He played the archetypal ordinary, decent Englishman at war. A young John Mills was spotted by the great Noel Coward and cast as the lead in 'In Which We Serve'. It was the first of many film and stage roles including the classic 'Ice Cold In Alex'.
One of the archetypes of the decent and reliable on-screen Englishman, John Mills first appeared on-stage in 1929 as a chorus-dancer, launching his career that would span seven decades.
Lewis Ernest Watts Mills was born on 22 February 1908 at the Watts Naval Training College in Norfolk and grew up in Felixstowe, Suffolk. He studied at the Norwich Grammar School for Boys and rejected his father's academic career to pursue his dreams. From the age of six, he knew that he wanted to act.
Son of a mathematics teacher father and theatre box-office worker mother, John moved from his coastal home to London to enrol at Zelia Raye's Dancing School before embarking on his professional career in music hall as a chorus boy.
In 1927, he married Aileen Raymond before divorcing her in 1941. Mills was spotted by Noel Coward and began to appear regularly on the London stage in revues, musicals and legitimate plays throughout the 1930s.
His first film appearance was with Jessie Matthews in the 1932 film, 'The Midshipmaid'. He rose through the ranks to appear as leading man in 'Tudor Rose' (1936) and 'The Green Cockatoo' (1937). 'Goodbye Mr. Chips', in which he played student Peter Colley, was his first American film, in 1939 but he refused to sign a contract with the American studio and returned to England.
After becoming a popular stage performer in light comedies and musicals throughout the 1930s, Mills became best known, during the Second World War, for his roles in patriotic war films. These included 'Brown on Resolution' (1935), 'OHMS' (1937) and the classic 'In Which We Serve' in 1942, where he worked with his mentor Coward. He then appeared in 'We Dive At Dawn' (1943), 'Waterloo Road' (1945) and 'The Way To The Stars' (1945), which helped cement his reputation as an innovative English film star.
After his divorce in 1941, Mills married playwright Mary Hayley Bell. Since he was serving in the army, they could not have a church wedding so they renewed their vows at a church in 2001. They had three children together. Although he was now famous as the celluloid face of the British officer class, his own ill-health prevented him from participating in real combat.
Post-war, Mills starred in such successful epics as 'Scott of the Antarctic' (1948), 'The Colditz Story', 'Ice Cold In Alex' (1958) and the film adaptation of 'Oh! What A Lovely War' (1969). In 1960, he played one of his finest film roles - the bitter Colonel Basil Barrow - in 'Tunes of Glory'. This was one of his favourite roles.
Two of Mills' daughters, Hayley and Juliet, have pursued successful acting careers. In 1966 he starred with both of them in 'Sky West and Crooked' (aka 'Gypsy Girl'), which he also directed. He also appeared with Hayley in 'Tiger Bay' (1959), 'The Chalk Garden' (1964) and 'The Family Way' in 1966.
Other notable roles included 'King Rat' (1965), 'The Wrong Box' (1966), 'Lady Caroline Lamb' (1973), 'Young Winston' (1972) and 'Oklahoma Crude' (1973). In 1970 Mills won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his village idiot portrayal in the David Lean-directed 'Ryan's Daughter'.
John Mills was knighted for his services to British entertainment in 1977. He then starred in his most notable TV role - Professor Bernard Quartermass in 'The Quatermass Conclusion' in 1979. Between 1980 and 1982, he starred in 'Tales of the Unexpected' as well as 'Young At Heart' before appearing in 'Gandhi' (1982). He appeared in a range of TV shows and movies before 'Around the World In Eighty Days' in 1989.
By the 1990s, he was suffering from deafness and failing eyesight but he continued to act. His most notable roles were as Old Norway in 1996's 'Hamlet' and a gentleman in 'Bright Young Things' in 2003.
He died of a chest infection at the age of 97 his Buckinghamshire home on 23 April 2005.