I quit my TV career at the height of my fame to adopt. Now, 26 years on, it’s still the best decision I ever made
- Donna Mills walked away from career to adopt a daughter and be a single mum
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Donna Mills was always ambitious. From her earliest years in the TV industry, she was ‘very concentrated’ on her career, she says, whether as an actress in the blockbuster soap Knots Landing or, in her 40s, as the owner of a successful film production company.
Famous for an icy, ethereal beauty that never seemed to fade, as she entered her 50s — still one of the best-known faces on television — new challenges in Hollywood surely beckoned.
Instead, Donna gave it all up and walked away. The reason? At the age of 54, at the peak of her career, she adopted a four-day-old baby daughter — and disappeared to become a single mum.
‘I’d wanted to have children,’ she says now, ‘but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. After I quit Knots [in 1989], I had my own company and I made movies for television. But afterwards I said, ‘OK, I’ve done all this, now what?’
‘I’d noticed that I’d been feeling really jealous whenever I saw a little child running up to their mother and saying, ‘Mummy’, and I felt this discontent; this feeling that something was missing. I realised I just wanted to be a mum. I felt I really had something to give to a child.’
Donna Mills was always ambitious. Famous for an icy, ethereal beauty that never seemed to fade, as she entered her 50s — still one of the best-known faces on television — new challenges in Hollywood surely beckoned
After contacting an adoption agency in LA, it took an entirely appropriate nine months for them to find a baby for her. In 1994, Donna first set eyes on newborn Chloe and from that moment ‘I fell in love,’ she says simply. ‘She was mine and that’s all there was to it. I do believe the right child comes to you, and she was meant to be with me.’
Now, at the age of 82, Donna is back on our screens — with a cameo in last year’s sci-fi horror film Nope, directed by Jordan Peele (who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning Get Out), and a leading role in the first of a series of TV movies based on the popular Cutler Family novels written by Virginia Andrews.
But it’s a career forever split in two by her devotion to being a parent. ‘Motherhood was what I wanted to experience, and so for 18 years I really stopped doing everything else,’ she says.
‘The first year or two, yes, I did a couple of movies because I could take Chloe on set with me.
‘But when she started school, I didn’t want to leave her for two months at a time just so I could go off and make a movie. I had no interest in that.’
And yet the parts were surely on offer. As the villainess of Knots Landing, Abby Cunningham, she was one of a handful of ultra-glamorous actresses — Joan Collins in Dynasty and Victoria Principal in Dallas among them — who dominated 1980s’ soaps.
Principal became an early wellness entrepreneur; Collins continued to land juicy roles in films and theatre. So did Donna ever feel a pang of envy? ‘To be honest, I didn’t care,’ she says. ‘I might have missed out on parts, but I never looked at shows and thought: ‘I should have done that.’ ‘
In the UK, it would be hard, though not impossible, to adopt as a single woman in her mid-50s, but in the U.S., where private agencies arrange the majority of adoptions, it’s a different process. I wonder if she ever worried she’d be seen as too old.
‘For some reason, it didn’t cross my mind, though it probably should have done,’ she admits.
Although California has no upper age limit or marriage requirements for adoption, ‘you have to be seen by a psychiatrist [before you can adopt] and obviously, they question you, but nobody ever said to me: ‘You’re too old.’ ‘ At least, no one did within the adoption process. There was the occasional naysayer elsewhere.
At the age of 54, at the peak of her career, she adopted a four-day-old baby daughter — and disappeared to become a single mum
‘People would sometimes say: ‘You’re going to have a toddler running around when you’re 60 —that’s going to be terrible!’
But I never felt older than the mothers who were at playgroup with me, even though they were 30 years younger. I’m still friends with some of them now.’
Did anyone ever comment on the fact that Donna had adopted a child of colour?
‘Certainly, nobody that I knew commented on it,’ she says.
‘I thought there might be some issues that I should address though, so I joined an organisation that specialised in inter-racial adoptions. It had a summer camp and classes, which were helpful because there were things I had to be aware of — things like hair care and buying certain products for that.’
We meet at her home in Brentwood, a picturesque suburb of Los Angeles, and frankly she looks sensational — neat and trim in a vest top and white jeans, that trademark blonde hair still lush, her eyeshadow immaculate. While she has eschewed the use of fillers on the grounds that she doesn’t want to ‘look like a duck’, she does admit to having had a ‘bit of tucking’ when she first started on Knots Landing. ‘But that was 40 years ago, so whatever it was, it held up.’
Chloe, now 28, works as a model as well as a membership manager for the Malibu Soho House. She’s living with Donna and the man she regards as her father, actor Larry Gilman, 72, who began dating Donna when Chloe was six. She grew up a single child, and is very close to her mum.
‘When Chloe was about three,’ says Donna, ‘I asked her if she’d like a brother or sister and she said yes. Then when I said: ‘Do you realise that I’ll have to hold the baby sometimes?’ she changed her mind immediately, so that was that!
‘She just wanted to be with me and that was fine with me.’
The path she chose was a rare one, she freely admits. ‘Fortunately, because I’d made some money throughout my career, I was in a place in my life where I could afford to devote myself to motherhood entirely.’
Donna was born in 1940, and started out as a dancer: ‘I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why my body has lasted as long as it has,’ she says. Remarkably, the character of Sandy in Grease was based on her. Growing up in Chicago, she attended school with one Jim Jacobs — the co-creator of Grease, and a classmate.
‘I didn’t even realise she was based on me until I heard about it years later on a TV show, but I was very flattered.’
Her exercise regime today is still highly impressive. ‘I play tennis four or five times a week and I exercise between 45 to 60 minutes a day — usually 20 to 30 minutes stretching and 20 minutes on the bike.’
She glides about her home in wedges: ‘I never want to walk like an old person and that’s what happens to your muscles when you don’t stretch, so I stretch a lot.’
Unlike many actresses who would probably be on their third husband by now, Donna never married. ‘I’m very independent, I’ve always made my own money and never had anyone support me. I’ve always felt safer that way,’ she admits. ‘When Larry and I met it, was later in life — and to co-mingle our finances and everything at that point,’ she grimaces, ‘why bother? So, we kept everything separate. We’re not actually married, but it’s like we are.’
The couple unwind by watching British shows such as Downton Abbey. But with Donna’s career taking off again, binge-watching might have to take a back seat.
‘I want to do work that’s valuable and what I really want to do is inspire women by saying, ‘Hey, we’re 70, 80 years old, but we’re not done yet.’ ‘
Indeed, the success of Nope has led to a host of offers and, unlike many actresses who complain the work dries up once they hit 40, Donna has a different take. ‘For a long time that was the case, but there’s so much product out there now and a much broader audience to satisfy — it isn’t just teenagers and twentysomethings going to the movies.’ Actresses of a certain age, she insists, ‘really have much more of a shot now’.
‘I’m really enjoying the work and if I could do one thing, it’s to say: ‘You don’t have to be old these days until you’re gone!’ We have a much longer lifespan than people used to, and if we’re lucky enough to have our health, then we still have a lot more to contribute.’
When she came to London last year for the UK premiere of Nope, she brought Chloe with her. As they stood on the red carpet together, Donna in a pristine white suit and Chloe in a green satin dress, they wrapped their arms around each other. It was the perfect illustration of the choices Donna Mills has made — and how happy they have made her.
- donnamills.com. Nope is available to download and on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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