Born December 11th, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois, young Donna Jean Miller was a bright child who later became a highly adept student in school. She graduated two years early from high school and attended college one year before abandoning her studies to become a fulltime actress. This was in 1966 and she’s been busy performing ever since.
First up for the pretty blonde was a stint on the daytime soap opera The Secret Storm. This was followed the next year by a role in the gritty, multi-character film The Incident. The Incident chronicled the inhabitants of a New York City subway car who are terrorized and victimized by nasty thugs Tony Musante and Martin Sheen. Mills played a fresh and attractive young lady who has the misfortune of drawing their attention. That’s her seated on the right.
When the new daytime drama Love is a Many Splendored Thing was launched in 1967, Mills was included in the cast. Her character, a nun, eventually left the church when she fell in love with the show’s leading man (played at some point by David Birney, among others.) While she continued on the show, she made appearances occasionally on primetime TV in shows such as Lancer and Dan August (which starred Burt Reynolds.)
1971 brought Donna her best-known film role when Clint Eastwood selected her to play his sculptress girlfriend in Play Misty For Me. In the highly memorable thriller, Eastwood played a California disc jockey who keeps getting requests from a breathy female caller to play the song Misty. After meeting up with the woman (played by Jessica Walter) through machinations of hers that he isn’t aware of, and engaging in a sexual fling, he tries to move on and return to Mills, but Walter won’t have it.
Walter proceeds to make his life a never-ending hell and in time turns to Mills in order to rid Eastwood of the girl who owns his heart. The film, which serves very much as a template for the later Fatal Attraction, includes a foliage-ridden lovemaking montage between Mills and Eastwood set to the Roberta Flack song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Unfortunately, Mills wasn’t able to capitalize on this hit movie and continue making features. She found most of her work on TV.
One thing that kept her unavailable for film work, if any offers were there, was a commitment to a new sitcom called The Good Life. She and Larry Hagman portrayed a married couple who decide that the only way they can experience the luxuries that come with wealth is to work as domestics for a rich family! He becomes a butler and she a cook as they try to keep their real backgrounds a secret. The short-lived, silly series was up against topical ratings giant All in the Family and was canceled after 15 episodes were shot.
Nevertheless, she was in high demand, working constantly as either a guest star or the focus of a made for TV movie. Already typecast as a victim, she played many schoolteachers (as in Night of Terror) and lady cops (as in The Bait) who found themselves in some sort of jeopardy. In Live Again, Die Again, in 1974, she played a woman who is cryogenically frozen for thirty years and reawakened only to find her children older than she is!
In ’75, another feature film opportunity came her way, though her role was primarily decorative. Murph the Surf (re-released as Live a Little, Steal a Lot) was about a real life thief played by Robert Conrad. The primary focus of this hard to find film went to the divinely sexy chest of Conrad and the sight of him and his pal Don Stroud in cutoffs and little else.
After this, it was back to the tube and the endless procession of guest star spots on all the hot shows like Police Story, Hawaii 5-O, Cannon, S.W.A.T., Barnaby Jones and others. In the TV flick Beyond the Bermuda Triangle, she worked with Fred MacMurray and Sam Groom, trying to find out what is happening to people in that legendary and mysterious section of geography.
Did you know that there was a TV-movie sequel to Rosemary’s Baby? The project Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby even retained Ruth Gordon for a smidge of its running time! The trouble is, to play Rosemary (originally portrayed by the tall, waifishly thin Mia Farrow), they went with the hysterically wrong Patty Duke, who was right in the middle of her manic, very troubled period. Mills attempted to break away from her well-worn good girl parts as a seductive Satanist, but few people cared. That same year, she played another nurse in the all-star calamity project Smash-Up on Interstate 5. Here she was reunited with her Murph costar Robert Conrad who was on board as a policeman.
