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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Obituary: Sir John Mills

Sir John Mills
Sir John Mills: Gentleman of the English screen

For nearly 70 years, Sir John Mills enjoyed a reputation as one of Britain's finest actors. Building on a catalogue of mild-mannered but iron-willed film characters in his youth, he made his name both on stage and television.

With appearances in more than 100 films, he conveyed the quiet passion of the noble Englishman, intent on doing the decent thing.

Mills was born in Norfolk on February 22 1908, and was brought up in Felixstowe, Suffolk.

He headed for London as a teenager and, before long, his first appearance in revue.

Determinedly English

Soon, an overseas tour of Mr Cinders took him to Singapore, where Noel Coward spotted him. On his return to London, Mills appeared in a couple of "The Master's" musical stage productions.

When Coward was asked to find actors for his naval propaganda film In Which We Serve, Mills was an obvious choice.

John Mills with Martita Hunt in Great Expectations
Martita Hunt and John Mills in Great Expectations
He was the dashing military die-hard with the stiff upper lip of other such epics, including We Dive at Dawn, The Colditz Story and the film that made him a star, Brown on Resolution. In each, he typified all that was good, courteous and noble of the wartime spirit.

And wide-eyed and brooding, he was the vulnerable Pip of David Lean's Great Expectations, as well as the heroic Scott of the Antarctic.

Throughout his career, Mills remained determinedly English and resisted lucrative offers to tie him and his family to Hollywood.

Showbusiness family

When he married playwright Mary Hayley Bell in 1943, he entered a celebrity marriage of unusual endurance and devotion.

The couple renewed their wedding vows as recently as 2001. They were also the creators of an acting dynasty.

John Mills in Ryan's Daughter
John Mills won an Oscar for Ryan's daughter
Their elder daughter Juliet enjoyed a successful theatrical career before moving to America, and their younger Hayley was a cinematic child prodigy.

Father and daughter appeared together in such British classics as Tiger Bay and The Swiss Family Robinson.

Mills went on to develop the character roles of Mossop in David Lean's Hobson's Choice and, for the same director, the Irish village mute Michael in Ryan's Daughter.

For his comprehensive performance in the latter, he was awarded an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Versatile veteran

During his long career, he worked with everybody from Jessie Matthews in Midshipmaid to Madonna in Who's That Girl.

John Mills won an Oscar for Ryan's Daughter
Despite his success, Mills resisted offers from Hollywood
Mills entertained no snobbery about different forms of entertainment and rejected John Gielgud's assertion that movies were "only to pay the income tax".

Television later claimed his attention, too. As well as his own comedy series Young at Heart in the early 1980s, he appeared in Tales of the Unexpected and the adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit.

The veteran star even lent his voice to the animated version of Where the Wind Blows, and toured with his one-man show An Evening with John Mills.

Enduring appeal

To mark his 80th birthday in 1988, the BBC televised a special tribute, as well as a season of his films.

Resisting this swansong, Mills worked on, appearing in Perfect Scoundrels in 1992 and, despite the onset of blindness, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996.

Sir John Mills with wife Mary and daughter Hayley
Sir John with wife Mary and daughter Hayley
Mills received his knighthood in 1976 and saw the publication of his memoirs, Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please, four years later.

As early as 1947, critic Peter Noble wrote that Mills possessed "the gift of combining all that is best in our national character".

More than fifty years later, Sir John's enduring success on stage and screen proved that he never lost it.


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