(A version of this article was shared with Laughing Place on August 10, 2022.)
Have you ever heard the expression “Pollyanna?” It tends to be used somewhat sarcastically to refer to someone who is overly idealistic and maybe a bit naïve. But at its core, it conjures images of purity and optimism, in a world desperately in need of both. Disney Legend Hayley Mills is without a doubt the face of that optimism. For an inspiring period from 1960 to 1965, Mills’ signature positivity put smiles on the faces of fans in England, America, and indeed around the world.
But there’s more to Hayley Mills than just her Disney films. Let’s learn more about our favorite Pollyanna in this edition of Disney Legends Spotlight.
A Family of Entertainers
Hayley Catherine Rose Vivien Mills was born in April 1946 in London to British acting legend Sir John Mills (Swiss Family Robinson) and British actor and writer Mary Hayley Bell. With such accomplished parental talent, showbiz was at the heart and soul of her family. Mills is one of three siblings, with the others being actor Juliet Mills and director Jonathan Mills. Mills was not exactly graceful by nature, so her parents signed her up to attend Elmhurst Ballet School – a boarding school – beginning at age nine.
Making a Splash in Tiger Bay
Most people would be starstruck upon seeing and meeting a popular entertainer. For the Mills family, this was a regular occurrence. So it was on a fairly “regular” day that film director J. Lee Thompson while he was visiting the family to speak with Jon Mills about their planned film Tiger Bay. Thompson was initially looking for a boy to play the lead role in the 1959 film Tiger Bay, but after seeing little Hayley playing carefree in the home, he immediately cast the 13-year-old in the role opposite her father. Her performance turned heads in Britain, and around the world.
It also caught the attention of Walt Disney.
Mills’ Disney D23 Legend page recalls the sweet story of when she first met Walt. Said Mills, “I went to Walt’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, along with my parents, my younger brother and our Pekingese, Suki. Walt laughed a lot as he spoke, in rather a shy way, which I found very endearing. I think that’s what made me warm to him. That, and the fact that he liked childish things—I remember he and I were crawling around the floor after Suki, who was eating potato crisps off of the carpet.”
Walt, who once called Mills “the greatest movie find in 25 years”, signed the young actor to a five-year contract with the Disney Studios. Mills’ career was about to explode.
The Disney Days
Life immediately became very busy for Disney’s next big star. Over the course of Mills’ five-year Disney contract, she starred in six films, all of which were incredibly successful in the American box office.
In her first Disney role, Mills plays the title character of a cheerful orphan girl who spends some time residing with her wealthy but acidic Aunt Polly. Over the course of time, Pollyanna wins the heart of the small mid-Atlantic American town, transforming the collective beaten attitude into one of hope and promise, eventually winning the heart of her aunt as well. Mills’ role in Pollyanna set the tone for her recurring Disney character type, being a sweet, innocent girl with a whimsical personality and carefree attitude.
Mills’ role in Pollyanna won her a “Juvenile Oscar” Academy Award at the 1961 awards ceremony. At fourteen years old, she was the last youngster to win the award, as the category has since been retired. Later in her career, when Mills was in America in the late 1980s America filming a TV series, the award was stolen from her London apartment. With the Juvenile Award category retired, and the award mold since destroyed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not replace her Oscar. Fast-forward over three decades to January 9, 2022. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Pollyanna, the Academy surprised Mills and replaced her stolen Juvenile Oscar with a full-sized statue to recognize her contribution to the film and the industry. Read the full story here. It took over thirty years, but Mills’ Oscar is back home.
Trivia Tidbit: The first Juvenile Oscar was awarded to six-year-old Shirley Temple in 1934. She’s the youngest actor to ever win the Juvenile Oscar.
The Parent Trap (1961)
Mills’ most memorable film role may just be that of separated twins Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick in The Parent Trap. The twin girls were separated shortly after birth as a result of her parents’ divorce, and their nonsensical decision to each keep one of the girls to raise as their own. When the girls meet by chance in summer camp, they discover their true relationship, and hatch a plot to reunite their parents and form the family they never had.
