One day in 1961, I received a cardboard box that contained an exquisite little Oscar. Half as big as the full-sized one, it had been created specially for child movie stars, including Judy Garland and Shirley Temple. And me.
Yet there isn’t a single photograph of me holding my baby Oscar — even though my father was constantly taking snaps of me and my siblings. In fact, after it arrived at our home, it was never really mentioned again. I don’t even recall where my parents put it. I just know that they worried it might all be ‘too much’.
It’s more likely, however, that it was my father John Mills who found it all too much.
After a long and distinguished career as a movie star, he’d yet to win an Oscar himself.
So it must have been pretty galling when his 14-year-old daughter got one for Pollyanna — her very first film for Disney.
Star: Hayley Mills pictured wearing a white dress with a blue sash belt in a portrait issued for the Walt Disney film Pollyanna
I was a very ordinary, happy-go-lucky child. Until I was 12, I had no expectations of being a performer of any kind. I don’t think I even thought about it, not once.
My parents’ nickname for me was ‘Bags’ — I’ve never been entirely sure why. I was their middle child, seemingly destined to be forever outshone by my bright and articulate elder sister, Juliet, and my younger brother, Jonathan, who was Mummy’s pride and joy.
Basically, I was regarded by my family as a bit of a joke. I was clumsy and not particularly pretty — with big teeth and a nose someone once described as ‘a lump of putty’.
When I was ten, I was sent to boarding school. What I looked forward to most was coming home to our 14th-century farmhouse on the Kent and Sussex border.
Then I’d spend hours roaming on my skewbald pony Annabelle, across the fields, into the woods, singing at the top of my voice into her feathery ears; or sitting on Daphne, my favourite cow, during milking time, reading Dandy and Beano comics.
With my seven-year-old brother, I’d climb trees, unblock streams with sticks and wander wherever I chose. At mealtimes, we’d hear the tune Come To The Cookhouse Door, Boys played on the trumpet (Daddy was learning it for the film It’s Great To Be Young), and there would be a mad race back to the house.
And then, one Sunday afternoon, everything changed.
J. Lee Thompson, a well-known film director, had come down to talk to Daddy about a movie he was planning called Tiger Bay. It was going to be a thriller: a sailor, who’s killed his cheating girlfriend, abducts the only witness to the murder — a nine-year-old boy.
Daddy was going to play a police chief.
‘A lot hangs on the child,’ he said to Lee as they strolled in the garden. ‘You need to find him first.’
‘I have,’ said Lee. And he pointed at me. At that moment, I was rescuing beetles from our stagnant swimming pool and singing TV advertising jingles to myself.
(‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went/ When you go steady with Pepsodent! Pepsodent! Pepsodent!’)
Hayley with her father, John, pretending to be press photographers. After a long and distinguished career as a movie star, he’d yet to win an Oscar himself, writes Hayley
My father was speechless. Then he laughed. I’d only just turned 12, and had never done anything but minor parts in school plays. To add to that, I was a girl.
But Lee was adamant. So in September 1958, after a screen-test, I found myself on location in Cardiff. My co-star, playing the sailor, was 24-year-old Horst Buchholz, a tall and good-looking German actor, who later starred in The Magnificent Seven. I adored him on sight.
Nobody made any sort of fuss about me on set, and I took to filming like a duck to water. I particularly enjoyed my developing relationship with Horst, even if it was just on-screen.
Walt Disney’s control freakery
On the very first morning of filming for Pollyanna, I was taken to a costume fitting with the legendary Walter Plunkett, who’d designed all the dresses for Gone With The Wind.
Then, I went to Max Factor to get my hairpiece done.
Finally, I was taken to see Walt Disney himself. It was like meeting an old friend.
He showed Mummy and me into an office, where he had all these cork-boards on the walls, from floor to ceiling, each one covered with little drawings, like the most enormous comic book. ‘These are the storyboards,’ he enthused. ‘Every shot for every scene of the film is pre-planned and illustrated: wide shots, tracking shots, close-ups. We’ve already made the whole film here, in this office.’
Walt kept a close eye on every aspect of the process, from the script to the shoot; he’d work on all the set-ups with the director, he was involved in all the special effects and editing and even worked with the composer.
Like all great artists he wanted control, but it left little room for inspiration on the filmset.
On the final afternoon, I was due to shoot a climactic scene in a water tank, doubling as the Bristol Channel, in which my character nearly drowns.
At lunch, the wine flowed as everyone started celebrating the end of the shoot. Afterwards, tottering back across the lot, I realised I was drunk. To make matters worse, a big notice had been tacked up on the sound stage, congratulating Horst on his engagement.
He was getting married! He wasn’t going to wait for me to grow up! I was heartbroken.
When we finally shot the last scene in the water tank, I was flailing around so much — so drunk and so heartbroken — that I really did almost drown.
Nearly three years later, I went to my local cinema in Edenbridge to see Fanny, Horst’s new film with Leslie Caron. I watched transfixed, longing to be Leslie as she stood under a streetlamp with his arms around her.
