After more than 50 years in the entertainment industry, Donna Mills has seen it all. The actress, who became a household name in the ’80s on Knots Landing, says the early days of her career were filled with the same incidents of sexism that nearly every actress has been speaking out about in recent weeks.
“When I first started out, I didn’t have an agent, so you’d look in the paper Backstage for casting news,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I was in New York. There would be a reading for a play and you’d go in and it was, like, [at] an apartment. That was kind of scary. You’d read the play and it was, like, the play was some kind of sex thing. You’d go, ‘Wait a minute!’ but by that time, you’re there.”
Fortunately, Mills was able to navigate out of those situations, but she notes that back in those days, skirting around #MeToo occurrences like that just came with the territory of trying to make it in the industry.
While she managed to dodge the advances of men in power time and time again, one disturbing incident does come to mind: a run-in with late American cartoonist Al Capp, who has faced similar allegations from Goldie Hawn and many others. Capp created the wildly popular Li’l Abner comic strip in the 1930s and died in 1979. His alleged sexual misconduct was documented in Hawn’s memoir, Goldie; a Grace Kelly biography, Grace; and in the 1971 columns of syndicated newspaper writer Jack Anderson.
“One day, some guy came up to me on the street in New York and said, ‘You’d be perfect for Daisy Mae in Al Capp’s new show and blah, blah, blah.’ I was like, ‘Oh, this must be fate.’ And he said, ‘He wants to see you.’ I went to his apartment and he was naked,” says Mills. “I fled from there, crying and hysterical. But apparently, Al did it to many, many, many girls.”
Looking back at her days of guest-starring on popular 1970s sitcoms such as The Love Boat and Hawaii Five-O, Mills says sexism and harassment in the workplace was something that just wasn’t discussed at the time. “Back then, you didn’t talk about it. It was kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, that happens. You’ve got to watch out for it. But it happens.’ It wasn’t like it was unusual. You knew it was going to happen. You tried to steer clear of it. But you knew it was going to happen. And that’s not the way it should be,” she says.
She says she doesn’t remember anything “too bad” happening to herself or her colleagues in the acting world of the ’70s and ’80s. But the actress believes that years of this kind of bad behavior from the people in power — the studio execs and the directors — going unchecked has led to Weinstein-like revelations reaching an all-time high. “It shouldn’t happen now,” says Mills, who is hopeful that all the actors coming forward will permanently change the way in which the industry operates. “It’s wonderful that women are standing up for themselves now and talking about it. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. You feel shamed,” she says, reflecting upon her past.
And as a mother, protecting young women in entertainment is something Mills is extremely passionate about. “My daughter is 23 now and she’s a model in New York,” Mills says. “Fortunately, she’s had me to tell her, to watch out for her. And she’s very strong. But the average kid coming into New York or even here in L.A. and not knowing any better could just get trapped into this kind of thing really easily.”
Since the Weinstein outing, Mills says she and her daughter have had even deeper conversations on the topic. “I’ve given her advice all along because she’s been a model now for a number of years and they probably get the worst of it,” she explains. “They’re all beautiful and have wonderful, beautiful bodies and there are a lot of photographers that are predatory.” The actress says she makes a point of having her daughter tell her what types of jobs she is doing, where she is doing them, and who she is doing them with. “I would say, ‘If there’s anything shady about it, you just turn right around and walk out,’” says Mills. “Also, I talk with her agents to make sure that they know where they’re sending her.”
Once she became established in her career, Mills says she earned more respect from her peers and saw the incidents of sexual harassment directed at her begin to dwindle. “Once you become known or you become a star, so to speak, men aren’t as prone to prey upon you because you have some power. But when you’re starting out and you don’t and you just want a job, that’s when they’ll prey on you,” she reveals. Mills jokes, however, that a lot of what kept her safe was probably her villainous character on Knots Landing. “I played Abby for 10 years. That character put forth the image of a really strong, self-sufficient woman that wasn’t going to take any s***,” she proclaims. People assumed Mills was the same way and, in fact, the actress says playing Abby did teach her “not to take any gruff.”
“It reminds me of a line in the show,” she recalls. “There was a time when Howard Duff was on the show and he was playing this big corporate guy and he was trying to make a deal with me and he called me Cookie. And I just turn around to him and I say, ‘And don’t call me Cookie.’ It’s kind of that kind of thing. Don’t mess with me.”
Not only did Abby keep Mills safe from sexism, but she also made men afraid to ask her out. “It was too scary for them,” she says, with a laugh.
Though Mills had her share of beaus, she has never married. “I was and still am tremendously independent. Always have been,” she says, noting that she’s turned down proposals over the years. “I have a relationship now that I’ve been in for 16 years. We’re like married but we never married. I never really saw the necessity of being married. I always intended to make my own living, so I wasn’t going to marry because I needed somebody to support me. Other than that, I really didn’t see any reason for it. If you’re with somebody and you’re happy with them, that’s great. You don’t need to be married to make that work,” she tells Yahoo.
Even if her partner, Larry Gilman, were to pop the question, the star jokes that her answer would probably be no. “If there were some ritualistic kind of reason for doing it or something like that, I would. But probably not,” she says. “At this point, I think it would be so hard to mix finances and everything else.”
Refusing to tie the knot is not the only thing that the actress, who turns 77 in December, is self-governing about. She also does her own makeup — for red carpet events and all her appearances. “I’ve done it for years and years,” she says. “When I first started out, I’d go into the makeup room and they’d do my makeup. And I’d go, ‘Oh,’ and go in the bathroom and take it off and start over again. For me, it’s way faster and I get the results that I want.” The star keeps her skills fresh by following the tips of makeup artists she admires, flipping through magazines like Vogue, and popping into places like Naimie’s Beauty Center to try out new products. She has done makeup for co-stars such as Joan Van Ark and Michele Lee and also cuts her boyfriend’s hair in lieu of sending him out to the barbershop.
One thing she’s not so DIY about, however, is her social media. Being so front and center with her fans is a concept that the star is still trying to wrap her head around. “Boy, it’s a different time today!” Mills exclaims. “Back when I was doing Knots, we spent an enormous amount of time and money staying separate from the fans. You loved the fact that you had fans. You thought they were terrific. But you didn’t make yourself available to them, which, I think, made the stars more special. But it’s different now and it’s not going to change.”
Mills has accounts on Instagram and Twitter, but she admits she thinks that many of her colleagues overshare their lives with the public. To keep herself in balance, she employs her daughter to run her page. “I give her all the pictures. We talk about what we’re going to say and stuff like that. But she basically runs it,” Mills reveals. “She says to me, ‘You send me everything you’re doing this week and I’ll tell you what I want pictures of.’”
Mills’s social media followers see photos of her on the tennis court or out and about in the City of Angels. “I try to make it good stuff, nice stuff, attractive stuff — because I think the fans want to see the glamour,” she says. “At least they want to think that the people that they are fans of have a glamorous life.”
Next up for Mills is the the lead role in a theatrical version of Driving Miss Daisy at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, Calif. The production kicks off Nov. 4 and runs through Dec. 10.
“The big challenge with this one is that my character ages from 72 to 97 onstage,” says Mills. “I’m basically onstage the entire time, so it’s not the makeup that changes her. It’s a lot of physical work. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun!”
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