Hayley Mills, Adult At Last, In `King And I'

----------------------------------------------------------------- Theater preview

"The King and I" plays June 6 through 29 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue. $20-55. 292-ARTS. -----------------------------------------------------------------

OK, let's see a show of hands out there: How many of you grown-up women wanted to be child actress Hayley Mills when you were a kid?

How many wanted that fluffy blond hair, that tomboyish demeanor, and (most of all) that plummy British accent? And who did you want to be more: Hayley, one of the identical twins in "The Parent Trap"? Hayley, the chipper little optimist in "Pollyanna"? Or Hayley the awkward but charmed adolescent in "The Moonspinners"?

To feel really old, hear this: Hayley Mills, star of all those cheery, wildly popular movies, is now a grown-up person of 51. She has been married and divorced, has two sons - aged 20 and 24 - and the eldest (Crispian) is a member of a hot English band, Kula Shaker.

And take note that Mills is coming to the 5th Avenue Theatre as the star of a splashy musical in which she plays an actual adult.

Making her American stage debut as the governess Anna, in a national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," Mills seems quite understanding of, even moved by all those Baby Boomers who still see her as a lanky prepubescent, singing "Let's Get Together" with her split-screen self in "The Parent Trap."

"I've been enormously touched by the people who come round to the stage door," said Mills, plummy accent intact, in an animated phone chat from Baltimore. "It astonishes me, too. It was such a long time ago. Yes, my old movies are now out on video - but there are millions of films on video! Yet somehow that image of me just seems so fresh in people's minds."

Mills fell off the American radar screen when she stopped making films in the early 1970s. Though she later worked steadily on stage in England, and did small roles in movies and TV, Mills passed over several chances to star in high-profile projects including the popular British TV series, "The Duchess of Duke Street."

So in our pop-cultural galaxy, Hayley Mills remains the perpetually perky munchkin. And now that she's out hyping the "King and I," don't expect her to spread slime all over that wholesome image.

Mills is candid and irreverent about her past. But she has no tales to peddle of child abuse, drugs, exploitation, or the other horrors that can befall kid superstars.

"I think I was most fortunate indeed," she reflects. "The first thing I did was a black-and-white movie in England called `Tiger Bay.'... I was treated with great intelligence and understanding. I wasn't made to feel self-conscious, or treated like some special rare avis in a glass cage to be gawked at. I was doing a job like everyone else."

That no-frills work ethic was instilled by her parents, respected actor John Mills and writer Mary Hayley Bell. Hayley, whose older sister Juliet also became an actress, was a cheerful, imaginative kid growing up in the English countryside when a family friend invited her to appear in "Tiger Bay" with her dad.

Far from pushing their photogenic kid into the spotlight, Mills' parents left the choice up to her. "They were not dazzled by the business so neither was I. I remember when Disney wanted to sign me to a 5-year contract, my dad tried to have this serious talk with me about whether I wanted to do it. I'm afraid I was no help at all! He went through the pros and cons, and I just said, `Does it mean I can have a pony?"'

Even after she signed on with Disney for six films (the first, "Pollyanna" in 1960, won her a special Oscar), she "never got caught up in that Hollywood thing. It's an incredible place, and produces fantastic films, but the peripheral stuff is not so good. It doesn't help you keep your feet on the ground."

Commuting back and forth between film sets and boarding school, Mills had as normal a life as possible. But as she grew into a young woman, her charmed career soured. Audiences and critics did not find her so adorable in more challenging films, like "The Chalk Garden." And when she played a young wife, complete with nudity, in "The Family Way," it raised a scandal.

Mills also upset public perceptions by living with, then marrying and having a child with the much-older Roy Boulting. Later she bore a son during a long liaison with actor Leigh Lawson.

Rather than bemoan her tumble off the Disney pedestal, Mills focused on other matters. "I just didn't enjoy doing movies anymore. I didn't know what kind of films to look for, or what kind of woman I was turning into. I'd worked consistently from the age of 12, and suddenly my personal life was becoming more demanding and important."

When she did return to acting, it was for Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" in an English rep company. Then Mills "reverted a bit back to my younger self, by doing `Peter Pan.' It opened in London, and I had a wonderful experience playing to 2,000 children a night."

More theater roles followed, and a scattering of film and TV parts. But the chance to play America didn't arrive until Mills appeared as Anna in an elaborate restaging of "The King and I" by Australian director Christopher Renshaw.

The show successfully toureddown under in 1991. Remounted in New York, it starred Broadway diva Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips (as the King of Siam). When producers needed a star for a national tour version, Mills was available.

"I have many, many reasons for doing this," she explains. "It's a glorious show that I love, and a wonderful part, and great music. It's my first time on stage in America, and the audiences are terrific."

The critics have not been quite so kind, specifically about Mills' singing voice."All I ever say about it is that I sing the songs my way," she responds. "I don't sing like Donna Murphy, or Barbara Cook, or any number of people who have sung this role gloriously."

Instead, for inspiration she turns to the late Gertrude Lawrence, who originated the part of Anna on Broadway in 1951. "She was primarily an actress, too, and she emboldened me to take this on in the first place," says Mills.

Mills knows all about the real Anna Leonowens, a 19th-century woman fictionalized in Margaret Landon's novel "Anna and the King of Siam" and in the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein musical.

The genuine "Miss Anna," concedes Mills, was very different from the the high-born governness "whistling a happy tune" and waltzing about in a hoop-skirted satin ball gown in "The King and I."

"She was Anglo-Indian for a start, which made her something of an outcast. She would not have been welcome at the best houses. And she fabricated a lot of things about herself. But this was a very strong, bright, resilient and fascinating character, a `new woman' in her day."

If you did long to be Hayley way back when, it's hard not to toss at least one fanzine question her way. Say: What was it like to get that madly hyped first screen smooch from dreamy Peter McEnery, in "The Moonspinners"?

Mills laughed heartily at the memory. "Well, you know I was wildly in love with Peter, and he of course was madly in love with somebody else. And the publicity department in their infinite wisdom invited the entire world press to cover this earth-shaking event of the kiss.

"So there we were in the backseat of a hearse, and I'm so nervous I forget to shut my eyes. So that's the photo the world saw - Hayley Mills being kissed with her eyes wide open, as if she had gas or something."