My newest interview subject, Donna Mills, made an impression on viewers as Abby Cunningham on the classic prime time soap Knots Landing. With her wonderful acting skills and her piercing eyes, the care of which was showcased in a 1986 video called Donna Mills: The Eyes Have It, she captivated audiences, and still does so to this day. We talked on Tuesday, May 28th, about works of her’s from the 70s to the modern day, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know her.
Say hello to Donna Mills!
Donna: How are you?
Johnny: I’m doing good. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this.
Donna: That’s okay. My pleasure.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go, starting with this: In the upcoming movie Carol Of The Bells, you play Helen Harris. How did you get involved in that film?
Donna: Well, they just made an offer to me, you know? I didn’t really know anything about the production company or the film, and I got an offer, so I said, “Okay. Let me read the script”. I did, and then I began to find out something about the company, about Joey Travolta and what he does. He trains disabled people to work in the film industry, and I thought, “Wow, this is really a worthwhile endeavor”. I liked the script, too, so I agreed to do it, and it was a wonderful experience.
Johnny: Alright. Elaborating on that, what did working on Carol Of The Bells teach you about working with the developmentally disabled?
Donna: Well, you know, they say they’re not disabled. They’re just different-abled. What it taught me is that if people are disabled, it doesn’t mean they can’t necessarily live in the mainstream. They can work. They can do things. It just may take them a little longer to learn to do it, but if they are trained to do it, they do it really well and are so very grateful to be working, to be contributing to society. It’s really gratifying to realize that these people probably wouldn’t work in their lifetime without this training, and it’s so wonderful that they have this opportunity.
Johnny: Alright. I apologize if I used the wrong terminology. I, myself, am on the autism spectrum.
Johnny: Yeah. I deal with Asperger’s Syndrome, and occasionally I stumble upon my words, so I apologize if I caused offense with the previous question.
Donna: No, no, not at all. Most people, you know, don’t know that term, and I didn’t know either before I did the movie. When I started to delve into more about it, and they call it different abilities, rather than saying something is wrong with them, something is different with them. That was an eye-opener for me, too, so don’t worry about using the wrong term. It’s common.
Johnny: Alright. When it comes to movies along those lines, you also recently appeared in the movie Turnover, which featured another former interview subject of mine, Kat Kramer. Was that a coincidence that you filmed two movies with similar themes so close to each other?
Donna: (Laughing) Yes, it was totally a coincidence. They have nothing to do with each other. They don’t know each other, even, as they have different directors. They were both at the Bentonville Film Festival, which I thought was pretty wild that I had two films in a film festival. That was great, too. When I took that film, they spelled it out in the beginning, and it said in the script that this couple was Down Syndrome, so I knew a little bit more about it.
Johnny: Alright. To jump back into the 1970s, you played Tobie in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. What was it like to work with an established actor like Clint on his first venture behind the camera?
Donna: Well, it was very interesting because it WAS his first. He wasn’t an established or award-winning director. He had never directed before, so it was kind of a crapshoot when one didn’t know how it was going to be. It turned out wonderfully, and he’s an excellent director. He knows what he wants. Even on his first film, he brought that film in under time and under budget because he just knew everything that he wanted. It was wonderful to work with him.
Johnny: Alright. To go to my next question: Going into the 1980s, we come to your most noted television role, Abby Cunningham on Knots Landing. With all that the character did on the show, what do you suppose she would be doing in 2019?
Donna: Hmm. You know, that’s really interesting because people are always asking me, “When are they going to reboot Knots Landing? When are they going to bring it back? What would Abby be doing right now?”. I don’t know. I think it would be really interesting if it came back and Abby was kind of down and out. Maybe she’s poor. Who knows what happened in the intervening years? To watch her, in a new series, pull herself back up again would be really, really interesting.
Johnny: I definitely agree with that. When it comes to Knots Landing, where is the most surprising place in your travels that you were recognized for that show?
Donna: Well, it was in Egypt. I was asked at the time to come to Egypt and be the guest of honor at the Cairo Film Festival. When they called me, I said, “I’m in television”. (Laughing) They said, “No, no. They love you in Egypt”. “Really? Okay, great”. I went, and they were going to have a press conference when I first got there. I thought, “Okay. There’ll be 3 or 4 or 5 journalists”, something like that. I walked into the room and there were 200 journalists in there from all over the Arab world. I was like, “Oh my god!”. (Laughing) I had no idea that the show was hugely popular over there.
Johnny: Yeah. Those evening soaps really traveled the world in the 1980s. I mean, after all, Dallas, which Knots Landing spun off from, is said to have helped brought an end to Communism in Romania.
Donna: (Laughing) Well, good. That’s always a good thing.
Johnny: To go to my next question. I love the fashions, looks and styles of the 80s, and you showcased them magnificently in an instructional video called Donna Mills: The Eyes Have It. What’s the story behind that video, and do you still utilize advice from it in this decade?
Donna: Well, yeah. I think all the things I did, and the tips and instruction I gave, all still work. Fashion goes in and out, as well as how the eyes should be, or the makeup particularly, but it pretty much works even now. The fashion is a little different. The clothing is a little different. I’m still waiting for those shoulder pads to come back, but I think the makeup and everything I taught in that video still works today.
