Milton Sills, center, his daughter Dorothy, left, and wife, Doris Kenyon.
Actor, writer, professor, horticulturist, activist, Milton Sills was the personification of a Renaissance man. College educated and a teacher, Sills made everything he did a learning opportunity. Virile yet thoughtful, Sills led in whatever activity he pursued.
Born Jan. 12, 1882, to William Henry and Josephine A. Sills, Milton earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1903 while participating in athletics, and spent the next year and a half studying philosophy as a fellow at the same school. He became a professor at his alma mater, teaching mathematics and philosophy.
Sills felt a yearning for the stage, leaving academia to become an actor. He first appeared on Broadway for William Brady in “This Woman and This Man” in February 1909. The New York Times reported that he “…plays a difficult part with some success. He is a young actor of promise, whose worst faults at present are ungainliness and an affectation of speech, but the material of which good actors are made is there.” He quickly gained starring roles opposite many important leading ladies.
Sills also recognized how theatrical producers and managers underpaid and overworked artists. He took an active part in Actors’ Equity, which fought for greater rights and protections for actors. In 1915, its second year in existence, Sills ran for a position of councilman. A good labor man, he would remain a strong worker and supporter of the organization, serving through the late 1920s.
By 1914, William Brady hired him to star in the film “The Pit” for director Maurice Tourneur, and Sills quickly gained success in motion pictures, while also appearing on the stage. Forceful and intelligent, he played mature and strong roles with conviction, starring on both the East and West coasts.
The actor kept up to date with all the new theories in the philosophy field however, reading and studying the additions to the canon. He described how the new trend in philosophy was the “forging of the philosophy of pragmatism” to an interviewer for The Los Angeles Times in April, 1921. He also read current plays, books, journals in astronomy, chemistry and physics, visited art galleries, and found time to play four-hand transcriptions of symphonies with his wife, Gladys Wynne. Sills stated that he hoped to eventually write a book to document his own way of thought. He did write an article for The Los Angeles Times on Nov. 7, 1922, about women murderers. He called the flapper “…our biological mutant. She represents mankind changing before our very eyes, developing perhaps into the superman and woman of the future.” Unfortunately he also seemed to believe somewhat in eugenics, as per the last sentence in the article. “When society handles the whole matter of breeding and education wisely and scientifically then our moron class will disappear and along with it that hideous freak, the woman murderer.”
Milton believed filmmaking was continually evolving, and eventually would focus more on the artistic and less on the commercial, that the “real medium of expression has not yet been found.” Sills foresaw theaters playing several different types of pictures at the same time, or possibly differing types on separate days; one day for “high brow” films, two for “blood and thunder” pictures, Saturday afternoons for kids.
While the man was being praised for his intelligence, as a Times writer called him “filmdom’s pet highbrow,” reviewers also called him “virile” and “attractive,” and somewhat the George Clooney of his day, in that he looked good with stubble.
Sills received honors for his charity work and acting skills, including the unusual reward of being named Fresno’s Raisin Festival King on Feb. 29, 1924, and in April of that year, he would “ride in a chariot drawn by six fiery steeds,” per The Los Angeles Times.
In his spare time, Sills pursued gardening with a passion, knowing the Latin names and genus of plants. Because of both his fame and his promotion of gardening, a purple Dahlia was named after him.
Our friend Milton also found time to play some golf, and not just during the day, but at night. Sills and Colleen Moore introduced the fad of phosphorus painted golf balls and electric bulbs at Wilshire Country Club so the game could be played during evening hours, forming the Midnight Golf Club for Movie Stars, with such members as Dorothy Mackaill, Antonio Moreno, Bessie Love, Sam Wood and Estelle Taylor, among others.
Later in 1924, Sills told the newspaper that when his contract with First National expired in 1925, he wanted to turn to film directing, but nothing seemed to come of that. He did write the script for “Men of Steel,” which he also starred in for First National in 1926. Sills also recited poetry during an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl that year.
Later that same year, Sills led a syndicate of people including John Gilbert, Lew Cody, Laura Le Plante, and Chester Conklin to buy 320 acres adjoining the Doheny Estate in Beverly Hills, which they hoped to subdivide into exclusive estates for motion picture personnel and to be called “Sills Manor.” This never came to be, but much of the land remained undeveloped into the 1940s-1950s.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927, Sills jumped right in, becoming the chair of the educational committee. He and his group, supported by President Douglas Fairbanks, devised a curriculum and joined with the University of Southern California to offer the first four-year college degree in film study. Sills, Fairbanks, Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg, Cedric Gibbons, William Cameron Menzies, and others would lecture to the students, and it was hoped to record these in the future on Movietone or Vitaphone discs to share with colleges around the country. This never came to pass unfortunately. To aid education, Sills donated two books from his own library, one from 1517 and another from 1699 to the USC Library.
All of this activity injured his health, leading to illnesses and a small attack. In 1930, while playing tennis at his home, 315 Saltair Ave. in Brentwood, Sills suffered another heart attack, and then a fatal attack while inside waiting for help to arrive with his wife Doris Kenyon. He was 48. In honor of his service, AMPAS held a special memorial service two weeks after his death at All Souls’ Church at Wilshire and Plymouth boulevards. Cecil B. DeMille would preside, Louis B. Mayer, Conrad Nagel and M. C. Levee would speak, with motion picture stars to sing and actors would usher. After his death, a book on values was published employing his writings.