By Trudy Ring
Originally published on Advocate.com 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
Acting has brought Mills into contact with many other greats, such as Wilder, who directed her and Lemmon (left) in the 1972 comedy Avanti! “Billy Wilder was a genius and one of the funniest, wittiest men I’ve ever met,” and Lemmon was “a great actor,” she says. “It was an amazing experience working with them.”
She also has good things to say about Richard Long, her Nanny and the Professor costar. “We were very, very close,” she says. “He was a wonderful actor, a wonderful comedian.” The series “was a very happy time for me,” she says.
Mills has been a frequent guest star on episodic TV, with credits including Wonder Woman, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Dynasty, and Murder, She Wrote, among many others. She also had a long stint on the soap opera Passions and in recent years has had a recurring role on Hot in Cleveland.
She remains close with sister Hayley, the two seeing each other as much as possible although Juliet lives in California and Hayley in England. Juliet spent a season acting in Hayley’s popular British TV series Wild at Heart, about a veterinarian working in Africa, and “it was lovely,” Juliet says. The sisters have worked together on the stage as well. They appeared in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels in Australia and New Zealand a few years back, and they may do the play Ladies in Lavender in Australia in the near future.
Of all the mediums in which she’s worked, the theater is Mills’s favorite. “I love that exchange with the audience,” she says. The theater also introduced her to her husband, actor Maxwell Caulfield. They met in 1980 when they starred in the U.S. national tour of The Elephant Man, and they married that year. “We’re soulmates,” Mills says, explaining the marriage’s longevity. “I believe in past lives. Instantly, when we met, it was like we’d known each other forever.” They also enjoy working together, having performed in such plays as Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce and Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister, and they plan to do Equus on Cape Cod next year.
Mills also hopes another season of From Here on Out is in her future. She came to the series through her friendship with director Sam Irvin, who has worked with Caulfield, and “happily, he’s always wanted to work with me,” she says. Irvin brought the project to her, and “her arm’s probably still bruised from the twisting,” he jokes, adding, “It’s just wonderful to have someone with Juliet’s standing to lead the troops.”
Mills notes that she and Caulfield have had a long and warm relationship with gay friends and fans. “They’ve always been wonderful,” she says. “I feel close to the gay community.”
From Here on Out will undoubtedly win Mills even more gay fans. She promises that the series will provide “a lot of laughs, entertainment, and some eye candy.” It’s available now on Here TV’s YouTube premium channel and will make its broadcast premiere March 28, exclusively on Here TV. Watch a trailer below.
Mills with Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman