Wrong Box Masterman Finsbury
    1967 Africa Texas Style Wing Commander Hayes
    Chuka Colonel Stuart Valois
    1968 A Black Veil for Lisa Inspector Franz Bulon
    Emma Hamilton Sir William Hamilton
    1969 Oh! What a Lovely War Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
    Run Wild, Run Free The Moorman
    1970 Adam's Woman Sir Phillip MacDonald
    Ryan's Daughter Michael Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
    Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture

    Nominated-BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor
    1971 Dulcima Mr. Parker
    1972 Young Winston General Kitchener
    1973 Lady Caroline Lamb Canning
    Oklahoma Crude Cleon Doyle
    1975 The Human Factor Mike McAllister
    1976 Trial by Combat Colonel Bertie Cook (also titled A Dirty Knight's Work)
    1977 The Devil's Advocate Blaise Meredith
    1978 The Big Sleep Inspector Jim Carson
    The Thirty Nine Steps Scudder
    1979 Zulu Dawn Sir Henry Bartle Frere
    The Quatermass Conclusion Professor Bernard Quatermass
    1982 Gandhi The Viceroy
    1983 Sahara Cambridge
    1986 When the Wind Blows Jim (voice)
    1987 Who's That Girl Montgomery Bell (credited as Sir John Mills)
    1993 The Big Freeze Dapper man
    1994 Deadly Advice Jack the Ripper
    1995 The Grotesque Sir Edward Cleghorn (also titled Gentleman Don't Eat Poets)
    1996 Hamlet Old Norway
    1997 Bean Chairman (credited as Sir John Mills)
    1998 Cats Gus the Theater Cat
    2003 Bright Young Things Gentleman
    2004 Lights2 The Tramp Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (previously worked on Scott of The Antarctic)


    Year Title Role Notes
    1967 Dundee and the Culhane Dundee 13 episodes
    1974 The Zoo Gang Thomas 'The Elephant' Devon 6 episodes
    1978 Dr. Strange Thomas Lindmer TV Movie
    1979 Quatermass Professor Bernard Quatermass
    1980-82 Young at Heart Albert Collyer 18 episodes
    1987 The Dame Edna Experience Season 1, Episode 6 (as himself)
    1993 Harnessing Peacocks Bernard Quigley TV Movie
    1994 Martin Chuzzlewit Mr Chuffey 3 episodes, TV Mini-series

    Stage appearances

    Year Title Role Theatre
    1929 The Five O'Clock Girl Hippodrome Theatre
    1931 The 1931 Revue London Pavilion, London
    1931 Cavalcade Drury Lane
    1932 Words and Music Adelphi Theatre
    1934 Jill Darling Savoy Theatre
    1936 Aren't Men Beasts? Strand Theatre
    1939 A Midsummer Night's Dream Oberon Old Vic Theatre
    1939 She Stoops to Conquer Young Marlow Old Vic Theatre
    1939-40 Of Mice and Men George Milton Old Vic Theatre
    1942 Men in Shadow Lyric Theatre, London
    1945 Duet for Two Hands Vaudeville Theatre
    1960-61 Ross Broadway Theatre
    1972 Veterans Royal Court Theatre
    1973 At the End of the Day Savoy Theatre
    1974 The Good Companions Her Majesty's Theatre
    1975 Great Expectations Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford
    1977 Separate Tables Apollo Theatre
    1982 Goodbye, Mr. Chips Chichester
    1983 Little Lies Wyndham's Theatre
    1986 The Petition National Theatre
    1987 Pygmalion Broadway

    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