Hayley Mills is a legend for all time. After all, when it comes to legends, there’s really no such thing as a generation gap, and there’s no denying that the blonde, plucky, ebullient British actress was a force. Today, she’s a living American icon, just as much of a Disney luminary as Mouseketeer Annette Funicello or animated heroines Ariel or Belle.
Ever since she catapulted to international stardom by playing identical twins Susan and Sharon McKendrick in Disney’s 1961 blockbuster The Parent Trap, Mills has been a household name. In addition to The Parent Trap, she’s famous for 1960’s Pollyanna, 1962’s In Search of the Castaways, and 1965’s That Darn Cat!
But child and teen greatness only represented the beginning of Mills’ career, which has spanned over 60 years… and has encompassed a fair amount of decidedly un-Pollyannaish scandal to boot. Read on to find out why one of Mickey Mouse’s most cherished sweethearts is much more than just the sum of her most iconic roles.
A 19-year-old girl and a 52-year-old man fall in love…
The year 1966 was a scandalous one for Hayley Mills. She debuted her first nude scene in the comedy The Family Way — the shot of her derriere caused quite a stir, and was touted by some media outlets as being "morally unfit for children" — even though the movie wasn’t a children’s film anyway. However, that was nothing compared to the fact that 19-year-old Mills took up with Roy Boulting, the film’s 52-year-old director.
The affair made jaws drop, not only because of the couple’s 33-year age difference, but also because Boulting was married with children. Ironically, Mills had been offered the role of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel several years earlier, but was encouraged to turn it down lest it effect her Disney image. Sounds like her new relationship may have been a Disney-fueled rebellion.
Mills, however, didn’t see their age difference as an issue at the time. "The fact that he was considerably older was probably part of the attraction, but not consciously," she later recalled for A&E. "And having spent an awful lot of time with people much older than myself [on film sets, etc.] it didn’t seem particularly odd or peculiar to me." Despite all the controversy, Mills and Boulting were married from 1971 to 1977; their son, Crispian, was born in 1973.
Hayley Mills went from jailbait to cougar
After meeting actor Leigh Lawson while working on the play A Touch of Spring, Hayley Mills divorced Roy Boulting. She and Lawson had a son, Jason, and then they split in 1984.
A few years later, Mills, who had once undergone such scrutiny for wedding a man 33 years her senior, turned the tables: While starring in a 1997 production of the play The King and I, she met Indian-American actor Firdous Bamji, who is 20 years her junior. The two wed in 1997, and, over two decades later, the marriage is still going strong. Interestingly, Mills’ actress sister, Juliet, also has a partner who’s 18 years her junior; the two have been married for close to 40 years now. Maybe May-December romances run in the family?
Bamji is known for his theater and film work, which includes appearances in 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2000’s Unbreakable; he and Mills presently divide their time between New York and London.
Hayley Mills struggled with bulimia
Even though Hayley Mills was almost universally adored by the 1970s, stardom was not easy for her — particularly as she began to age out of the little-girlish pluckiness of her early teens. In the wake of her success in The Parent Trap, she became besieged by all the normal doubts of adolescence — but the pressures of fame exacerbated them. She began to struggle with weight and body image issues, first in the form of over-eating, and then in the form of bulimia.
She explained it in her official A&E biography, saying, "I adored food, and I’m in front of the camera, but my face is like a balloon. So you start to throw up, basically. And you just get more and more insecure about yourself, and don’t tell anybody. And, of course, I thought I was the only person in the world who had ever thought of it." Mills also spoke about her experience with bulimia in a 1997 interview with the Toronto Sun, explaining that the disorder had lasted all the way up to the birth of her first child.
Hayley Mills had to escape a homicidal maniac in this thriller
Hayley Mills first dipped a toe in the thriller genre as a murder-witnessing child in Tiger Bay — before Pollyanna was even a blip on her radar. In 1964, a few years post-Pollyanna and Parent Trap, she starred in The Chalk Garden, playing a disturbed teenager navigating a relationship with her even more disturbed governess (Deborah Kerr).
By 1968, she "was ready to leave her Disney years behind, and present a new, sensuous image on screen," as her A&E biography put it. That year, she starred in Twisted Nerve, an early psychosexual thriller directed by her then-husband Roy Boulting. She played a young woman who is stalked by a homicidal maniac (in one memorable off-camera sequence, he hacks up Mills’ onscreen mother with a hatchet — eek!). The New York Times called the film "an embarrassing picture, a sour-tasting mess," yet it’s hard to look away from the movie’s campy but compelling trailer.
In 1975, she starred in Deadly Strangers, which tells the story of a beautiful, disturbed girl who becomes involved, in all innocence, with two disturbed, perverted young men who intend to do her harm. Despite her involvement in the horror film genre, nothing could prepare her for one of the greatest real-life horrors of her life…
Hayley Mills was "more frightened of the chemo than of the cancer"
In 2008, on her 62nd birthday, Hayley Mills made a shocking discovery: She had cancer in both breasts. She initially kept her diagnosis quiet, but opened up about the experience at length in an interview with Good Housekeeping (via The Telegraph) in February 2018. "It was an enormous shock," the actress recalled. "Suddenly, I looked out at the world as if I’d never seen it before. Everything felt clearer and sharper. And when you hear that diagnosis, you realize, ‘Now I’m going to find out what I’m actually made of.’"