I’d loved Horst when I was 12, but now I was practically grown up — I was 15! I had to tell him. So when I got home, I poured all my teenaged devotion into an epic love letter that I knew I’d never send. Then I hid it in the back of a drawer.
A few months later, a zealous fan broke into our farm, helping himself to cameras, silver, jewellery, awards and a lot of my underwear. Fortunately, he was caught and most of the stuff — including my Oscar — was recovered.
Among these things was an item I didn’t even realise had been stolen. The police discreetly returned it to my father.
I was sitting in the bath one night when Daddy knocked on the door. Before I could say: ‘No, I’m in the bath!’ he entered, with a very serious expression on his face.
‘The police handed this in to me,’ he said, and to my horror he held out my love letter.
‘Hail, this is a very dangerous thing to do. Horst is a married man. What have you got to say?’ And then he started to read bits out loud: ‘I dream of you, I dream of your mouth, your lips burning mine . . .’ He looked at me sternly. ‘Something like this could do a great deal of damage to his marriage.’
I hugged my knees into my chest, feeling like a naughty child. No humiliation could have been greater than sitting there, naked in the bath, while my father read out my embarrassingly passionate declaration of love.
Enthralled: Hayley with American film producer Walt Disney on the set of his film ‘The Castaways’ in December 1961
The first time I ever saw myself on screen was at Tiger Bay’s premiere in London. I got such a shock that I couldn’t stop laughing. It was awful; I was in danger of becoming quite hysterical. My father, who’d brought along his friend Laurence Olivier, had to kick me sharply to shut me up.
The morning after, I woke early and saw that the papers had been delivered, so I opened one to the reviews section.
‘Tiger Bay is dominated from first to last by Hayley Mills who acts her father off the screen,’ said the review. I was appalled, terrified. I didn’t want Daddy to read that; it was ridiculous, absurd. He’d be so hurt. In a flash, I’d stuffed all the papers underneath the sofa. Then I heard my father’s voice.
I longed to be in a nativity
Tiger Bay had won me both a Bafta and a prestigious Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, but no further jobs were offered. There wasn’t even a polite inquiry.
To be honest, nobody had expected Tiger Bay to be more than a one-off. So I went back to school, where the one thing I was looking forward to was the school Nativity play.
I desperately wanted one of the bigger roles. After all, I was a professional actress!
But I wasn’t given anything. Not even a shepherd. Even now, I don’t think I’ve ever longed for a part so much.
‘Have the papers arrived yet?’ he called. I hid behind the living-room door, staring down at my bare feet and chewing my nails.
Later, the cleaning lady found the papers while she was doing the hoovering. Daddy soon guessed it was me.
‘Why did you do that, Bags? Why did you hide the papers?’
I chewed my nails again and looked into my father’s blue eyes.
‘I didn’t want you to see them and be upset.’
He laughed and hugged me.
‘Of course I’m not upset,’ he said. ‘I’m proud, that’s all.’
But it didn’t feel right. It was very strange and unsettling being the focus of that sort of attention. No one had ever taken me seriously before.
In January 1959, Daddy’s agent rang. ‘Walt Disney is in London,’ he said. ‘He’s casting a new picture and wants to meet Hayley.’
On a cold, drizzly afternoon, my entire family — including our Pekinese puppy, Suky — duly set out to see Walt at his suite in the Dorchester Hotel. We arrived covered in white dog hair.
A tall man with a moustache and grey hair, Walt was wearing a pair of light grey trousers and a pale yellow cardigan. He smiled. For a second, we all stared back with our mouths open. This was the creator of Mickey Mouse!
I realise now it was a stroke of genius for Mummy to have insisted on bringing along the puppy, because it completely deflected the attention — and pressure —away from me.
Suky was our ice-breaker extraordinaire. The first few minutes after we arrived were spent on the floor of Walt’s suite, playing with the dog.
I told him all about Suky; how she had absolutely no idea what a tiny creature she was, and chased all the cows on the farm, often using their cow pats as stepping stones. Sometimes, I said, a cow pat would collapse and she’d fall in, which didn’t seem to bother her at all.
A scene from the film ‘Pollyanna’ (1960) starring Hayley. Unbeknown to my parents, Disney had already auditioned hundreds of girls for the part of Pollyanna — a pig-tailed sweetie who always sees the best in everybody, writes Hayley
He laughed. And I liked the way he laughed. There was something shy about him. Something endearing. Something I recognised. Thinking back, I don’t remember Walt talking about films, or acting, or the movie he was planning to make. I don’t recall anything to do with work being discussed at all.
I certainly didn’t feel that I’d been under any particular scrutiny. So I was quite unaware I’d just had one of the most important encounters of my life.
Disney Studios, we soon learned, wanted me for an exclusive deal — one picture a year for the next seven years of my life. The first was to be Pollyanna, which was about to go into pre-production.
