Emmy-Nominated Queen of Television Drama Donna Mills Produces & Stars in a New Reality TV Show with the Tagline “Girls Run the World…” While Keeping Her Roles of Motherhood and HIV/AIDS Activism in Her Prime Time
Text & Photos by Sean Black
There was this man who was a big supporter of mine when I was first starting out in the business,” begins Donna Mills as she touchingly recounts the memory of a late friend during one of the peaks in her lengthy and impressive career. “He was a television producer named Philip Mandelker who produced a lot of wonderful made-for-television movies, one of which was The Women’s Room with Patty Duke and Colleen Dewhurst. It was nominated for several Emmys. He also produced Mae West, Girls of the White Orchid; a number of really fine movies for television. Phil was always so supportive of me. He was a dear, dear friend.”
Known in the entertainment industry for his passion for quality television, “something that people would remember,” like the hit TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, which he had produced as well, Philip Mandelker was only forty-five years of age when his abundant life, like so many others, was tragically cut short due to complications from AIDS.
“Then he got sick and no one knew what it was,” continues a contrite Mills. “Someone had given him a pet pig and some [of his friends] thought that he may have caught some sort of virus from this little pig. He kept getting worse and no one could put a label on what it was and he kept declining and declining. When I went to see him, actually on the day that he died in the hospital, he was in an isolation room and I was made to put on a gown, gloves and a mask to go in to see him. On the door there was this little sticky that read A – I – D – S. Later on that day Phil passed away. It wasn’t mentioned until weeks later that ‘AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)’ is what he had died from.”
Philip Mandelker passed in 1987 when truths about the disease were publicly vague and generally undisclosed. His mother, Doris, and sister, Jane, admirably insisted out of concern for the welfare of others that it be made public that their loved one had died of AIDS.
Reflecting, Mills continues, “I thought, what a terrible thing. Nobody knows how it is transmitted. It was considered the scourge of the gay community, this
‘gay’ disease that nobody knew how to treat. It was a terrible, terrible time because I had so many friends who were scared to death. Nobody knew what was going on but I knew in my heart that it was not something just confined to gay people. I have been asked to do a lot of things for AIDS causes and I always jump at any chance because I want to try to help find a way to get this thing cured—all these years later it still isn’t.” Donna sighs, and her sigh is weighted with the heaviness of the past but also hope for the future.
Her caring in part comes from her Midwestern roots and the values instilled in her as a young girl. Born and raised in Chicago by her father, Ambrose, an oil executive and her mother, Bernice, a dance instructor, Donna studied ballet throughout her teens. After spending a year studying drama at the University of Illinois, she ventured to New York where she landed an understudy role in Woody Allen’s first play, Don’t Drink the Water. Her film debut came in 1967, in the heavy drama The Incident, and in 1971, she co-starred with Clint Eastwood in his directorial debut, the popular thriller Play Misty for Me.
Her first roles in television were earlier in the 1960s on the daytime soap operas The Secret Storm and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. Since the seventies, Donna has made frequent and numerous guest appearances on top-rated TV shows running the gamut from series like Love Boat and Fantasy Island to Melrose Place and Nip/Tuck.
Her latest role is in Queens of Drama. Starting on April 26, 2015, it is a ten episode series that features an all-female cast working in front of and behind the cameras as they develop, pitch, and produce a new series with the goal of landing a pilot deal by the end of the season. The original reality series is a joint venture of CBS Corporation and Lionsgate, and is produced by ThinkFactory Media. Premiering on Pop immediately following the network’s exclusive live broadcast of the 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards the show stars, alongside Mills, Lindsay Hartley (All My Children, Days of Our Lives), Crystal Hunt (Guiding Light, One Life to Live), Vanessa Marcil (Las Vegas, General Hospital), Chrystee Pharris (Passions, General Hospital) and Hunter Tylo (The Bold and the Beautiful).
The iconic role however, that she is most well known for came in 1980 when she joined the cast of the hit CBS primetime soap Knots Landing with her portrayal of the backstabbing, cul-de-sac temptress Abby Cunningham-Ewing. The Dallas spinoff was fertile ground for Mills to shine in a dramatic, feverishly bitchy role, elevating her to one of TV’s biggest stars. After a successful nine-year tenure, Donna decided to leave the cast to pursue other less demanding projects so that she could take on the role she’d been dreaming of for years—motherhood.
