Wal­ter Mills left his mark on the the­atre

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - ARTS & LIFE - CAM FULLER

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.”

GORD WALD­NER/The StarPhoenix files

Mar­ion and Wal­ter Mills, seen here in 1995, were mar­ried for 62 years.

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