Walter Mills left his mark on the theatre
The curtain has fallen on the colourful life of Walter Mills.
The actor, director and teacher who made 8 mm films in Moose Jaw as a child and wowed theatre critics in Los Angeles died Nov. 1 at the age of 90.
“Let’s put it this way,” said his wife of 62 years, Marion, “we had a slice.”
Walter Lord Lynbrook Mills was the son of a prominent Moose Jaw lawyer. His grandfather had been runner-up to Wilfrid Laurier in the Liberal leadership race and was the country’s justice minister.
Mills drove cab when Moose Jaw was a haven for bootleggers. He founded his own semi-professional production company to bring in shows. And he sold life insurance to make ends meet. One of his clients was his future wife.
“I just liked him as a person. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. But he just kept pursuing,” said Marion.
Mills’ first career was as a teacher. In charge of a notoriously unruly Grade 7 class, he established basketball teams and staged a play to pay for uniforms. Building the set and working within a budget formed the math class, and so on. All but one of the students passed the grade.
Mills studied drama at the University of Saskatchewan in the 1950s and worked at Stratford when the company included such actors as Bruno Gerussi and William Shatner.
After moving to the United States for his master’s degree, he and Marion relocated to Los Angeles. When the artistic director of the Studio Theatre Playhouse ran off with the leading lady, Mills stepped in to direct The Hasty Heart, to rave reviews.
When Emrys Jones, founder of the U of S drama department, invited Mills to be a special guest lecturer, Mills’ agent encouraged the posting because it would look prestigious on his resume.
“We had no intention of coming back because of the field he was in,” Marion said.
But eventually the family would resettle here and raise their three children. Mills became one of the department’s longest-serving professors, retiring in 1991 only because it was compulsory at his age.
“Walter never wanted to retire. He lived, breathed and slept theatre,” said Marion.
U of S drama professor Dwayne Brenna was a student during Mills’ time in the department and later a fellow professor.
“He gave me my first role in the drama department,” said Brenna, who lied to get the part in Butterflies are Free, claiming he could play guitar when in fact he knew only one song. They brought in a teacher so he could learn a second one.
“He was a very, very solid man of the theatre, and a solid director,” Brenna said.
He was also a bit of a rebel. Serving as head of the department one summer, he somehow managed to get the campus carpenters to build an arena theatre in the Hangar Building. It was almost finished by the time word reached administration — too late to do anything but call in the electricians and finish the job.
“He was a bit of an antiauthoritarian and could be subversive at times,” Brenna noted.
Students continued to visit and write thank-you letters long after Mills retired.
“He loved it when the students would come and visit, and they visited him until the day he died,” said Marion.
“He was a guy who loved life. He really loved life.”
Marion and Walter Mills, seen here in 1995, were married for 62 years.