When it comes to legends, there’s really no such thing as a generation gap. And there’s no denying that blonde, plucky, ebullient British actress Hayley Mills is a legend for all time. Ever since she catapulted to international stardom by playing identical twins Susan and Sharon McKendrick in Disney’s 1961 blockbuster The Parent Trap, Mills has been a household name. Today, she’s a living American icon, just as much of a Disney luminary as Mouseketeer Annette Funicello or animated heroines Ariel or Belle.

Like Shirley Temple, Sandra Dee of Gidget fame, and Opie-playing Ron Howard in The Andy Griffith Show, Mills is still primarily known for her early roles. In addition to The Parent Trap, she’s famous for 1960’s Pollyanna, 1962’s In Search of the Castaways, and 1965’s That Darn Cat! She earned a BAFTA Best Actress award for her role in 1961’s Whistle Down the Wind, the critically acclaimed screen adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by her mother, dramatist Mary Hayley Bell. And she was widely lauded for her breakout performance in the gripping 1959 crime drama Tiger Bay, which also starred her father, celebrated actor John Mills.

But child and teen greatness only represented the beginning of Mills’ career, which has spanned over 60 years … and has encompassed a fair amount of decidedly un-Pollyannaish scandal, to boot. Read on to find out why one of Mickey Mouse’s most cherished sweethearts is much more than just the sum of her most iconic roles.

She tried her hand at acting in horror films

In addition to playing a murder-witnessing child in Tiger Bay, Mills had starred in Ronald Neame’s acclaimed drama The Chalk Garden, playing a disturbed teenager navigating a relationship with her even more disturbed governess (Deborah Kerr). So her transition into horror films — and/or at least decidedly more intense thrillers — wasn’t completely unexpected.

By 1968, however, “Hayley Mills was ready to leave her Disney years behind, and present a new, sensuous image on screen,” as her A&E biography put it.  That year, she starred in Twisted Nerve, an early psychosexual thriller directed by her husband Roy Boulting. She played a young woman whose stalker is a homicidal maniac determined to kill anyone who stands in the way of him getting close to her (in one memorable but off-camera sequence, he hacks up her onscreen mother, who has just tried to seduce him, with a hatchet). The New York Times called the film “an embarrassing picture, a sour-tasting mess,” but there was still plenty of intense subject matter to work with, as indicated by the movie’s campy but compelling trailer (shown above).

Deadly Strangers from 1975 tells the story of a beautiful, disturbed girl who becomes involved, in all innocence, with two disturbed, perverted young men who intend to do her harm. That one also flopped at the box office, but the roles at least provided Mills with more grist for her mill, insofar as branching out into new genres was concerned.

When she was 19, she began a relationship with a 52-year-old director

In 1966, while starring (once again, alongside her father) in the comedy The Family Way, Mills took up with Roy Boulting, the film’s 52-year-old director. The movie marked the debut of Mills’ first nude scene; it involved a shot of her bare derriere, and was touted by some media outlets as being “morally unfit for children” … even though the movie, the story of two young newlyweds, wasn’t a children’s film anyway.

However, all that was nothing compared to the scandal Mills’ affair with Boulting caused … not only because of the couple’s 33 year age difference, but because Boulting was married, and had children by his present and previous marriages. Mills’ parents did not approve of the relationship, nor did many of Mills’ fans. Several years earlier, Mills had been offered the role of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, and had been persuaded to turn it down lest it effect her image; the symbolism of this was not lost on the public.

Mills, however, didn’t see things in terms of age at the time. “The fact that he was considerably older was probably part of the attraction,  but not consciously,” she later recalled for A&E. “And having spent an awful lot of time with people much older than myself [on film sets, etc] it didn’t seem particularly odd or peculiar to me.”

Despite all the controversy, Mills and Boulting were married from 1971 to 1977; they had a son, Crispian, born in 1973.

Her current partner is 20 years her junior

After meeting actor Leigh Lawson while working on the play A Touch of Spring, Mills divorced Boulting. She and Lawson had a son, Jason, and then they split in 1984.

A few years later, Mills, who had once undergone such scrutiny for wedding a man 33 years her senior, turned the tables: while starring in a 1997 production of the play The King and I, she met Indian-American Firdous Bamji, who is 20 years her junior. The two wed in 1997, and, over two decades later, the marriage is still going strong. Interestingly, Mills’ actress sister, Juliet, to whom she’s very close, also has a partner who’s 18 years her junior; the two have been married for close to 40 years now. Maybe May-December romances run in the family?

Bamji is known for his theater and film work, which includes appearances in 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2000’s Unbreakable; he and Mills presently divide their time between New York and London.

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