Born in a British seaside resort town, John Mills was the son of a mathematics teacher father. Mills' mother worked as a theatrical box office manager, and it was this world, rather than his father's academic milieu, which most attracted young Mills. After brief employment as a clerk in a corn merchant's office, Mills moved to London, where he enrolled at Zelia Raye's Dancing School. His first professional job was as a chorus dancer in The Five O'Clock Revue in 1929. Making as many contacts as possible, Mills was able to secure work on the legitimate stage, and in 1932 appeared in his first film, the Jessie Matthews vehicle The Midshipmaid. Learning his craft in "quota quickies," Mills rose to leading man in such prestige productions as Brown on Resolution (1935), Tudor Rose (1936), and The Green Cockatoo (1938). In 1939, he appeared in his first American film, Goodbye Mr. Chips, playing student Peter Colley. He starred in a number of morale-boosting World War II films, usually playing the personification of the calm, resourceful young British military officer; any chance for a real life career in uniform, however, was scuttled by Mills' duodenal ulcer. After the war, he starred in such international hits as Great Expectations (1946), Scott of the Antarctic (1949), Hobson's Choice (1954), and Above Us the Waves (1955). In 1970, Mills won a long overdue Oscar for his performance as the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter (1970), directed (as were several of Mills' earlier films) by David Lean. His Broadway work has included Ross, a 1961 dramatization of the life of T.E. Lawrence. In 1966, Mills directed Sky West and Crooked (aka Gypsy Girl), which starred his daughter, Hayley Mills, and was written by his wife, Mary Hayley Bell (Mills' other daughter, Juliet, is likewise an actress of note). One year later, he made his American series-TV debut as British attorney Dundee in the weekly Western Dundee and the Culhane. In 1977, John Mills was made a knight of the British Empire; his very full life, both offscreen and on, was summed up three years later in his autobiography Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen, Please.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Made his professional acting debut at the London Hippodrome in The Five O'Clock Girl in 1929.
- Enlisted in the British Army in the Royal Engineers (later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant) but medically discharged in 1942 for a stomach ulcer.
- Made his acting career playing traditionally British heroes, such as Scott of the Antarctic in 1948, and became associated with war drama including The Colditz Story in 1954 and Above Us The Waves in 1955.
- Often acted alongside his daughters, Juliet and Hayley; all three appeared together in a 1979 episode of The Love Boat.
- Was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1960, in addition to being knighted by the Queen in 1976.
- Released a documentary film in 2000 entitled Sir John Mills' Moving Memories, containing extensive home footage and interviews with the family.
- Named a Disney legend by the Walt Disney Company in 2002.