John Mills, who won a supporting actor Oscar for David Lean’s 1970 “Ryan’s Daughter” and was knighted in 1977, died Saturday at his home west of London. He was 97.
Cause of death was not announced, but a trustee of his estate told the Associated Press Mills had been battling a chest infection for about a month.
As an actor, Mills never displayed the versatility or achieved the international fame of fellow countrymen such as Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness. But, especially in his native country, he was very well liked, particularly during the ’40s, when he came to embody the English everyman in such World War II sagas as “In Which We Serve” and “The Way to the Stars.”
In these pics, he shone in his displays of working-class ethos: He was small and soft-spoken, but he projected common sense, decency and pluckiness, all of which helped his characters overcome just about any adversity.
In the BBC’s 1988 program “John Mills: 80 Years On,” Richard Attenborough said Mills “gave film acting in England an integrity and a stature that nobody else did precisely in that way. … He belongs to his own country and epitomizes his own country.”
Mills worked steadily over six decades in more than 100 films, with the best known including “Waterloo Road,” “This Happy Breed,” David Lean’s “Great Expectations,” “Tunes of Glory” and Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson.”
Show biz kids
He and his second wife, author Mary Hayley Bell, were the parents of three children, all of whom found success in showbiz: actresses Juliet and Hayley, and son Jonathan, whose credits include writing and producing a docu about his father. (Mills’ first wife was Aileen Raymond.)
Mills was born in the East Suffolk fishing town of Felixstowe on Feb. 22, 1908. During his teens, he worked a day job for a corn merchant while performing in amateur groups at night.
At the age of 19 he set out for London and enrolled in Zelia Raye’s Dancing School. He worked in the chorus of “The Five O’Clock Revue” and soon joined a repertory company called the Quaints, which toured the Far East, performing a wide range of material, from classical to music hall.
In Singapore he met Noel Coward. When Mills returned to England, Coward cast him in a production of “Charley’s Aunt” and recommended him for the juvenile lead in “The 1931 Revue.”
In 1931 he also appeared in Coward’s original production of “Cavalcade,” but instead of signing a seven-year film contract that included the movie version of the play, he chose to star in another Coward stage production, “Words and Music” in 1932.
He made his film debut that year in “The Midshipmaid” with Jessie Matthews, followed by a series of indifferent vehicles including “Those Were the Days.” The parts got better as the ’30s progressed, particularly “Tudor Rose” (1936) and “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1939).
Mills also was busy on stage at the Old Vic in “She Stoops to Conquer” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie (for which he was paid £15 a week). He also starred in the original British stage production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and had been approached for the American film version when World War II broke out.
A duodenal ulcer kept him out of service and gave him the opportunity to play his first villain in the 1941 “Cottage to Let” (a Nazi spy) as well as “Young Mr. Pitt,” again with “Mr. Chips” star Robert Donat.
Coward wrote the role of the Cockney sailor in his 1942 patriotic war drama “In Which We Serve” especially for Mills, and he did not disappoint (pic included daughter Juliet’s film debut at the age of 11 months). He continued to serve on screen in “We Dive at Dawn,” “Waterloo Road” and “The Way to the Stars.”
During the war he directed and starred in a drama written by his wife, “Men in Shadow,” as well as her later plays “Angel,” “Duet for Two Hands” and “The Uninvited Guest.”
His popularity survived in the early postwar years, especially as the adult Pip in “Great Expectations,” in 1946, 1947’s “So Well Remembered” and “The October Man” and “Scott of the Antarctic” (’48).
He produced two films, neither a success: the 1949 “The History of Mr. Polly,” from an H.G. Wells novel, and 1950’s “The Rocking Horse Winner” from a D.H. Lawrence short story.
Except for “Hobson’s Choice” (1954), his screen time in the 1950s was largely wasted in “The End of the Affair,” “The Long Memory” and small roles in big pics such as “Around the World in 80 Days” and King Vidor’s “War and Peace.”
He starred as a policeman in the 1959 “Tiger Bay,” in which young Hayley made her acting debut. A career rebound came in the 1960 “Tunes of Glory” with Alec Guinness; Mills took the actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his perf.
Mills worked steadily in the ’60s, appearing in nearly 20 pics, though much of the material was indifferent, except for “The Chalk Garden” (1964), “King Rat” (1965), “Oh What a Lovely War!” (1969) and especially the 1966 “The Family Way” (again with Hayley) as a tough-nosed British patriarch.
He appeared on American TV in a production of Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” short-lived 1967 series “Dundee and the Culhane” and as a guest star on daughter Juliet’s series “Nanny and the Professor.”
Onstage he played T.E. Lawrence in Terence Rattigan’s “Ross” in England and on Broadway in 1961 (receiving a Tony nom as best actor), “Power of Persuasion” in 1963, “Veterans” opposite John Gielgud in 1972 and revivals of Rattigan plays such as “The Browning Version” and “Separate Tables.”
In 1966 he directed his only film, “Sky West and Crooked,” starring Hayley.
His work in Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” brought him an Oscar, but other period pieces from the early 1970s, such as “Young Winston” and “Lady Caroline Lamb,” provided work and nothing more. He starred in such big-budget productions as “The Wrong Box,” “Operation Crossbow” and “Oklahoma Crude,” which often were more interesting in concept than in execution.
He showed up in support in remakes of “The Big Sleep” and “The 39 Steps,” as well as “Zulu Dawn” and “Gandhi,” always playing a typical stiff-upper-lip Brit.
More recent appearances include 1987 Madonna pic “Who’s That Girl?”; Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 “Hamlet,” as Old Norway; and “Bean” in 1997. He played Gus the Theater Cat in a videotaped perf of Andrew Lloyd Webber-T.S. Eliot’ tuner “Cats.”
TV appearances include 1979 series “Quatermass,” several miniseries — “A Woman of Substance,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” all in 1989, and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” 1994 — telepics such as “Murder With Mirrors” (1985) and guesting on “The Love Boat” (1977) and “Tales of the Unexpected” (1979).
Although his retinas failed in 1992, leaving Mills nearly blind, he continued to act, making a cameo in 2003’s “Bright Young Things,” billed as “man taking cocaine at a party.” “I believe you’ll find among actors of my generation that retirement is a dirty word,” he once said.
Mills published his autobiography, “Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please,” in 1981.
Survivors include his wife and three children, as well as several grandchildren.
Services are being planned for Wednesday in Denham, where Mills died.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)