Mills underwent surgery and chemotherapy, but she was so knocked out by the side effects of the latter that she chose to supplement her infusions with organic and alternative medicines and regimens, which included a drastically new system of diet and exercise. "I was more frightened of the chemo than of the cancer," she admitted to The Daily Mirror.
Though Mills’ deviation from strictly medically-recommended courses of treatment was controversial, it was effective: After battling the disease for several years, she was finally told she was officially in remission — a victory she credits to the combination of different approaches she used, as well as to the love and support of her family. As of this writing, Mills, who continues to get regular scans and check-ups — remains cancer-free.
Hayley Mills’ favorite castmate was probably the cheetah
Since the 1960s, Hayley Mills has made regular appearances on television. She had cameos on The Love Boat and hit ’80s shows Amazing Stories and Murder, She Wrote, and she hosted the 1986 Storybook Series with Hayley Mills, a program featuring animated versions of fairy tales. She also famously starred in Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which would later be integrated into the hit program Saved by the Bell, and she was a star player in the BAFTA-nominated TV series The Flame Trees of Thika, about World War I era British settlers living in Kenya.
In contemporary TV land, however, she’s probably most well known for her role in the hit UK series Wild at Heart (not to be confused with the David Lynch film of the same name), which ran from 2006 to 2012. Like The Flame Trees of Thika before it, it concerned a British family living in Africa — this time, her TV family attempted to practice veterinary medicine on the grounds of a former game reserve.
In 2011, Mills appeared on the TV show Loose Women, and spoke to the hosts about one of her favorite parts about the role: "I love animals, so I’m always terribly excited whenever we work with [them] … you’ve got to know him [the cheetah she works with] off-screen. He’s really sweet … the sun rising over Africa is something, it really is. It’s always a thrill."
Hayley Mills and her sister got to fight it out on stage
In 2017, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon made headlines in Feud, a TV series about the famously contentious rivalry between legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Before that, however, there was Legends!, James Kirkwood’s hit 1986 play about two aging stars competing with each other in a final-ish bid for stardom. Though the production had already had multiple runs featuring the likes of Carol Channing and Mary Martin, as well as Joan Collins and Linda Evans, its 2015 Australian debut starred Hayley Mills and her sister, Juliet.
As Playbill described it, Legends! took audiences "into a world of gossip, rivalry, reminiscence, longing and scandal. As the sun sets in Manhattan, the claws come out as two famous but fading movie stars try to upstage one another." All that, of course, was the polar opposite of the famously loving relationship between the Mills sisters — probably all the more reason the siblings had great fun with the role. They discussed their experience in those roles, as well as their film and theater careers in general, in great detail in this extended interview with the radio station 4K12 Brisbane.
Hayley Mills relived her glory days
As the old saying goes, you can never have too much of a good thing. One would assume that that adage goes double for twins, right? In 1986, Hayley Mills reprised her dual role as twins in the The Parent Trap II — a contemporary spin on the old identical twin prankster theme, with some plucky young triplets thrown into the mix. Parent Trap III, the final installation in the series, aired in 1989. Neither offshoot was particularly memorable, and Mills herself stated that she had initially found it "strange" to be approached with the idea of an adult-centered reprise.
However, the script eventually won her over, and she agreed to do it. As she explained to Pat Sajack: "When I read the script and I saw that they’d really turned it into rather a clever story, it then became a fascinating thing — to find out what’s happened to these two girls over the years, and to play twins again, which is great fun for an actress." Parent Trap II and III somehow seem even more dated than the original, though, of course, neither of them have the original’s timeless charm or appeal. But they are still good fun with some fabulously ’80s hair and outfits, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Hayley Mills decided it was time to pitch in
It had been a few years since she’d last appeared on our screens when Hayley Mills joined the cast of BBC’s Pitching In. As Deadline reported in 2018, Mills was slated to headline the show alongside fellow legendary Brit Larry Lamb of Gavin & Stacey fame. Pitching In is set in a Welsh caravan park, in which "three generations of the same family" live and, naturally, struggle to get along with each other. Lamb described it as a "touching, funny and romantic story and a fascinating glimpse of life on the north Wales coast."
Catherine Mackin, Acorn Media Enterprises managing director, highlighted the "stellar cast led by Larry Lamb and Hayley Mills" alongside the "gorgeous setting" and "highly enjoyable script." Speaking to The Mirror in 2019, Mills admitted that she prefers being at home but her passion for acting still burns brightly. Mills described Pitching In as the ideal compromise, saying, "I was shooting for two weeks in a most beautiful part of the world." The iconic actress has no plans to retire any time soon either, noting simply, "For me, the need to work is constantly there."
Hayley Mills looked back fondly on her Disney beginnings
For the 60th anniversary of Pollyanna, Hayley Mills took a nostalgic journey through her storied Disney career with D23. Among Mills’ happy memories from the Pollyanna set, the actress recalls spotting some delicious-looking American-style donuts — a novelty for an English girl — out of the corner of her eye while trying to do a scene. She reminisced about how "as the morning wore on, I got more and more hungry and I was distracted by those donuts." The British actress has fond memories of meeting Walt Disney himself, too, although she acknowledged the House of Mouse was much smaller at that time.
While on the set of The Parent Trap, Mills shared how she and her "photographic double" used to go out to eat in costume and "pretend to be real twins." Likewise co-star Maureen O’Hara left a lasting impression on her, too. Reminiscing about her impressive beginnings with Disney, Mills gushed, "It represents formative years of my life and it’s deeply embedded in my heart. I was so fortunate to have that start with this wonderful man and his wonderful studio."