Sir John Mills, the elegant British actor who won an Oscar in 1970 for his role as a hunchback in "Ryan's Daughter," recently turned 80 with tributes from fans and colleagues in a country that takes its leading men seriously.
The actor, whose career has spanned 55 years and more than 120 films and plays, is being feted with honorific articles and film retrospectives."His great achievement has been to show the qualities of English decency operating at every level of society," wrote Jeffrey Richards in The Daily Telegraph in an appreciation entitled "The English Everyman."
Sir Richard Attenborough, the Academy Award-winning director of "Gandhi" and a longtime friend and colleague, said Mills "gave film acting in England an integrity and a stature that nobody else did precisely in that way."
In a TV program, "John Mills: 80 Years On," aired by the British Broadcasting Corp., Attenborough said Mills possessed "the image and the charisma of a major movie star who is essentially an indigenous movie star. He belongs to his own country and epitomizes his own country."
In the same program, Mills tells interviewer Christopher Frayling of his particular affection for Britain.
"I'm mad about the country. I really like it. I've been all over the world, everywhere, (but) . . . I'm always absolutely delighted to come home," said Mills, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976.
These are appropriate sentiments for an actor whose career embraces such classic British films as "In Which We Serve" in 1942, Noel Coward and David Lean's stirring war movie; Lean's "Great Expectations" in 1946; Bryan Forbes' "The Wrong Box" in 1966; and Attenborough's own "Oh, What A Lovely War" in 1969.
Despite his screen acclaim playing archetypically British military servicemen alongside a variety of character parts, Mills began his career as a theatrical song-and-dance man in the chorus line of "The Five O'Clock Girl" at the London Hippodrome in 1929.
By the early 1930s, he was appearing in Noel Coward's lavish "Cavalcade" and in his 1932 "Words and Music."
His first screen role was as a hoofing midshipman opposite Jessie Matthews in "The Midshipmaid" in 1932, but his first significant part was in the World War I naval adventure movie, "Brown On Resolution" in 1935.
The 1930s and '40s saw his burgeoning professional relationships with Noel Coward and David Lean, as well as the beginning of his friendship with Attenborough, his co-star in "In Which They Serve" and his director on three different movies: "Lovely War," "Young Winston," and "Gandhi."
In 1941, Mills married the playwright and former actress Mary Hayley Bell. They have three children, two of whom - Hayley and Juliet - are noted actresses.
"They're both awfully good," Mills said.
In 1970, the actor, known for his deftness with accents, won an Oscar for best supporting actor playing the mute village idiot, Michael, in "Ryan's Daughter."
"It was weird," he joked. "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."
In 1980, he wrote his autobiography, "Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please," and he has recently revived his stage career.
Two years ago, Mills starred at the National Theater opposite Rosemary Harris in Brian Clark's "The Petition," which later moved to London's commercial West End.
Last April, he opened on Broadway in an all-star revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," playing Doolittle, the dustman.
But he said his grandchildren have their own favorite Mills role his part with Madonna in last year's flop movie, "Who's That Girl?"
"(To them), that was the greatest thing I could possibly have done," Mills said.