Juliet Mills: Back to Nannying, With a Twist
BY Trudy Ring
March 10 2014 10:00 AM ET
Juliet Mills is back to playing nanny — but my, how things have changed.
Instead of taking care of the three adorable children of a widowed professor, she’s helping out the youthful and impulsive head of a gay TV network as he produces a sexy spy series, the show within a show of Here TV’s first original sitcom, From Here on Out.
“It’s a funny show — kind of a ’70s show with sex,” Mills says of From Here on Out, set in a highly fictionalized version of Here TV, the network owned by the same parent company as The Advocate. The show may have a ’70s style, but it offers 21st-century content, making it a far cry from Mills’s strictly G-rated ’70s comedy series, Nanny and the Professor.
In From Here on Out, 18-year-old network head Taylor (Austin Robert Miller), who has big ambitions and a minuscule budget, sees hit potential in Guy Dubai: International Gay Spy, pitched by aging writer-director Jimmy Randall (Terry Ray). Taylor insists on an openly gay leading man, but shortly into production Sam Decker (T.J. Hoban), the actor cast as Guy, reveals to Jimmy that he’s straight — so, turning the closeted gay actor trope on its head, Sam has to hide his heterosexuality, with a little help from Jimmy. They are surrounded by a cast of zany characters, including Mills’s Dottie, who was Taylor’s childhood nanny and is now his witty, sharp-tongued receptionist.
In real life, the British-born Mills is gentle and charming, with plenty of fascinating stories to tell about her life and career. While perhaps best known to American audiences, at least of a certain age, as Nanny and the Professor’s magical, mystical nanny Phoebe Figalilly, she has a wide range of credits, including a Tony-nominated turn in her Broadway debut, 1959’s Five Finger Exercise; an Emmy-winning performance in the 1974 miniseries QB VII; and the lead opposite Jack Lemmon in the Billy Wilder film Avanti!
Growing up in the environment she did, she seemed destined to go into the arts — she’s the daughter of actor John Mills and writer Mary Hayley Bell, the sister of actress Hayley Mills, and the goddaughter of no less than Noël Coward and Vivien Leigh.
Coward and Leigh were great friends of Mills’s father, as was Laurence Olivier, Leigh’s second husband. Leigh and Olivier had no children together (each had a child by a previous marriage), and Leigh was happy to dote on her goddaughter. “She really treated me like her daughter,” Mills recalls. “She’d give me her jewelry box to play with, and we’d go to her couturier.”
That was when Mills was a child; later, when she was breaking in on Broadway, Leigh was also in New York, performing in Duel of Angels. “It was during that time I came to know her as an adult,” Mills says. Also during that time, Leigh’s most famous film, Gone With the Wind, was re-released, and one night she asked Mills to see it with her. “I sat next to Vivien watching Gone With the Wind,” recalls Mills, still in wonderment about viewing the film with Scarlett O’Hara herself. Leigh was “breathtakingly beautiful,” Mills adds, “with a wonderful sense of humor.”
Coward, she remembers, “was a wonderfully funny, witty man. He was known as the Master.” That wasn’t his only nickname, though, as when he sent Mills postcards, as her godfather, he signed them “God.” For her birthday, “he would give me a book token [gift certificate] to Hatchard’s every year,” she notes, Hatchard’s being a venerable London bookstore.
He also invited his goddaughter to parties at the Savoy Hotel in London, and sometimes she would go to her parents to visit Coward at his home in Gstaad, Switzerland. She had no idea that he was gay, “not that I would care either way,” Mills says.
Another of Mills’s enduring friendships is with Maureen O’Hara. She played O’Hara’s daughter in the 1966 Western movie The Rare Breed, also starring James Stewart. And earlier, in 1960, she was O’Hara’s daughter-in-law in a live TV version of Mrs. Miniver, with O’Hara in the title role. “She was a sort of surrogate mother in America,” Mills recalls, and the two have stayed in touch over the years.
Mills’s own mother and father didn’t push their offspring into acting, but “once they thought we had a little inkling of talent, they were supportive,” she says, while also making clear the pitfalls and potential heartbreak of an actor’s life. She counts her father, a longtime stage and screen star and an Oscar winner for Ryan’s Daughter, as number one among her acting role models. “I worshipped my dad,” she says.
Mills with husband Maxwell Caulfield