Tuesday, June 18

This Actress Was ‘A Bit of a Tomboy’ Who Dreamed of Becoming a Dancer — She Is Also an Independent Single Mom

This ballerina’s dance teacher alerted her to a change in focus.

She realized her life would not be “complete” until she made a particular move.

The single mom’s home with her longtime partner has a few offbeat attractions and finishes.

The pig-tailed youngster in this photo dreamed of becoming a professional dancer, specifically, a ballerina. She imagined the curtain opening and somebody handing her a bouquet as she took a bow after a performance.

Raised in the suburbs of Norwood Park, Chicago, this girl began taking dance classes at five and was an accomplished speed skater, for which she won medals.

“I remember my childhood as being normal—playing in the yard, playing outside, climbing trees. I was a bit of a tomboy,” she said. Her brother, who was eleven years older, had other pursuits.

The little dancer was also very observant, noticing how her housewife mother, Bernice, “came alive” during her occasional employment as a telephone operator. She saw how the work gave her mom “a sense of independence.”

Union Oil employed her father, Ambrose, who asked his wife to stop working, believing he made enough to support the family. This “saddened” her mother who didn’t want to give up her job. The girl recalls:

“That impacted me greatly because I could see such a difference in her, but I never spoke to her about it.”

Donna Mills in the UK on November 27, 1972. | Source: Getty Images

This girl learned from her parents without internalizing their values. Something else she shunned was their bigotry. During her one year in college, which she attended only to please her parents, her mother disowned her for dating a Jewish boy.

Landing a part in a touring company of “My Fair Lady” put her on the rocky path of stardom at 19. Her first acting credit was in Neil Simon’s debut play, “Come Blow Your Horn.” She remembers:

“My then-dance teacher said to me, ‘You’ve got the acting bug. You’re not going to be a ballet dancer.’ I said, ‘Oh no, I’ll be a ballet dancer,’ but they were right.”

Relocating to New York City, she was in a few commercials and auditioned for dance and theatre shows. She learned much about the business when cast in the daytime soaps “The Secret Storm” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.”

Along with a co-star on the last mentioned soap, she negotiated a deal that allowed her to do guest starring roles on primetime shows. She went on to play one of the first lesbian characters on TV on “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors” in 1972.

The Midwesterner became friends with Burt Reynolds when she had a guest spot opposite him on “Dan August.” He recommended her to his friend, Clint Eastwood, who was casting his feature “Play Misty for Me.”

Donna Mills and Clint Eastwood in "Play Misty for Me," on January 1, 1971 | Source: Getty Images

Her performance in the thriller was well received, but it got her typecast as a damsel-in-distress. At around 40, she found the part that would make her an international superstar, a role that would define her career dramatically.

This is how the aspiring dancer from the Chicago suburbs, Donna Mills, became the conniving Abby Cunningham on “Knots Landing,” one of the most famous TV villains in the ’80s and early ’90s.

Mills, 82, has never married and values her independence in her personal life. However, love is central to her being. She told The Daily Beast in 2022 “I’ve always felt a woman being independent was important,” adding:

“It made me feel safer, I guess, to know that I can take care of myself. I want someone to be in my life to love and be with, to be a companion and to go places and all that, but if I have to I can take care of myself”

Donna Mills and Larry Gilman attend 22nd Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards on, February 6, 2016, in Palm Springs, California. | Source: Getty Images

Mills was in a long-term relationship with producer and singer Richard Holland, the former husband of Chaka Khan. She has been with “M*A*S*H” star Larry Gilman since 2001. “I’m lucky to have found him,” she said. “I found him late, but I found him.”

Motherhood also came at a much later stage for the soap icon. “Obsessed” with her career, she was not interested in starting a family for many years. After she left “Knots,” she realized that her “life was not going to be complete unless [she had a child].”

At 54 in 1994, she adopted a baby girl she named Chloe. The star maintains it was “probably the best moment of my entire life when she was put in my arms. She was four days old.”

The single mother took an 18-year hiatus from acting to raise her only child. After her daughter went to college, she returned to acting but found a whole new generation of casting agents who did not know who she was.

Soon, everyone became reacquainted with her as Madeline Reeves in “General Hospital” between 2014 and 2105 and again in 2018. “Oh, God, no! No,” she responded on CBS News when asked about retirement. She added:

“Well, I figure they have to have somebody to play the grandmother. I’m available for those things.”

She played the title character in the 2017 production of “Driving Miss Daisy” at The Colony Theatre in Burbank and made an impactful appearance in Jordan Peele’s “Nope.”

For Lifetime’s adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ “Dawn,” she concedes that she is “probably the evilest” she has ever been, adding, “It’s so much fun to play the evil character, it really is.”

“Larry planted a vineyard for me last year,” Mills told Closer in 2015. “He’s really such a good guy.” Initially, she was apprehensive about Gilman’s plan to turn the land behind their property in Brentwood, Los Angeles, into an agricultural undertaking.

Now she identifies as a farmer, “And to be a farmer is kind of fun,” she says. Mandeville Vineyards produces between 600 and 900 bottles of wine a year.

The vines are just one of the many unusual features of her close to 5,000 square feet home. The dining room’s walls are artfully layered with blocks of gold leaf. At night, it gives a “magical” effect in candlelight.

“We don’t need to put the lights on unless we want to see our food better,” she quips. The star loves hosting famous friends like Joan Crawford and her “Knots” castmates around the large wooden table that stood in her kitchen in her previous house.