Hugh Millais: Hit man in 'McCabe & Mrs Miller'

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The Independent Online

Just as The Third Man is remembered for Orson Welles' flash appearance as penicillin racketeer Harry Lime, so is Robert Altman's film-noir western McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the chilling cameo role of Hugh Millais as a shotgun-toting hit man, come to town to settle a business deal gone wrong.

Hugh Geoffrey Millais, who has died at the age of 80, falls into the category of artistic dabbler and business adventurer who, when he wished to, could bring an immense presence to those films in which he appeared. The list is regrettably short, but includes bit part roles in such films as Images, also directed by Altman and featuring Susannah York; the Frederick Forsyth action film The Dogs of War; a Ruth Rendel mystery and an episode of Kavanagh Q C amongst others.

But it was as "Butler", wrapped in a huge coonskin coat, wielding a heavy gauge single-barrel shotgun and accompanied by two other enforcers, that he lifted the 1971 film into the realm of a classic with brief, poisonous dialogue. The film is made complete with the use of the slushy snow-weighted tall trees as background to a Canadian silver mining town in the depth of winter.

Millais was from Scots-Canadian stock. He claimed that his mother came from the Scottish McDonnells who were persuaded by the Scottish Campbells to emigrate. After a time, the McDonnells took their chances in Eastern Canada and teamed up with such railway tycoons as William Cornelius van Horne and the Baron Shaughnessy to develop what became the Canadian Pacific Railway. According to Millais, his grandfather went on to become Canadian minister of transport.

Intrigued by his Canadian links, Millais joined the Montreal Star while still a teenager in the years after the Second World War. The experience of working as a reporter inspired him to seek out adventures throughout his life. He also came from a long line of artists, among whom were Raoul Millais, a specialist at equestrian painting, and Sir John Everett Millais, his great grandfather, a founding member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Millais claimed not to have inherited any outstanding artistic skills himself, although late in life he did produce an amusing cook book called Hugh's Who: The Name-Dropper's Cookbook, which is about food, travel and the interesting people that Millais met along the way. Name-drop he does – in abundance; among his acquaintances were Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway.

Millais first met Hemingway in a yacht race off the Cuban coast in the mid-1950s, an event which was marred by some stray pre-revolutionary gunfire. One bullet wounded Millais; Hemingway formed a rescue party and got Millais to his villa where he recuperated. They became close friends, and in 1959 Millais set up home near Malaga in southern Spain. He was in time to renew his friendship with Hemingway, then on a mega-assignment on bullfighting for Life magazine. Millais also used his Spanish base to try his luck at property development and the sale of real estate.

Some years later, Millais was invited by an architect to plan the reconstruction of Salvador Dali's house north of Barcelona. He found Dali to be the most awkward client he had ever worked for. "During construction," he said, "he had the floor of his dining room raised or lowered six times between 20 and 30 centimetres." Once the job was completed, a party was held for the managers and the workers, the so-called "topping out" party, this one with a difference, as Millais recalled.

"The Dali-esque table, about five metres long, was covered with every imaginable crustacean – and his naked wife, Gala. She too was covered in shell fish."

Frank Gray

Hugh Geoffrey Millais, actor, author, adventurer: born Canada 23 December 1929; married 1957 Suzy Falconnel (marriage dissolved 1974, two sons, one daughter), 1988 Anne Sheffield; died Oxfordshire 4 July 2009.