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March 24, 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

Donna Mills, TV's ultimate bad girl, is really good.

Herbie J Pilato
  • Francois Noah

For the charismatic and accomplished actress Donna Mills, it’s always been about the good life - even when breaking bad.

Whether portraying angelic or devious characters on television, film or the stage, the Chicago native mixes her significant measure of humanity, talent and appeal, all of which results in likable and relatable performances.   

When not performing, she donates her time and efforts to various charitable causes (particularly those centered on the environment, human rights, and female empowerment), and dispenses her personal insight to aspiring actors. 

All such parties and more benefit from her acclaim as Abby Cunningham, one of classic TV’s most cunning, impeccably coifed female characters who forever resides on Knots Landing, the small-screen’s most popular nostalgic cul de sac.  

Originally airing on CBS from 1979 to 1993, Knots landed as a spin-off from Dallas, another of the network’s long-running evening soaps, which featured former I Dream of Jeannie star Larry Hagman as the conniving Texas oil magnate J.R. Ewing.

Much of its original and continued success rests with Mills’ centerpiece performance as the uptown Abby, the feminine counterpart to Hagman’s self-serving manipulative male Ewing.  

Mills seemed destined to landing the Knots role by way of her long-standing link with Hagman (who died in 2012).  Years before the Dallas-Knots cross-over, both actors had worked together on The Good Life, a promising, if short-lived NBC half-hour comedy that aired for just one season from 1971-1972.  

Good never found its footing, struggled in the ratings, and left the air mid-season after just 15 episodes.  “It’s not like we were given a different timeslot to help find our audience,” Mills laments, “we were just [unceremoniously] cancelled.”

Good was the first TV production Mills appeared in after completing the 1971 feature film Play Misty For Me, which was directed by Clint Eastwood who cast himself in the lead alongside Mills and actress Jessica Walters.  As Mills recalls, after playing in Misty she arrived in Los Angeles, and “…really didn’t know what I was going to do.  I was living in Jessica Walters’ guest-house and auditioning.”

One of those try-outs was for the initial Good episode which was Mills’ first series pilot, and for which she not only got the part, but won the lead – an all-encompassing development that impressed her peers, friends, co-workers, and industry professionals.  One particularly-dazzled colleague remarked, “Wait a minute…the first pilot you ever did…and it sold?!  How did you manage that?”

To which Mills innocently responded, “Oh, is that unusual?”

Not when it comes to a performer whose theatrical talents were honed nearly from the womb.  From when she was all but five years old, Mills began to exercise her moves with daily classes in ballet.  As she explains, “I started out as a dancer.  That’s all I wanted to be.  I studied, was diligent, and got [booked in] shows as a dancer.” 

Schooled early on in the stamina and dedication all artistic endeavors require, Mills rose to the occasion.  “That kind of discipline is wonderful and prepares you for every phase of life,” she says.  “It makes you realize just how much time, energy and effort that you have to invest to get what you want, how much work it really takes. 

"And I never minded the work.  I loved the work.  The work was the best part to me.  You respected the work, the art, and if being ‘a star’ came along with it, then ok.  But it was never about the stardom.”

It’s a philosophy that Mills maintains to this day, for herself as well as for others.  When young actors, dancers or aspiring artists approach her for advice, she tells them, “If you are an actor and you love acting, and that’s what you want to be, great.  But don’t go to ‘Hollywood’ to be a star.  Go there to be an actor, because if you seek stardom, then you’re going to be disappointed.  Your path may lead to stardom, but don’t make it about that.”  

“That’s always the way I looked at it,” she reflects.  Regarding paths like her particular television journey down Abby’s road to Knots Landing, she adds, “I love going to the stage every morning, and getting in front of the camera and working on a scene.  That’s the best part.  You spend 18 hours a day doing it, so you better love it.”

Mills commenced her professional TV career in 1966 with a six-month contract on the CBS daytime soap The Secret Storm, in which she portrayed a character named Rocket – a role that metaphorically and ultimately served as an early catapult and omen to success.  

One year later, she made her debut on the big screen with The Incident, co-starring Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges, Ed McMahon, and Thelma Ritter.  Other feature films followed as did her Broadway performance as the Sultan of Bashir’s wife in the Woody Allen comedy Don’t Drink the Water

She was soon guest-starring on now classic TV shows like Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Medical Center, and The Six Million Dollar Man. 

She also began appearing in several TV-movies such as The Bait, and the cult-classic Live Again, Die Again, both of which aired pre-Knots Landing, while decades later she performed in others like The World’s Oldest Living Bridesmaid, which was one of six television films she produced post-Knots Landing.  

For Mills, Living Bridesmaid, like The Good Life, remains a personal favorite.  Here, she played Brenda Morgan, a sophisticated attorney who escapes true romance until she meets her unassuming assistant (played by Brian Wimmer).  “I just loved the script and story,” she says.  “It was cute, and not played to type.” 

