This holiday season, Donna Mills is appearing in three new Christmas movies including one with a Bakersfield connection.
Featured at recent film festivals is “Carol of the Bells” directed by Joey Travolta (John’s brother) and produced by Dale Oprandy, the executive director of Inclusion Films Workshop in Bakersfield.
“Joey was just a saint to work with and runs camps for disabled individuals and trains them to work in the film industry,” Mills said from her home in Los Angeles. “I was at a screening a few weeks ago in San Diego. It’s a very touching story using a crew who were 70 percent disabled. I thought that was going to be challenging, but it wasn't. They worked so beautifully together and were happy to be there. It was a really joyful experience for everyone.”
(The film, starring RJ Mitte, of "Breaking Bad," as a man who learns his biological mother has Down Syndrome, will have a red carpet premiere at the Fox Theater on Dec. 3.)
Also on Mills' holiday list is “Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses,” which debuted on the Hallmark Channel in October and will be replayed in the coming weeks (next airing will be Monday).
“It’s one of those feel-good movies that Hallmark is famous for,” Mills said. “Because of the political temperature of the country at the moment, I think a lot of people are looking to forget about their problems for a while with movies that are just sweet and nice.”
In December, ION Television will air “A Beauty and the Beast Christmas” which Mills calls “a very cute little movie about influencers.”
Mills is also spreading the holiday cheer for wine connoisseurs as owner of Mandeville Vineyards, in the Mandeville Canyon community of L.A., where she lives with partner and fellow winemaker Larry Gilman (mandevillevineyards.com).
Schlepping up a hillside harvesting grapes probably wasn’t an activity soap vixen Abby Ewing might have enjoyed on the old CBS TV series “Knots Landing.” But Mills, who portrayed the manipulative character on the popular show for 10 years, has no such reservations.
“I love working in the vineyard,” she said.
“We start picking at six in the morning when the grapes are cool and it takes about two and a half hours,” she said. “We have a crew to help carry the heavy buckets of grapes down the hill, but turn the harvesting into a real fun event with family and friends who come over to help with the picking. I’m up there in between the harvesting, too, because you have to maintain the plants.”
“Up There” refers to the half-acre hillside behind Mills’ 1-acre property which has been home to some 430 grapevines first planted in 2013.
“Before that, I’d basically only been up there once because it was an overgrown area with scrub brush and trees,” explained Mills. “Then one day Larry thought that maybe it could be converted into a vineyard. I said he was crazy, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So he called experts to survey the area who said the soil would be okay to grow grapes but it wouldn’t be easy.”
With the help of a work crew, the land was cleared, malbec and cabernet grapes were planted, and the result of the first wines was rewarding.
“We won a silver medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition for our first vintage,” said Mills. “That made all the work seem worthwhile.”
But there have been hardships.
“While it's wonderful in a lot of ways, last year we lost the entire crop because we had a weird heat event where it was 116 degrees up on the hill for two days,” she recalled. “It happened just as the grapes ripen so the heat turned them into raisins! We lost the whole year’s vintage, but the roots were okay so the plants survived.”
Then there were concerns about the devastating California fires in October.
“We were evacuated from the house for about two and a half days, but fortunately the fires never really reached the canyon we are in, so everything was fine,” she said. “We had just harvested the grapes and there was a lot of ash everywhere but it didn’t harm the plants.”
Mills says Mandeville Vineyards produces between 75 and 100 cases of wine a year, their most recent being a 2017 malbec wine. After harvesting, the grapes are sent to a winery in Westlake Village for processing and maturing in French oak barrels before bottling.
While acting and winemaking may seem to have little in common, Mills sees a link.
“I find nature to be so magical and the fact that we can grow fruit that makes wine that makes people happy is a true joy for me,” she says. “Winemaking is very creative and what you do with the fruit is what determines how good the wine will be — like acting, in which you have a script but what you do with it determines how good the movie or play will be.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines. Learn more at getnickt.org.