Mills’ superbly charming acting, a few Disney camera tricks, and the Sherman Brothers musical touch, combined to make this one of the most popular classic films in the Disney library. In fact, the film’s signature song Let’s Get Together was so popular, it was released on the radio. The song credit recognizes “Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills” as the performers, in reference to her dual role in the film. The song became a Billboard Top 10 hit in 1961, making it the We Don’t Talk About Bruno of the 1960s.
In Search of the Castaways (1962)
This American adventure film was based on a novel by Jules Verne, and was directed by Robert Stevenson, who directed Disney’s rendition of Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The film saw Mills starring as the young Mary Grantin in a tale about a family which charts a worldwide search for a shipwrecked sea captain.
Throughout the course of Mills’ contract with Disney, the company was being very careful with her image. In an effort to gradually age Mills, the producers for the film gave the sixteen-year-old her first case of “puppy love.”
Summer Magic (1963)
Hayley Mills packed up and moved to the great state of Maine in this musical Disney film. Burl Ives and his legendary velvety voice costar in this story of an early 1900s Boston widow and her children, whose financial difficulties cause them to move to the small town of Beulah, Maine. Mills charms audiences as Nancy, one of three children in the family who enjoy the transplant from city to country. Nancy may have lost out on a romance with the new-to-Beulah school teacher, but she won quite an unexpected surprise in the end (no spoilers here – you’ll have to watch the film for yourself)!
The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Mystery was the name of the game in Mills’ fifth Disney film. In The Moon-Spinners, Nicky Ferris (Mills) and her aunt travel to the island of Crete and stumble upon a jewel thief with evil intentions.
This film received mixed reviews, and was not as commercially successful as Mills’ other Disney films. But this film is very noteworthy for another reason – it was the scene of Mills’ first on-screen kiss, with actor Peter McEnery. For an eighteen-year-old girl growing up in a public spotlight, and with very little privacy, this was a big event, which Mills recounts vividly in her memoir.
Mills’ first on-screen kiss wasn’t the only romantic note during this coming-of-age year. During this same time, Mills’ superstardom and worldwide recognition as a renowned young actor landed her in some very high-profile company. One slightly frightening example of Mills’ social experiences sent her on a date with Beatle George Harrison, but left her without a ride home due to the madness of Beatlemania.
That Darn Cat! (1965)
Mills’ final Disney film tied together a magical combination of thriller, comedy, animal tricks, and Sherman Brothers music. That Darn Cat! (and all the characters in the film) follows the trail of a lovable but independent Siamese cat named DC (or Darn Cat) who stumbles upon a kidnapping crime. For her last Disney role, Mills plays Patti Randall, opposite FBI agent Zeke Kelso (played by Dean Jones, in the first of his many Disney roles). The ill-fated attempts of all followers (particularly the FBI) to keep up with the hijinks of this alley cat render this film quite a time-stamped, yet timeless, Disney classic. That Darn Cat! Proved a fitting end to Mills’ prodigious time with Disney.
For a more extensive discussion on Mills’ Disney films, as well as a bit of a deeper dive into some of her more intimate life moments, I encourage you to check out Book of the Mouse Club Podcast: Episode 77 – Forever Young.
Mills performed in other non-Disney productions while under contract with Disney, but none were nearly as commercially successful as the films she made while working for Walt.
All good things eventually come to an end. While Mills’ time working with Disney was excellent for the actor’s exposure (and profitable as well), she did recount that at times her Disney film roles felt creatively stunted.
In her memoir Forever Young, Mills admitted “I think by being under contract to Walt Disney, as much as I really appreciated the opportunity it gave me, [and] the career it gave me, quite frankly, it hampered me from getting more different kinds of roles and eventually it also influenced how I felt about myself. I wasn’t sure what I was capable of.”
