Sir John survived most of his contemporaries, who included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Alec Guinness. He continued working for almost his entire life, appearing in the 2003 movie "Bright Young Things" and in 2005 in a short film called "Lights2". His death came on Sunday, April 23, Shakespeare's birthday, a fact that the actor Stephen Fry noted in the Guardian newspaper: "It's marvelously typical of him to leave the party on St. George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday and death day."
Mills studied at RADA in the 1920's, where his talent was spotted by Noel Coward. A vast number of films included an Oscar for David Lean's Ryan's Daughter as well as a large number of World War II roles. His stage parts included Hamlet at the Old Vic, which he played aged 22 in 1929. Later London roles ranged from Noel Coward's Calvacade to Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
He appeared in three of his wife's plays: Men in Shadow, Duet for Two Hands and The Uninvited Guest. He played Broadway twice — in Terence Rattigan's Ross in 1961 (for which he earned a Tony nomination) and as Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion in 1987.
Unlike his more internationally famous contemporaries—the emotionally titanic Olivier, the cerebral Gielgud, and the chameleon-like Guinness—Sir John was seen as purely and almost exclusively English. He rarely paid roles outside his own nationality, though occasionally he was a native of nearly Scotland or Ireland.
John Mills was born Lewis Ernest Watts and fled to the West End at the age of 19 to become an actor. He began his professional career as a song and dance man in a 1929 London review at the Hippodrome. In the 1930, he was popular with audiences as the star of light comedies and musicals. In his early years, he was noticed by playwright Noel Coward, who subsequently cast him in several of his plays and films. During World War II and after, he became one of Britain's leading film stars, despite an everyman persona, average face and unprepossessing physical build. To British audiences, he epitomized the patriotic, plucky, understatedly courageous Englishman of the war years, in films like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "In Which We Serve," "We Diva at Dawn," "Way to the Stars," "Forever England" "Waterloo Road" and "This Happy Breed."
His omnipresence in the war film genre is suggested by the critic Kenneth Tynan, who once contemplated creating a history of World War II based on films about the conflict: "You would find, I suspect, that in one war picture or another, John Mills played every rank, commissioned and non-commissioned, in all the fighting services."
He served in the war himself only briefly, as part of the Royal Engineers. He was not able to stay due to an ulcer.
Other important film roles included the adult Pip in David Lean's "Great Expectations" (1946), a dim shoemaker drafted for marriage by his boss' daughter in "Hobson's Choice" (1954); and "War and Peace" (1956), "The End of the Affair" (1955) and "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960). In his later years, he often played a sweet, seemingly ineffectual old fools, in films such as "Martin Chuzzlewitt."
In the '70s and '80s, he appeared in the London productions of The Good Companion (1974), Separate Tables (1977) and, again, in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1982). He gave a striking performance as a hawkish general in The Petition at the National Theatre.
John Mills had been nearly blind for more than a decade prior to his death. His eyesight failed almost completely in 1992. Still, he continued to act, sometimes playing sightless characters.
He was appointed a CBE in 1960 and knighted in 1976. He published his autobiography, "Gentlemen Please" in 1980. He updated it in 2001 as "Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please."
High-profile tributes have included the Queen, who said that she had been "sorry" to hear of Mills' death. Richard Attenborough, who acted with Mills many times and directed him in several films, told the BBC, "He's been a sort of hero to me in a way. He kept a fatherly eye on almost everything I did." Tony Blair also paid tribute to Mills, calling him "a great actor, a true gentleman and a loyal friend."
At age 92, he and wife renewed their marriage vows at St. Mary's Church, next to their home, Hills House, in Denham, England, according the Internet Movie Database. Fittingly, given the actor's image, he had been denied a church service when they had married 60 years earlier because he was serving in the Army during World War II.