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A Brief Profile of John Mills

A Brief Profile of John Mills

Early Life

The British actor, director, and producer John Mills was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills on 22 February 1908 in North Elmham, Norfolk. Mills grew up in Felixstowe, Suffolk, where his father was a maths teacher, and his mother was a theatre box office manager. He had a sister, Annette, some 13 years older, who also became an actor.

After leaving the Norwich Grammar School for Boys, Mills was briefly employed at a grain merchant’s office in Ipswich. However, he was convinced from an early age that he was destined for a career in the performing arts. Thus, he soon moved on to London and enrolled at Zelia Raye’s Dancing School.

Early Career

After graduating from Dance School in 1929, Mills landed his first professional role as an extra in The Five O’clock Girl at the London Hippodrome. He next got a job with a theatrical touring company and undertook an extensive tour of Asia. Noel Coward saw him perform in Singapore and wrote him a letter of recommendation. On his return to the UK, Mills went on to star in the Coward revues; Cavalcade (1931) and Words and Music (1932).

Mills made his big screen debut in the romantic comedy The Midshipmaid (1932). Soon after, he landed major supporting roles in a number of films. His first lead appearance came in the WWI action drama film Forever England (1935). Other leading roles followed in the likes of Tudor Rose (1936) and The Green Cockatoo (1937). His Hollywood debut came with a supporting role in the highly popular Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). The film helped him achieve international stardom, with lucrative offers from Hollywood soon following. However, Mills opted to continue to pursue an acting career in England.

The War Years

In 1939, at the outbreak of WW2, Mills joined the Royal Engineers. He later gained a commission in the Royal Monmouthshire Rifles. However, he still managed to squeeze in a few film appearances in the likes of All Hands (1940), Old Bill and Son (1941), and The Big Blockade (1942). A duodenal ulcer abruptly ended his military service in 1942. After that, Mills made a full-time return to his acting career.

Mills next starred in the classic naval drama In Which We Serve (1942), co-directed by David Lean and Noel Coward. He now found himself often being cast as the everyman, English war hero. These roles were true in such films as We Dive at Dawn (1943), Waterloo Road (1945), and The Way to the Stars (1945).

Post-war Career

Immediately following WW2, Mills enjoyed more success, starring in box office hits such as Great Expectations (1946), with Alec Guinness, and Scott of the Antarctic (1948), featuring Kenneth More. He turned his hand to producing for the first time in the critically acclaimed The History of Mr Polly (1949). Some of Mills’ standout films of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s include The Colditz Story (1955), Ice Cold In Alix (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), The Chalk Garden (1964), King Rat (1965), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), and Young Winston (1972).

John Mills (right) as Pip in Great Expectations (1946).   Image credit: Flickr/ (CC BY 1.0)

In 1971, Mills won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the mentally subnormal ‘Michael’ in Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Aged almost 70, Mills secured the lead roles in Trial by Combat (1976) and The Devil’s Advocate (1977). Major supporting roles came in the remakes of The Big Sleep (1978) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978). He also made the cast list in the likes of Zulu Dawn (1979), Gandhi (1982), and Sahara (1983). Meanwhile, in television, he played the title character in ITV’s popular Quatermass ITV series. He followed this up with his role as Albert Collyer in the sitcom in Young at Heart (1980–82).

Later Career

In 1986, Mills starred in The Petition at London’s National Theatre. He also provided a lead voice for the animated disaster movie When the Wind Blows (1986). The following year he starred as Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion on Broadway and gave a supporting performance in the Madonna film Who’s That Girl (1987). By 1992, retina failure in both eyes had left Mills almost blind but he continued to act. He went on to star in the TV movie Harnessing Peacocks (1993) and 3 episodes of the TV miniseries Martin Chuzzlewit (1994).

Mills then played the head of an art museum in Rowan Atkinson’s 1997 film ‘Bean’.  Now aged 90, Mills played ‘Gus’ in the straight-to-video film version of the musical Cats (1998). He made a cameo appearance in the British drama film Bright Young Things (2003). In 2004, Mills made his last film cinematic appearance, aged 96, playing a tramp in the film short Lights 2 (2005).  The film’s cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, had last worked with Mills fifty years earlier on ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. In all, John Mills appeared in more than 120 films in a career that spanned over seventy years.

Personal Life

Mills’ married his first wife, the actress Aileen Raymond, in 1932. They divorced eight years later without having children. Mills married his second wife, dramatist and author Mary Hayley Bell, in a civil ceremony in January 1941. They lived in Richmond, Greater London, for many years, before moving to Hills House, Denham, Buckinghamshire.

The couple had three children, Juliet (b. 1941), Haley (b. 1946) and Jonathan (b. 1949). Both Juliet and Hayley became child actresses who  still (2022) have ongoing careers. Jonathan Mills is a screenwriter and film director.

In 1960, Mills was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 1976, he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. He was made a Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 2002. He was also named a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company in  the same year.

In 1981, Mills published his autobiography, “Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please,”.

He once said of himself, “One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was to be born with a desperate desire to become an actor. I never remember at any age wanting to be anything else”.


John Mills died following a stroke, aged 97, on 23 April 2005 in Denham, Buckinghamshire. He was survived by his wife, three children, and seven grandchildren. He was buried in St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Denham, Buckinghamshire.


Header image credit: David Fowler/Shutterstock.com

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