Retro Actor Spotlight: John Mills

Giving Classical British Cinema’s players another chance to shine in the limelight

Now Featuring: John Mills

There have been many stand-out performances in David Lean’s earlier British films. It is as if he had a magnet that attracted all the greatest talent from in and around the United Kingdom. John Mills was one of the most celebrated actors to work with Lean and certainly held one of the longest successful careers amongst them. He and Lean did five films together and it was only in 1946’s Great Expectations that he finally got the lead part. However, John carried much or a great deal of his other Lean collaborations starring in secondary roles. The characters he portrayed were vital to the storyline and brought about a sense of warmth to the pictures. His face was friendly and handsome, always bringing a smile to your face in times of laughter and a glimmer of hope in times of need. John had a universal appeal that I liken to Jack Lemmon as they both had lovable visages, were convincing in different genres of film, and always remained the guy for whom you rooted. Slightly unlike Jack, though, John translated this tenderness to his personal life (or perhaps vice versa) and was beloved by everyone who knew him.

John Lewis Ernest Mills was born on 22 February 1908 in North Elham, England, in the county of Norfolk. His father was headmaster at the local school but that did not prevent John from being bullied by the other schoolchildren, though he would credit the experience with giving him a thick skin. He was about 6 or 7 years old when he appeared in his first play and knew right away that he wanted to be an actor. After leaving school, he first worked an office job as a clerk at a corn merchant’s store. His second job had him selling toilet paper for a sanitary goods company in London. Years later in interviews, he repeated more than once that he “found the demonstrations a bit embarrassing.” Despite this, he stayed focused due to the fact that he had knowingly taken the job in order to be able to find acting work in the big city. He took dancing lessons in the afternoon and would audition when he could, eventually landing a job with the London Hippodrome around 1929 for £4 per week. The troupe made it to Singapore and it was on his second day there (either in 1929 or 1930) that he met Noël Coward for the first time. John, playing in the chorus of 6-month long production, used the opportunity to introduce himself and become friendly with Coward to that he could get a leg-in to hard-to-get London West End theatre auditions. His efforts proved successful and he got a job there, starting a fine theatre and cinematic career as well as marking the beginning of a lasting friendship with Coward. When World War II broke out in 1939, John immediately enlisted in the British Army, Royal Engineers Corps and stayed until he received a medical discharge in either late 1940 or 1942. Upon his dismissal from the military, he went on to mostly film roles during the 1940s where he often appeared as a serviceman – twice for David Lean.

John considered himself extremely lucky for having been able to work with David Lean and held a very high opinion of him. Though Lean’s total perfectionism irked some actors and crew members, John personally felt that it was worth waiting for Lean’s result and did not understand other actors being impatient with the director. It is likely for this that Lean cast him so often in his pictures and perhaps had Lean not moved onto his International Epics phase, he and John would have done more projects together. Unlike Lean, John did not aspire to travel around the world and was very content living in England. Though he did appear in some American films, he never spent more than 6 months at a time away from his beloved homeland. I suppose it was his good luck that Lean decided to film Ryan’s Daughter in Ireland, allowing John to accept a role than Lean himself knew would bring him Oscar gold. One of John’s most cherished memories is earning that statuette, all thanks to he and David having dinner in Rome and reminiscing on old times. 🙂

John in later life with daughters Juliet and Hayley

Notable Lean Films

In Which We Serve – 1942

This Happy Breed – 1944

Great Expectations – 1946

Hobsons’s Choice – 1954

Ryan’s Daughter – 1970


Here’s looking at you, John

  • Married 2nd wife Mary Hayley Bell during a 48-hour military leave, with it lasting from 1941 to 2005. They had three children: Juliet, Hayley & Jonathan. Juliet and Hayley are both well-known actresses.
  • Received a CBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1960 and a Knighthood in 1976
  • Appeared in over 100 films
  • Was offered a considerable contract by 20th Century Fox in 1928 but turned it down in lieu of staying in England
  • Was a song and dance man at the beginning of his career
  • Loved watching and playing in musicals, appearing in Cats in his 80s
  • Was once neighbours with David Niven, David Lean, and Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh on the same street in Denham, England
  • Was almost totally blind towards the end of his life

The Mills family: Jonathan, Juliet, Hayley, John & Mary