As a result of her self-revelation, Mills – at age 20 – turned down a new Disney contract, feeling character castings of similar personality led to her repeating herself in her roles.
Mills’ first big hit following her Disney contract was 1966’s The Trouble with Angels. In the film, she showed her mischievous side, playing the part of a Catholic boarding school girl with “scathingly brilliant” schemes.
In an interesting precursor to one of Disney’s greatest animated films of all time, Mills performed the voice of the Little Mermaid in a 1966 Rankin-Bass stop-motion film The Daydreamer. The film follows the life of a young Hans Christian Anderson, and his proclivity for dreaming up fantastical stories. The voice cast for the film was a who’s who of Hollywood in the 1960s, including Mills, Burl Ives, Margaret Hamilton, Patty Duke, Boris Karlof, Victor Borge, Ed Wynn, and many others.
1966 was a busy year for Mills, as she appeared in a third film – The Family Way – along with her father. The film is a comedy about a young couple having difficulty consummating their marriage while living with a houseful of in-laws. In another notable connection to the Beatles, The Family Way featured a score by Paul McCartney and arrangements by Beatles producer George Martin.
During filming, Mills developed a relationship with director Roy Boutling, and the pair ended up marrying. Mills went on to make two other films with Boutling, including the 1968 horror thriller Twisted Nerve and 1971’s Mr. Forbush and the Penguins.
Mills’ box office prowess never returned to her Disney heights, and after her role in 1975’s Kingfisher Caper she dropped out of the film industry for several years.
Return to Acting – Television and Stage
In 1981, Mills returned to acting with a starring role in the British television miniseries The Flame Trees of Thika. American audiences are much more likely to have seen her guest star in several episodes of The Love Boat (1979 through 1985) and one episode of Murder, She Wrote in 1986 (starring co-Disney Legend Angela Lansbury). Mills maintained a steady supporting role in the British TV series Wild At Heart from 2007-2012.
Mills returned home to Disney for several roles in the 1980s, including a reprisal of her role as the twins Susan and Sharon in the direct-to-TV films The Parent Trap II (1986), Parent Trap III (1989), and Parent Trap: Hawaiian Honeymoon (1989).
Mills starred as the title character in a Disney Channel-produced 1987 television series Good Morning, Miss Bliss. The show was canceled after only 13 episodes. The rights to the series were acquired by NBC, which reimagined the show into the hit series Saved by the Bell. Unfortunately, Mills did not continue her involvement with the show. Mills also hosted the 1981 Wonderful World of Disney television special Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.
Mills starred in two different stage productions of The King and I – one in Australia in 1991 and the other as part of a U.S. National Tour. In both productions, she played leading lady Mrs. Anna.
In the 1980s, Mills took an interest in Eastern religions, delving into Hinduism to supplement her Christian beliefs. She co-edited the book My God, which consisted of brief letters from celebrities on their beliefs (or lack thereof) regarding God and the afterlife.
Mills drew on her spiritual strength in 2008, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following surgery, the severity of chemotherapy’s side effects caused her to abandon the treatment, and seek alternative methods. She credited her survival to the alternative treatments she used. In 2012, Mills announced that she had fully recovered.
A Timeless Legend
Hayley Mills was named a Disney Legend in 1998. In September 2021, she published Forever Young: A Memoir about her life and career. The memoir recalls her earliest days growing up in a family of entertainers, her booming Disney years, her post-Disney career, and all the emotions along the way.
Like the rest of us, Hayley Mills has changed a great deal over the years. But her catalog of acting gems contains plenty of timeless treasures sure to put a smile on any viewer’s face. Her charm and positivity won the favor of not only her on-screen counterparts, but people around the world.
Have you seen some of Hayley Mills’ Disney films? Do you have a favorite? Let us know with a comment, either here or on social at:
Thanks for learning about another Disney Legend! Follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to highlight more of the extraordinary people who have shaped Disney’s storied history.