1977 brought that incredibly prestigious, dramatic and captivatingly titled Irwin Allen project Fire! to the nation’s television screens and Donna played (big stretch) a young schoolteacher who is on a field trip in the woods when the fire breaks out. This movie placed her with Baby costar Patty Duke and, as can be seen from the attached lobby card, was released theatrically in several highly unfortunate nations.
She portrayed another cop in The Hunted Lady, did episodes of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and was cast as a female doctor in the soapy telefilm Doctor’s Private Lives (which I nevertheless would like to see very much!) In 1979, she was cast with Patty Duke again (!) and her old Bermuda costar Sam Groom in the lengthy Irwin Allen drama Hanging by a Thread, concerning three couples trapped in a disabled tram that could drop at any moment. The participants flash back to their various personal issues until time to be either rescued or fall to his or her death.
In 1980, after years and years of countless projects in which Donna Mills played meek, vulnerable or noble heroines, she finally was given a shot at something utterly different. The primetime soap opera Knots Landing (a spin-off of Dallas) needed someone to stir the pot as a villainess since all of the females were portraying basically virtuous characters. Brought on as protagonist Don Murray’s baby sister, a divorcee with two young children, Mills swiftly established herself as a devious and selfish presence.
Abby, as her character was named, slept with a visiting J.R. Ewing (played by her costar from The Good Life, Larry Hagman) and schemed to win away his younger brother Gary (Ted Shackelford) from his bumpkin-ish wife Val (Joan Van Ark.) She got him, too, and was soon Abby Ewing. The character was a complete about-face for Donna, always climbing and clawing to get more money and position. Never an actress with a particularly strong or resonant voice (despite the fact that she taught voice to aspiring actors at one point!), she somehow used all the other attributes – the petite frame, the doll-like face and inherent femininity – that made her such a heroine and turned them 180 degrees into aspects of a major bitch!
She began her tenure on the show with just a little skimpier clothing than was typical for her, but with the same basic makeup. In time (as the 80s grew more and more outrageous as well), she started wearing more and more makeup and using more and more mousse, teasing, blow-drying and snarling her hair in every conceivable contortion. The hard, severe look was offset by a soothing voice, her large, pool-like eyes and her petite, trim figure. Knowing that audiences could only take so much treachery before they would turn on the character, she was happy when a storyline involving her daughter’s drug addiction came forth and she could show a mother’s concern and tough love.
Later, when her character was responsible for the kidnapping of Val’s newborn twins, she pleaded with the writers to make it more of a misunderstanding that caused the event rather than a deliberate plot and she also had a hand in seeing the children returned (quite a while later!) Still, Abby never lost her driven, manipulative qualities. Mills was, naturally, put through the rigors of countless photo shoots during her heyday. ("Hey Donna, let's get you down here on the floor next to this obnoxious, faux, flower arrangement.") This being the glory days of the 80s, she tried out some really "out there" looks, though even she couldn't surpass her co-star Lisa Hartman in the outrageous clothing and makeup. This fluffy, high as heaven hairdo comes close, though!
At the height of her fame on the show in 1986, she released a book and a video called The Eyes Have It, which took ladies of the 80s step-by-step through the process of turning ones eyes into that of an electric blue Lone Ranger mask or a cartoon safe cracker! Scoff as we might, this technique was the hottest thing a woman could do at the time and everyone marveled at Miss Mills’ incredible orbs. The video is an uproarious scream outdone only by Brenda Dickson’s vanity project Welcome to My Home. At least Donna is more warm, self-deprecating and accessible than loony Brenda.