Mills type and choice of roles, on screen and off, has always proved rewarding.

Most recently she was the recipient of the 2017 Tiffany & Co. Legends Award from the Palm Springs Women in Film & Television.  In 2015, she won the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Special Guest Performer in a Drama Series for portraying Madeline Reeves on ABC’s General Hospital

She received the 2009 Anniversary Award at the TV Land Awards honoring her Abby role on Knots, for which she also nabbed three Soap Opera Digest Awards (in 1986, 1988, and 1989) for Outstanding Villainess on a Prime-Time Serial.  

“Playing Abby,” Mills admits, “changed my career tremendously.”  

That major alteration began circa 1979, while in conference with her then-agent Joel Dean, formerly of ICM, and now retired.  As she recalls, “I was literally in Joel’s office when he received the breakdown [casting notice] for Abby.  I had been playing Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes-type roles for a long time, and wanted to play something different.”

Upon noticing the Abby casting call on Dean’s desk, she asked him, “What about this?  This is exactly the kind of role that I’m looking for.  I want to do this.  I can do this.”

As both she and Dean were familiar with Michael Filerman, one of Knots's producers, Dean contacted Filerman who said, “Oh, yes, we love Donna.  And we’ll consider her, but she doesn’t have to come in and read for the part.”

Dean hung up the phone, and Mills told him, “You have to get me in there for a reading, because no matter what they say, they will not consider me.  They won’t think I can do this role and I know I can.”

Dean got back on the phone with Filerman and conveyed the message: “Donna needs to come in and do a reading.”

Soon afterwards, Mills was face to face with Filerman and, as she remembers it, “I did the reading, and an hour later, they called Joel and said, “She’s got the part.”

“I just knew I could do it,” Mills reiterates, and she did.  

Call it foresight, insight, confidence, destiny or a combination of them all, Mills went on to portray a seemingly wicked-only Abby and leave her mark in television history, but without turning the role into a parody.  Instead, the devoted actress made what could have been a one-dimensional Abby role, and transformed it into a human being with imperfections and flaws. 

The result:  Mills made Abby accessible to the audience with a credible performance.

As she explains it, “When you’re playing any character you can’t think they’re a bad or evil person.  You really have to play it with all their vulnerabilities, even if you can’t [readily] display those weaknesses.  And that’s what I always tried to work on with the [Knots’s] writers - who were really good - was that Abby needed to have those vulnerabilities.  Otherwise she’d be a caricature. 

"She needed to sometimes cry, she needed to sometimes not be sure of herself, but never in front of anyone else.  The only time you would see her cry or be vulnerable is when she was by herself, which I think allowed the people at home to think, ‘Oh, look - she does have feeling.’”

“And that’s important,” Mills clarifies, “to connect with the audience on that level.”

Today, Mills connects with and enjoys several contemporary TV shows including House of Cards and This is Us, which Mills describes as “a modern-day Knots Landing.”  

“It’s realistic,” she says of This is Us.  “It has depth and goes deeper than any show that I have seen in a long time – and I love that.” 

In the past, Mills also loved the creative atmosphere that tied the Knots cast together with a binding spirit that existed and remains amongst the actors, writers, and entire production team.  Each of the performers was granted input into their character portrayals, and went the extra mile in helping to bring their roles to life, especially in the show’s formative years.

Some of those Knots cast members included Michelle Lee, who played Karen MacKenzie, and Jon Van Ark, who portrayed Valene Ewing, both of whom Mills stays in contact with today.  “We’re all still very good friends.  The show was a very important time in all of our lives, and each of us gave it our all.  We had a great time together and loved each other and love each other still.”

Mills, Lee, Van Ark and other members of the Knots cast will soon celebrate its 40th Anniversary with various tributes including a commemorative reunion photo that will focus on series creator David Jacobs and be framed in France by renowned photographer Denis Guignebourg.  “We’re all very excited, appreciative and honored by the attention,” says Mills.

As to the specific attention that she continues to receive in general, Mills sustains her trademark humility.  With a role like Abby Cunningham on Knots Landing, it may pay to be bad on screen.  But off-screen, with her solid sense of priorities and values, it’s never bad to be good - a productive philosophy that Mills credits to her mid-west parentage.

“It’s the way I was brought up,” she says, “to always be honest and forthright, and to not to cheat.  Those [concepts] were just a given; that was just the way my mother and father lived.  And when your parents live and think that way, that’s the way you live and think. 

"Not all of who we are comes from our parents, but a lot of it does.  And then some of it just forms because of who we are as individuals.”

Regarding her iconic status in pop-culture history, and the continued accolades, Donna Mills says, “I don’t feel like a legend.  I feel blessed, and always feel very, very flattered whenever I receive any kind of recognition,” whether due to her professional or charitable work, particularly for women’s causes.

“Hopefully,” she concludes, “I’m doing some good.”

 

 

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