Donna Mills was practically a staple of the big and small screens in the 1970s, starring in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me, spending three years on the daytime drama Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and guest-starring on numerous nighttime dramas including Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, and Police Woman. However, Mills became the TV symbol of the 1980s thanks to her 10-year run as the much-married, ever-scheming temptress Abby Cunningham Ewing Sumner on the hit CBS primetime drama Knots Landing.
Donna Mills Remembers Knots Landing
Mills recently spoke to EntertainmentHub about how she landed the coveted role, what made working on the show so special, her off-screen interactions with fans, and what she would like to see if Knots Landing ever gets rebooted.
EH: It has been said you were brought in to save the show after the ratings of the first year were disappointing. Were you aware of that?
DM: Not really. In fact, I hadn’t even seen the show during the first year. I actually thought it was a show about being on a houseboat with Andy Griffith. But once I heard about Abby, I wanted the part so badly in order to get away from all the goody-two-shoes roles I was doing. And I kept bugging the producers to get me an audition – even though I was told I didn’t need one — because I knew I had to show them what I could really do. One hour after my audition, I got the job. I was so happy!
EH: What made the show so special was its emphasis on the female characters. How did that make you feel as an actress?
DM: I felt it was really empowering and exciting. On top of working with people like Michele Lee and Joan Van Ark, just imagine having the chance to work with legendary actresses like Julie Harris and Ava Gardner. It was just amazing!
EH: Was there any storyline where you felt Abby had gone “too far,” and if so, did you discuss it with the writers or producers?
DM: There was a big story that originally had me stealing Val’s twins, and I went to David Jacobs [the show’s creator] and Michael Filerman [the show’s lead producer] and I said to them, “Don’t do it. Abby is a mother herself and she would never steal anyone’s children! Furthermore, if you do that, the audience will reject me – and then all that will happen is that they will write me off the show and nobody wants that.” So, they changed the story and afterward, they told me I was right. When you play a character for a number of years, you truly understand them. I was very lucky that our producers and writers really respected the actors’ instincts on what should happen on the show. It was a nice way to work.
EH: Did you have any bad interactions with people who couldn’t separate Donna from Abby?
DM: During the real strong period of Knots’ popularity, a lot of people I would meet would be very standoffish. I would try to be nice to them and I couldn’t figure out why they were being so cold. I finally figured out they thought I would steal their husbands or do something nefarious. I had to work extra hard to overcome that.
EH: Did Abby’s costumes inform your portrayal in any way?
DM: I am someone who works from the costume out, so my outfits are one of the first things I think about when I have a role. I actually shopped for all my own clothes for the series. I used to go to Neiman Marcus one day a week, go through the store, look at the racks, try on stuff, pick things out and then have the seamstress at the studio alter them. I was lucky we had such a huge budget! But I was also very lucky that the design house Escada liked me, so they gave the show one-half off of everything at wholesale prices. In fact, they would let me come down to the showroom and take some clothes for the show and some for my own use. When I left Knots, I thought we had a deal that I could take the Escada costumes with me, but we never put it in on paper. They locked the dressing room on my last day and wouldn’t let me take them home. However, I still have a storage space full of 1980s clothes with over 40 designers represented.
EH: If someone were to try to reboot Knots Landing now, is there any actress you know who could/should play Abby?
DM: Me! I would love to play her again. What I think would be interesting if there was a reboot is to show where these characters are today. I think it would be really interesting to find Abby homeless and watch her claw her way back up to the top!