“As a woman my greatest joy is my daughter—seeing her grow up and become the woman that she is today. She is still my greatest joy every day.”
Asked about her concerns for nineteen-year-old daughter Chloe, an aspiring model, in regards to HIV awareness, she protectively answers in more general terms.
“I think what happens in the schools that aren’t run as well as other institutions like private schools is that children don’t get the information they need—so much has been cut back [in terms of] sex education time. It really needs to be drilled into their consciousness because kids really do think that they are invincible.”
Donna thinks that sex education needs to not only happen but that it needs to address the real lives of young adults: ‘Abstinence-only? Come on? I mean really—these young adults are beings, sexual beings; they are going to have desires. You can’t just turn that off. They need to be educated on how to be responsible. I think what is not responsible is telling them ‘just don’t do it.’ That isn’t going to happen.”
Her caring and nurturing stance is a far cry from her current recurring role on General Hospital as Madeline Reeves, a woman who accidentally puts her daughter in a coma for twenty years.
“This character on GH is probably,” she begins, carefully choosing her words, “the least nice character that I have ever played. She’s pretty ruthless.”
Playing not-so-nice characters is one of her strong suits and showcases her true range of dramatic talent but don’t confuse her on-screen bite with her off-screen personality.
“Well I love that, because acting allows you to do that—to play a range and that is what makes it fun; to be able to find those places in yourself where you can bring forth different characters. It still brings me satisfaction and joy in my work when I just finish a scene and think, ‘Yes, I nailed it, that was good, I got where I wanted to go in there.’ That’s a great feeling but it doesn’t happen every time.”
As we discuss working in television in the eighties, I ask if she remembers the famous kiss between Linda Evans and Rock Hudson on rival soap Dynasty.
“I do!” she says, heightened awareness lifting her voice as she recalls that moment in time. After Hudson disclosed he was living with HIV in the summer of 1985, and that his diagnosis had progressed to AIDS at least a year earlier, the media seized on a recently televised scene where his character kisses Evans’ Krystle Carrington. Could HIV be transmitted through a kiss? Did Linda Evans now have HIV? The media’s frequent treatment of Rock’s health sensationalized a serious topic, dismissing the science that had established modes of transmission in favor of tabloid-ish what-ifs that cast gay men as vectors of disease. “And I do remember people being very scared and people [actors] not wanting to associate with gay people, ‘Oh my God what if I have to do a scene with a gay person and I have to kiss him.’ I always thought that was ridiculous.That cannot be the way HIV is transmitted otherwise everyone would have it. It just didn’t make any sense to me. And so I got on the bandwagon and said ‘that’s not the way [HIV is transmitted].’
“Plus, I knew someone—who was a great friend of Phil’s—whose brother was a research doctor and had some inside information on what was going on and how it was really transmitted. He assured all of us, ‘It’s a virus transmitted through blood….Don’t think that you can get it from kissing or touching.’ I mean people didn’t want to touch somebody that had AIDS—it was terrible but it was most terrible for the people who had it.”
Mills has lent her support to Desert AIDS Project’s benefit gala, The Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, as a host and steadfast special guest. Desert AIDS Project is a Palm Springs, California-based non-profit that provides comprehensive HIV/AIDS services, offering housing, support, an on-site medical clinic, a sexual health clinic, testing, and education.
At the most recent Steve Chase Awards this past February, Mills was asked: “What’s the one word you would use to ‘Imagine No AIDS’?” Her response: “Heavenly. It would be heavenly not to have that terrible scourge anymore.”
“I was so heartened at one of the Steve Chase Awards that I was attending,” she shares, “when they announced that Timothy Brown had been cured. I thought well, okay that is one person; now if they can research and find out how that person was cured—then that’s a start.”
Until there is a cure putting an end to AIDS, Donna assures, “We will keep on fighting.”
Dress Designer: Mark Zunino.
Post-production by Eve Harlowe:. Visit her website: www.EveHarlowe.com.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.