JLouis Mills isn't a doctor, but after years of persistence, he now plays one on TV. This is thanks to a single phone call.
The roadblocks along the way were multifold. Mills struggled with the blood disease known as Kawasaki Syndrome from ages 6 to 12, underwent retinal re-attachment surgery in 2001, and permanently lost vision in his left eye in 2013. That's in addition to an on-and-off 18-month bout with homelessness in the Los Angeles area, and general Hollywood antics.
That’s not to say it was all bad. Mills lived in and around Phoenix for 21 years after arriving in 1989 from the Northeast. “I ran the gauntlet across the Phoenix metropolitan area,” Mills says, having resided in Glendale, Gilbert, Fountain Hills, Tempe, Scottsdale, Chandler, and Phoenix proper. “I was a journeyman ... I definitely left my name there.”
Mills left for LA in 2010, first employed as a caretaker (with the ultimate goal of becoming an actor) for an elderly couple with Alzheimer's disease. He moved in with another caretaker, but couldn’t keep up with LA rent. Eventually, Mills had a backpack full of clothes to his name — and not much else.
That caretaker role has an odd sort of resonance, since six years later he landed the role as Forester Marcus, a resident perfusionist on NBC’s Heartbeat – a joke-heavy yet serious-in-content medical drama that debuted on March 22. His is a distinct and stoic-yet-lovable character who was introduced to audiences by none other than Jamie Kennedy as a “one-eyed black man.”
The quip alludes to the additional eye surgery Mills needed in 2013 that left his left eye permanently without vision and noticeably discolored. “Then it was very difficult for me to get a job [acting],” he says, “Once I lost my eye, it just made it that much more difficult, because I had to navigate the situation with one eye.”
Mills then made an important purchase: a drugstore eye patch to help with headaches. “I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever in life get rid of that eye patch,” he says firmly. “When I win my first award for my work, I’m going to take my eye patch and I’m going to put it in a glass case with that award, because that will be a very good sample of my journey.”
The accessory gave him a distinction later utilized by his agent Gail Williamson. She gunned for Mills with NBC, when the network was casting the half-quirky, half-dramatic medical series pilot for Heartbeat.
On March 10, 2015, Mills received a call from Williamson: He got the part as Forester. The recent anniversary of that call sent Mills to Santa Monica Pier, a spot he frequented while homeless – specifically, a bench behind some shrubs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “That’s the park that I called home,” he says. Mills reflected on “not knowing where my next meal was going to come from, where I was going to go, what I was going to do,” he says. “So I kind of celebrated by myself — seemed like the best way to do it.”
Mills says the role of Forester was originally meant for an amputee actor, but was told the role was changed after his meeting. “You just don’t hear that often in this town,” he says, “so it’s just one of those things that makes me more grateful, more humble, and more hungry to see what else is out there for me.”
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So what else is out there for him? Mills wants to make time for charity work, advocating for children and the homeless, and against abuse toward the elderly and animals.
He still remembers meeting Miss America, Suzette Charles, at the Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo during his childhood illness. “If I’m this age and I can still remember that like yesterday,” he says, “I would love to be that person for a kid who is going thorough some type of negative situation.”
For now, the steady Angeleno, accompanied by his calico cats (Miss Cali and Miss Coco, of course), says he has a few acting irons in the fire. We’re not to worry.
Heartbeat airs Wednesdays on NBC at 8/7 p.m. Central.