Unbeknown to my parents, Disney had already auditioned hundreds of girls for the part of Pollyanna — a pig-tailed sweetie who always sees the best in everybody. ‘They don’t hit me in the heart,’ Walt kept saying. As time was running short, a girl was chosen anyway — yet Walt refused to give up his search.
Meanwhile, every day’s delay was costing him money.
My name came up unexpectedly when the wife of a Disney producer happened to see Tiger Bay.
As soon as Walt got hold of a copy, he flew straight to London to meet us.
My parents were gobsmacked. To them, I was still just Bags: a bit of a joke. They didn’t really think of me as an actress.
But my father also knew this was a rare kind of offer. For any British actor to get the chance to star in a Hollywood movie was a big deal, let alone under an exclusive contract. And if he said no, would I come to resent his decision?
So he was in a terrible quandary. After a lot of agonising, my parents turned down Walt’s offer. Then, a few days later, they changed their minds. At the time, I was told it was because Disney had given me a better deal. I didn’t find out the truth until many decades later, when I was given access to the Disney archives.
There, I found a memo that said: ‘If Hayley Mills signs with Disney, her father John Mills is guaranteed the lead role in Swiss Family Robinson.’
It was a masterstroke. How could my father refuse a starring role in a big Hollywood movie?
Hayley Mills pictured above as a young actress in the 1961 movie The Parent Trap
The next thing I knew, I was signing a 200-page contract with my childish scrawl.
At LAX airport, we were met by an enormous black limousine. As we slumped into the leather seats, I heard Mummy whisper: ‘This is the beginning of Hell.’
But to me, 1959 Hollywood seemed like a demi-paradise — the bluest sky, palm trees waving gently in the sun, vibrant colour everywhere.
We were put up, in great luxury, in one of the Beverly Hills Hotel’s famous pink bungalows. My brother was beside himself, his face purple with excitement. ‘There’s a television in every room!’
Life during those hectic two weeks became such a dizzy whirlwind that I slightly forgot I had to make a movie at the end of it. I just wasn’t in touch with reality any more, especially when Walt personally drove us to Disneyland for a weekend.
For any child, a trip there is close to heaven on earth, but to be taken around by Disney himself was unreal.
He went on all the attractions with us, and seemed to enjoy every one — even the Mad Tea Party, with spinning cups and saucers, which makes most grown-ups feel sick. He’d been on all his rides hundreds of times and still loved them.
As the first day of filming approached, I started to feel queasy. One night, I picked up my mother’s nail scissors, grabbed my hair and cut off my widow’s peak. All that was left was a tuft sticking up.
I was due before the cameras in only two days. And I’d just vandalised my head.
It took me years to understand why I did it. Self-sabotage. If I turned out to be a failure, I could always blame it on that ridiculous tuft protruding from my forehead.
By the time I arrived on location, the queasiness in my stomach was almost making me dizzy. I was taken to see Hair & Make Up, who were understandably thrown by my ‘new look’. After some mutterings, it was decided to shave off the offending tuft.
My face was then, rather too liberally, covered in Max Factor pancake. I left Hair & Make Up feeling like a boiled egg in a wig. All of a sudden, I found it difficult to walk normally.
Things kept going wrong in my first scene. The wig was hot and scratched my neck, my dress was stiff, the long, dry grasses got stuck in my tights and everything itched.
I was so unsettled and distracted, I just couldn’t concentrate.
The director must have been a very worried man because we broke for lunch with nothing worth printing. That’s when my father took me to one side.
‘What’s the matter, Bags?’ he asked calmly.
I swallowed drily.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Well . . . umm,’ and then he paused. I could see he was choosing his words carefully.
Hayley pictured above on set of the 1962 film ‘In Search Of The Castaways’
‘Do you know what you’re like? On camera, I mean. You are like a big white cabbage. Boring. Very boring. Pull your finger out.’ Being boring was a cardinal sin in our family. It was just about the worst thing he could have said. But with the imprint of Daddy’s boot firmly on my backside, the afternoon’s shoot went much better.
After that initially bumpy start, I quickly settled down. Walt would come on set after watching the ‘dailies’ and go around telling everyone how good they were. That kind of encouragement made you feel inspired and safe.
The shoot for Pollyanna lasted four months — a mini lifetime for a 13-year-old.
Just a few months later, I was a household name — a face on magazines, a name on posters and one of Disney’s biggest exports. Worried that all the adulation would go to my head, my parents kept stressing the tremendous importance of humility and gratitude. But for all their good intentions, they took it too far.
By glossing over things that were real and important, like winning the Oscar, they were unwittingly denying milestones in my life. Had they not done so, I think I’d have taken my career more seriously.
As it was, my achievement was played down to such an extent that I thought my lucky break had been a mistake. Convinced I was undeserving, I started feeling guilty about my success.
Adapted from Forever Young by Hayley Mills, to be published on September 2 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20. @ 2021 Hayley Mills. To order a copy for £18, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Offer valid to 28/8/21, p&p is free on orders over £20.