Donna Mills on “the best moment of my entire life”


The hills above Los Angeles aren’t exactly what you’d call wine country, but from the air you can see rows of grapes growing smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. This is Mandeville Vineyards, also known as Donna Mills’ backyard.

This crop will become another vintage of malbec and cabernet sauvignon under the Mandeville Vineyards label, a project she started 10 years ago with longtime partner Larry Gilman. “We’re farmers,” Mills said. “And to be a farmer is kind of fun.”

Donna Mills shows correspondent Tracy Smith her crop of cabernet grapes, which she grows in the foothills of Los Angeles. 

CBS News

And it seems she has a knack for making things grow. At the moment Mills is co-starring in the Lifetime series based on V.C. Andrews’ “Dawn,” playing a grandmother with a mile-long mean streak. She calls her character, Lillian, “probably the evilest I’ve ever been.”

Asked how it makes her feel, Mills replied, “Good. I know! It’s so much fun to play the evil character, it really is.”

It’s hard to imagine that she’s really just a nice Midwestern girl. Born and raised in Chicago, Donna Mills dreamed of being a dancer, but found success on the stage, and in soap operas like “The Secret Storm” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” She also did guest shots on primetime shows, including the short-lived cop series “Dan August” with Burt Reynolds.  She recalled, “I did it, was fun, great. And I get a phone call from my agent saying, ‘You got this movie with Clint Eastwood.’ I’m like, ‘How did I do that? I never met him.’ ‘Well, he ran into Burt in a bar one night and said, “I’m lookin’ for a girl for this movie I’m doing. I can’t find anybody I like.” Burt said, “Just worked with this girl from New York.”‘”

Her performance in 1971’s “Play Misty for Me” was well-received, but afterward she found herself typecast as a damsel-in-distress. Frustrated, she found a role that would make her one of the best-known villains on network TV: Abby Cunningham on “Knots Landing.”

Knots Landing
Joan Van Ark, Ted Shackelford and Donna Mills in the soap opera “Knots Landing,” 1980.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

She said, “When I took ‘Knots,’ when I got it, I’d never watched it. I thought it was a show about a houseboat with Andy Griffith. I swear to you, I did!”

Her turn as the ruthless, husband-stealing Abby made her famous, and infamous. “There was a time when people that I would meet at a party or whatever, the woman would be like, Hello, kind of pull her husband away!” she said.

The series was a major hit for CBS, and Mills says playing Abby gave her a certain confidence, which was not always perceived as a good thing: “You know, a confident man is, like, everybody thinks that’s great. You know, confident woman is sometimes a bitch.”

“Did you run across that?” Smith asked.

“Yeah. Yeah. I’ve been called that more than once!”

Off-screen she remained happily un-married, but she sensed something was missing. “I had had a hit series, I had my own production company, I was doing all this stuff, and I said to myself, Well, this is great. I’ve achieved almost everything that I’ve wanted to in my career. What about my life? How does that look to me? Do I wanna go through life without knowing what it’s like to be a mother, which is the most important thing in the world? No. I want that in my life.

“And by that time, it was kind of past the time when I was gonna be able to have a baby. So I thought, I’ll adopt. And that’s probably what I feel is my greatest joy.”

Actress Donna Mills. 

CBS News

In 1994 Donna Mills, 54 and single, adopted a daughter and named her Chloe. 

She recalled the time she first saw Chloe as “probably the best moment of my entire life, when she was put in my arms. She was four days old. And there she was. Those are my happiest times in my life, sitting in the rocking chair with her on my chest, singing to her.”

Mills said she knew early on that she wanted to be a full-time mom, so she put her career on hold for 18 years, and raised Chloe from an infant to a schoolgirl to an accomplished young woman. 

And when Chloe left for college, Mama said it was time to go back to work. “It’s gonna be kind of a struggle to get back,” Mills said. “‘Cause the casting directors are 12, and they don’t know who I am. And it was a bit of a struggle.” 

But she persevered: a guest role on “General Hospital” got her an Emmy. “It’s so weird. I’m so thrilled and grateful that I won an Emmy. But I don’t at all feel I did my best work on that show. I think maybe the Emmy was kind of maybe for other work.”

Still, she was back, even making an appearance last year in Jordan Peele’s acclaimed horror film “Nope,” playing – what else? – a star. 

Today Mills is 82. When asked how she stays looking the way she does, Mills laughed, “Oh, it’s hard!”  To get past the aches and pains, she said, “You just have to say, ‘I’m gonna do it anyway.’

“The hard part is that, you know, it’s the last chapter. And I don’t want to go away. So, I’m hanging on as long as I can, and trying to be as much as I can be for as long as I can be. We have this extended life cycle now; let’s make the last part of it one of the best.”

“No retirement, clearly?” asked Smith.

“Oh, God, no! No. Well, I figure they have to have somebody to play the grandmother. I’m available for those things.”

To watch a trailer for “V.C. Andrews’ Dawn” click on the video player below:

Official Trailer | V.C. Andrews’ Dawn | July 8, 2023 | Lifetime by
Lifetime on

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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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