He was the last of the generation of great acting knights, who personified the archetypal stiff upper lip English gent. Sir John Mills, who died yesterday aged 97, was one of Britain's best-loved actors whose career spanned more than 100 films.
The Queen and the Prime Minister were among those who said they were sorry to hear of his death last night. "John Mills was a great actor, a true gentleman and a loyal friend; someone who made us proud to be British," said Tony Blair.
Sir John's classic movies included Ice Cold in Alex, Great Expectations, Scott of the Antarctic and the Sixties kitchen-sink drama The Family Way, which also starred his daughter Hayley. But it was his performance as a village mute in the epic Ryan's Daughter which won him worldwide renown and an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1971, an award of which he was immensely proud. He once said: "I'm not one of those who decry Oscars: I've always liked the idea of competition and prizes."
Sir John died peacefully at his home in Buckinghamshire after a short illness.He had been almost blind for more than a decade and very frail for a number of years, but continued to act. In 2003, in the British movie Bright Young Things, he was cast wildly against type as a cocaine user.
Lord Attenborough yesterday called his old friend, whom he met on the set of In Which We Serve, a "truly remarkable man".
"There was no one comparable," he said. "He gave such a variety of impeccable performances. He was adored by those he worked with, from the plasterer, the chippy and the electrician to the stars. He never stopped working."
Sir John started his stage career as a £4-a-week chorus boy at the London Hippodrome in 1929. The son of a Suffolk teacher, the young John Mills moved to London at the age of 20, selling disinfectant door-to-door. He recalled: "I managed to arrange my calls for the mornings so the afternoons were free for tap-dancing lessons." He worked in a number of revues before Noël Coward spotted his talent in Singapore, casting him in Words and Music and Cavalcade. From there he went into musical comedy and then played Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic.
The outbreak of the Second World War meant he missed out on promised major Shakespearean roles. He served in the Royal Engineers, but was invalided out with a duodenal ulcer. The post-war years brought some of his most enduring roles - Pip in Great Expectations and the title role in Scott of the Antarctic.
He met his second wife, writer Mary Hayley Bell, who survives him, in 1935. They married in 1941. Her work includes the screenplay for Whistle Down the Wind, which starred Hayley. He said that they would be inseparable even in death.
His daughter Juliet also went into acting and Hayley's son Crispian was the frontman of the band Kula Shaker.
Sir John retained a love for stage work, appearing in The Good Companions, Separate Tables and Little Lies in the West End and Goodbye Mr Chips at Chichester.
"There is nothing like hearing a theatre full of people really laughing," he said at the time of Little Lies. "It's just like a shot of adrenalin."Reuse content