By 1989, Donna felt it was time to leave Knots and so she departed, though the show continued without her until 1993. (Along the way, she won the Soap Opera Digest Award for Outstanding Villainess each of the three times she was nominated.) She did come back for the very last episode, which made fans very happy. She also took part in the 1997 reunion movie Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac and a subsequent 2005 special celebrating the show. This shot of her with her TV offspring has a rather odd quality to it, the MILF nestled in front of her now-grown son (90210's Brian Austin Green.)During breaks from filming the series and after she had left the show, she worked on many TV movies. In 1982, she was part of the pilot movie for Bare Essence, which starred Genie Francis, Bruce Boxleitner, Lee Grant and another primetime soap queen, Linda Evans. The subsequent (unsuccessful) series had Jennifer O’Neill in Donna’s part, Jaime Lyn Bauer in Linda’s part and Donna’s old psycho-buddy Jessica Walter in Lee’s role. Donna's strapless gown certainly comes off as less dated than those of the other gals, doesn't it?
She reveled in the opportunities that other projects offered to wear wigs, change hair color and, most importantly, play all sorts of characters that were different from her most famous one of Abby Ewing. The irony is that in order to break away from the grind of playing Abby, it was back to being victimized the way she had been in most of her early career!
Sometimes, a rare light piece would come her way, such as The World’s Oldest Living Bridesmaid, in which she played a successful businesswoman who ends up being romanced by her male secretary (played by Brain Wimmer.) The 90s coming in full steam by now, she reverted to a less attention-getting makeup and hair scheme, revealing the same, naturally pretty face that she always possessed. I love her hair short like this.
Eager to get away for a change from all the trappings of hair, makeup, gowns and the like, she took on roles that had her in prison (!), or as an abused wife or as a simple housewife and/or mother, though always with a compelling story to tell. Several of these projects were produced by the actress herself. (With no insult intended, she has a vaguely latter-day Dorothy Malone quality in this abused shot.) She did take on one howler, yet another TV sequel to a famous feature film that did nothing but injustice to the original. The Stepford Husbands (in 1996) had her playing wife to the hunky Michael Ontkean, who is made docile through heavy drugs by the women of the mysterious town. She also made four appearances on Melrose Place as the mother of Josie Bissett’s character.
Always an eye-catching stunner on the red carpet, known for extraordinarily coordinated and expertly tailored outfits, Mills busily attended countless premieres, benefits, galas and so on, always looking immaculate (okay, there was that one period in the 80s when we all looked ridiculous!) Even now, at events such as The TVLand Awards, for which she and the other key members of the Knots Landing cast were given statuettes, she still looks amazing.
Though it’s impossible for her not to have had some sort of cosmetic surgery, it’s among the best Tinseltown has to offer. Compare the work of Miss Mills from above in 2009 to that of her Knots costar Joan Van Ark, who looks like she belongs in a carnival freak act! Not only does Joan not look as good or better than before, she no longer looks like a human being! By the way, Joan is three years Donna's junior. In fact, Donna is a couple of year's older than Michele Lee and Michelle Phillips, too!
Never married, a situation which has led to all sorts of speculation over the years, she adopted a daughter in 1995 who has become a major focus of her time. Still, she works diligently with environmental causes and works towards arthritis awareness, a disease she suffers from herself. She also finds time to take part in various goofy events such as when she took part in a staged reading of Valley of the Dolls in a cheap wig (as Helen Lawson!) in order to celebrate the DVD release and benefit gay charities.
In 2004, she was the most unlikely Mrs. Claus in the galaxy when she costarred with George Hamilton (as Santa!) in A Very Cool Christmas. Their casting makes more sense when you realize that the point of the movie was a 16 year-old girl giving Santa Claus a major league makeover and then, of course, getting Mrs. Claus in on the gig as well.
What’s more remarkable about Donna Mills than the forty-something year career she has led is that it is almost impossible to find evidence of a former colleague or costar who has anything bad to say about her! Folks would seem to have every reason to be jealous of her amazing genes and seemingly scandal-free life, but instead she has nothing but goodwill and adoration from her peers. Me? I just want one tenth of her ability to stay in shape! I can handle my own eye makeup...
Click below for part one of her hooty makeup video (it's all on youtube in sections.) If nothing else, her hynotically soothing narration will lull you into a comfy, dreamlike state.