Hollywood star returns to his roots

HE became one of the greatest actors of his generation, winning the respect of film critics and audiences across the world.But Hollywood star Sir John Mills proved yesterday that he had not forgotten his humble beginnings, growing up as a schoolboy in his hometown of Felixstowe.

By Danielle Nuttall

HE became one of the greatest actors of his generation, winning the respect of film critics and audiences across the world.

But Hollywood star Sir John Mills proved yesterday that he had not forgotten his humble beginnings, growing up as a schoolboy in his hometown of Felixstowe.

"I love Yorkshire puddings," he told 80-year-old Dolly Gray, whose mother used to cook the Sunday favourite for him when he was a youngster.

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"How old was I then? I was a very lucky boy," he joked.

The veteran actor, now 96, returned to his home town to launch a special film festival in his honour and delighted those who knew him in the early days by inviting them for a cup of coffee and a chat.

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Dressed in a red waistcoat, matching bow tie and red socks, Sir John relaxed into an armchair at the Hotel Elizabeth Orwell yesterday as his excited guests made a semicircle around him.

Many of those present had waited a lifetime for another glimpse of the actor in the flesh, and were overcome with emotion when the big moment arrived.

Mrs Gray, from Felixstowe, explained how her mother Dora Davie had once been employed by Sir John's mother as a home help and regularly cooked him lunches, including his favourite battered pudding.

"Every time John came home we would get a knock on the door and my mother would give him 10 minutes to get home and then go there," she said.

"John was a fan of batters, especially Yorkshire pudding. He loved that sort of thing. That's why I wanted to ask him whether he still liked it."

The pensioner said she often saw him playing on the beach with his mother as a boy.

"He was a gentleman as he was growing up. I saw him once at the Spa Pavilion when I was on duty with St John's Ambulance," she said.

"I've been so looking forward to seeing him. It was the first time I've been able to have a conversation with him. I didn't expect him to remember me. I think if he did that would be a miracle."

For Shirley Coupe and her daughter Chrissie, 38, meeting Sir John was one of the most moving of moments of their lives.

Shirley's mother, Ruby Wade-Smith, died when she was only 22, and the family was left with few details or images of her life. One of those was a photograph that showed her meeting Sir John in the former Gaumont theatre in Ipswich.

Mrs Wade-Smith had worked there as an usher in the 1930s and the photograph has been the pride of the family for many years, although they knew nothing of the circumstances of the meeting.

Mrs Coupe and her daughter, both from Kesgrave, wanted to meet Sir John in memory of Mrs Wade-Smith and were delighted when he signed the photograph.

"It's one of the few photographs we have of her. Because we did not know her it's really important," said Mrs Coupe.

"I think it was probably just a chance meeting with the manager of the theatre. We always wanted to know whether he remembered her as we've heard that he has a fantastic memory.

"We have watched everything to do with him. He was a very attractive man then and still is."

Ivy Upson, of St Edmunds Road, Felixstowe, knew an old work friend of Sir John when he was employed at RW Paul, the corn merchants in Ipswich, and often went for dinner at his family home where the actor would visit.

"He used to go there for tea and was always talking about wanting to be an actor. He didn't like working at Paul's and thought it was boring. He said he would a famous actor," said the 84-year-old.

A couple of years later, while Mrs Upson was working as a hairdresser in the town, she bumped into Sir John and told him how she hoped he would make it as a famous actor and he replied that he hoped she became equally famous as a hairdresser.

"That man has not changed," she said.

"He was so nice. I cannot tell you how glad I am to meet him again. I didn't think we would meet again. I have all his books and have followed his career."

Sir John, son of a schoolteacher, was brought up in the seaside town and began his working life at RW Paul in the 1920s.

He lived at 9 Gainsborough Road, Felixstowe, just off Hamilton Road, and five minutes walk from the sea.

His first acting role was as a gardener in The Paper Chase with the town's Vicar's Amateur Dramatic Society. But in 1929 he decided to try his luck in London, and has not looked back since.

Best known for his wartime roles, Sir John has had an impressive, varied career, which resulted in an Oscar win for his role as the village idiot in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter.

In an filmed interview to celebrate the Felixstowe Film Festival, he joked: "After years and years of endless lines, and learning endless lines, I won and Oscar for not speaking."

Speaking yesterday, the actor said he couldn't say how much it meant to him to return to his hometown.

"I am delighted. Everyone is so genuinely please to see me. It's very, very moving."

Yesterday afternoon, the actor addressed an audience at the Spa Pavilion Theatre before the screening of three of his films, including Ryan's Daughter.

Thanking everyone for attending, Sir John said: "I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to be back home. I really feel very happy indeed. I hope you all enjoy yourselves, thank you very much indeed."

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