Johnny: Yeah. I still have it on VHS, even though I don’t have have a VCR anymore.
Donna: (Laughing) That’s the problem. You can’t find a place to play those things.
Johnny: Yeah. I’m thinking of sending it to my friend Adam to convert to a DVD for me. To stay in the 80s, you played The Rose in the 1985 TV movie Alice In Wonderland. What are your favorite stories from the set of that project?
Donna: Oh, wow. Just to be part of that project was so wonderful and so exciting. I shot for two days. I don’t even remember for sure, but I loved being around all the wonderful characters in it. It was a wonderful experience, and we shot it on two stages at Sony, though it was MGM then. That was really very nostalgiac and very nice to do a redo of it. It was such a wonderful show. Just to be in it was really fun.
Johnny: Yep. To my next question: You competed in both the original Battle Of The Network Stars and the ABC revival of two years back. What was your strongest event, and was it hard to compete knowing you may have had some physical work to do on your acting jobs, be they Knots Landing or other works?
Donna: No. I started out as a dancer, so I was very used to physicality and being physical in what I did, so no. It was hard during that time as I was doing Knots Landing, but I played tennis a number of times on Knots. We had scenes as they knew I played. Probably my best event in Battle Of The Network Stars was running. Strangely enough, I don’t run anymore. It’s not a thing I do, but I did very well in that. I didn’t do well in the water sports, but I did do well in the running, and I believe there was a relay race I did well in, too. I have a trophy from the original.
Johnny: Cool. When it comes to variety television, you appeared in several Bob Hope specials in the 80s, so what are your favorite memories of working with him?
Donna: Oh, he was amazing. I got to sing “Silver Bells” with him, which was amazing. That was a very rare and special thing. He always chose someone that he really liked to sing that with him, and when they asked me, I was so honored. He was just a really nice man. Even in his 80s, he was the first one on set in the morning and the last one to leave. He was so energetic, and so into it and on top of it. He was wonderful, and very, very sweet. He was very nice to the people he worked with, not just the actors, but he was lovely to the crew and everybody.
Johnny: Cool. I mentioned how I love 80s fashions, looks and styles, but for a long time that seems to be receding now, thankfully, people looked back on the decade’s fashion, follicle and facial aesthetics with a tremendous sense of mockery. Why do you think that was?
Donna: You mean like when they mock the shoulder pads and the big hair and all that kind of stuff?
Donna: I think it’s because when it’s not in style, it looks kind of silly. If you look back at the 30s, the hair was crimped and things like that. There are eras in fashion, and the 80s was pretty out there and pretty bold, which I loved. That was fun to wear that fashion in the 80s. I loved being a fashion leader. I had access to a lot of wonderful designers, so that was really good. I think whenever we look back to something as bold as the 80s, it’s easy to mock it.
Johnny: I see. Well, I think you looked great then, and you still look great now.
Donna: Thank you, thank you.
Johnny: To go to my next question: You’ve appeared at several conventions over the years. What’s been the most rewarding part of attending conventions, and what’s been the most wonderful piece of memorabilia you’ve signed at one?
Donna: I haven’t done one for a while. The most wonderful piece of memorabilia? A lot of old pictures, old scripts, stuff like that. Hats, pieces of clothing…I don’t remember anything that was tremendously unusual.
Johnny: Alright. Well, I now come to my final question: My friend, actress Kimmy Robertson, mentioned that you’ll be working with her friend, Robin Riker, on an upcoming show called Mood Swings. What can you tell me about that?
Donna: It’s complicated. When we did Queens Of Drama, a reality show I did, one of the things the girls did on the show was try to create a show. Crystal Hunt, one of the girls, created a show called Mood Swings. Well, Queens Of Drama wasn’t picked up, but Crystal kept on working to get her show done, and she did. She took it to PureFlix, which was interested, and they shot 8 episodes. I was in two of them, the pilot and one other. I’m not sure when it’s supposed to air on Netflix. We only finished shooting it a few months ago, so it may be a while, but it’s a very funny, cute little comedy. I give Crystal a lot of credit for hanging in there and staying with it and getting it done.
Johnny: Cool. Well, that about does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this. As I mentioned, I first acquired Donna Mills: The Eyes Have It on VHS about a decade ago. That video really made an impact on me because I love the pop culture of the 80s, which I turned to as relief from the dark times I experienced in the 90s and 00s. Your work in the 80s really helped me out, and it was an honor to finally speak to you.
Donna: Oh, thank you, thank you. That’s very sweet of you. I’m happy to hear that something I did was helpful. It’s been a pleasure to speak to you.
Johnny: It was a pleasure to speak to you, too. I’ll definitely be in touch again.
Johnny: Thank you very much, Ms. Mills, and I hope you have a good afternoon.
Donna: Thank you. You, too.
Donna: Bye bye.
I would like to thank Donna Mills for taking the time to speak to me, and Harlan Boll, who set up my previous interviews with Rip Taylor, Judy Tenuta, Dee Wallace and Loretta Swit for setting up this interview. For more about Donna Mills, you can visit her official website which has links to all her social media.
Among the Flashback Interviews in the works for the future are Mindi Miller, Ann Jillian and Sarah Kernochan, so keep your eyes peeled for those, and thanks as always for reading.