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Oscar-Winning Actor John Mills Dies at 97

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; 5:10 PM

John Mills, 97, a distinguished and wide-ranging actor who excelled on camera as an appealing British Everyman and dutiful soldier, died Saturday at his home in Denham, west of London, after a short, undisclosed illness.

He won 1971's best-supporting-actor Academy Award as the deaf-mute village idiot in David Lean's epic, "Ryan's Daughter."

"It was weird," Mr. Mills once said. "I just thought I'd been wasting my time for the past 55 years learning all these millions of lines, and then getting an Oscar for not speaking."

Boyishly handsome, he often portrayed guileless, wounded heroes and became one of the reigning British leading men of the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Mills appeared in more than 100 movies, sometimes with his two daughters, Hayley and Juliet Mills. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1976.

In an extensive and prolific career on stage and screen, he performed alongside both Noel Coward and Madonna. Through his mentor, Coward, he also came to work closely with Lean.

The Mills-Lean collaborations included wartime dramas such as "In Which We Serve" (1942) , "We Dive at Dawn" (1943) , and "This Happy Breed" (1944), Coward's drama about working-class endurance. They also worked on "Great Expectations" (1946), in which Mr. Mills played Pip in a haunting version of the Charles Dickens tale. From the late 1940s, he expanded further into character roles, usually playing off an aspect of his stoic, working-class onscreen identity. He was the noble, doomed adventurer Robert F. Scott in "Scott of the Antarctic" (1948) and an alcoholic but resolute Army captain in "Ice Cold in Alex" (1958).

Two films in 1960 demonstrated his ability to convey both decency, as the patriarch in "Swiss Family Robinson," and steady decline, as the unbalanced lieutenant colonel opposite Alec Guinness in "Tunes of Glory."

He continued to act into the 1990s, despite the onset of blindness. He was an eccentric real-estate magnate in the Madonna comedy "Who's That Girl?" (1987), Jack the Ripper in "Deadly Advice" (1993) and Old Norway in Kenneth Branagh's filming of "Hamlet" (1996).

Mr. Mills influenced generations of English actors, including 2002 best actor Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson.

"John Mills, who is a fantastic actor, could do anything," Wilkinson once told the New York Times. "He could play good guys, bad guys, weaklings, strong guys, working-class characters, upper-class characters. He could do anything he wanted to."

Lewis Ernest Watts Mills was born in Felixstowe, England. His father was a mathematics instructor, and his mother was a former box-office manager of London's Haymarket Theatre.

Encouraged by his mother and sister (a professional dancer 15 years his senior), he began appearing in local productions. But his father and paternal grandfather intervened and insisted on a career in business.

After clerking briefly at the corn merchant's exchange, he was bored and left at age 19 to study dance. To earn money, he sold toilet tissue.

His dancing teacher recommended him for a chorus part in the hit 1929 production "The Five O'Clock Girl" at London's Hippodrome Theatre. Not long after, he joined a touring repertory troupe, the Quaints, and embarked for Asia.

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