Judi Dench Was Widowed In 2001 But Found Love Again Nine Years Later

At 67 years old, tragedy struck Dame Judi Dench and her family when her husband of 30 years died of lung cancer. At the time, the legendary actress swore off ever remarrying. Despite that, the Dame found true love once again later in life.

Arguably one of the biggest cultural icons of our time, Dame Judi Dench has received many accolades for her decades-spanning career. She’s a ten-time BAFTA award winner, twice Golden Globe winner, seven-time Academy Award nominee, and has also bagged a Tony Award in her time. Her contribution to the world of acting has even earned her prestigious recognition from Queen Elizabeth II herself, who named her a Dame in 1988. But all the glitter and glamour doesn’t mean Dench is immune to heartbreak; In 2001, she lost the love of her life, actor Michael Williams, after a bout with lung cancer.

Dench has an ever-lasting love affair with the theater – so it’s no surprise she met her first husband in one. The two first laid eyes upon one another in 1962, when Dench was 28 years old. At the time, the actress was cast as the female front in Shakespear’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Old Vid theater. She and her co-actors celebrated opening night at a local pub, where Dench met Williams. Williams was also celebrating his own opening night, having starred in the play “Celebration.”

The young actors instantly had a spark and started a relationship, but wouldn’t marry until nine years later. In an interview with Vogue, Dench revealed he actually had to propose to her twice.

Judi Dench, Michael Williams (1987), (Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The first proposal came when the two were touring Australia. She declined, she says, because she did not trust a proposal in such good weather. “We had better wait for a rainy day in Battersea [London],” she recalled telling him.

And so Williams did just that. When the lovebirds finally arrived back at the home in the UK, the actor reiterated his desire to make Dench his partner for life. By then, Dench and Williams had become a power couple in the industry. They worked together on screen a few times, most notably on the sitcom “A Fine Romance.” The two would famously have rows on set but would share even more laughs.  “He used to cry when he laughed,” Dench recounted with a smile. “The more he laughed the more he cried. Oh god, he made me laugh.”

He had also become Dench’s biggest cheerleader when it came to her career. According to the interview, it was he who encouraged her to take up the iconic role in the “James Bond” films in the mid-90s, when Dench struggled to believe in herself. When she first started to find success as an actress, a director had told her that she would  “never have a film career” because of her looks. That comment stayed with the actress for many years and made her doubt herself.

And if it weren’t for that encouragement, then we might have never got to know Dench for the Hollywood gem we do today. Her stint with the “James Bond” franchise landed her the role of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown,” which earned Dench her very first Academy Award nomination.
Judi Dench, Michael William (1971), (Michael Webb/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Then came many more successful gigs on the big screen, including “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “The World Is Not Enough,” and “Chocolat.” Williams would frequently praise his wife for her immense talent, even saying she was more talented than he is. “I never feel inferior as a person,” he once said, according to the Daily Record. “And there are some things I can do a damn sight better than Jude.”

In 1999, Williams and Dench’s worlds were shattered when Williams was diagnosed with lung cancer. The actress left her role in the Broadway piece ”Amy’s View” to be with him at the time. He died two years later, at the age of 65. In the aftermath, Dench got candid with Hello Magazine about grief. She said:

“It changes who you are completely, I think. Because it’s like you’re walking along, and suddenly you’re not looking and there’s an enormous chasm in front of you.”

“And suddenly all sorts of things take you, expected kinds of things happen… I don’t expect you ever get used to it,” she added. “Sometimes the door in this house just opens and I think that he’s just wandered in.”

She also spoke fondly of her late husband, describing him as an “unselfish man.”

“He wouldn’t ever attribute that to anything that might be between us… Oh, God, how he used to make me laugh. He used to make me absolutely howl.”

And yet amid the grief of losing her soulmate, Dench found love again with the conservationist David Mills.

Judi Dench (2001), (Jim Spellman/WireImage via Getty Images)

Dench met Mills in 2010 when the actress visited the British Wildlife Centre for her upcoming BBC documentary on trees.

“She and I first met when she came here as a punter with her family in 2010,” Mills recounted in an interview with Radio Times in 2017. “I happened to be in the office that day, saw her come in and I thought, ‘Judi Dench!’ We got chatting, and a couple of months later I asked her to open a new red squirrel enclosure here. The two instantly hit it off but started off slow.

 

“It developed as a slow, organic friendship that grew,” Mills continued, “I invited her to come and have supper one night, and then she asked me to one of her things. It’s lasted because we have the same sense of humour – it’s hopeless without that – and then she’s passionate about wildlife, as I am about theatre and films, so we go into one another’s worlds. She’s a great giggler. Of course I’d seen lots of her work before we met. Loved her in ‘Mrs Brown.'” Seven years later, and the couple is still going strong.

Their relationship helped Dench deal with her grief. She told Good Housekeeping that same year that she was grateful to have found a “jolly nice friend” in Mills, but wasn’t happy to call him her “partner.”

 “Partner is something to do with dancing. Partner – horrible word. Friend? No. Boyfriend? No. Chap? Will chap do?”

Clearly, the couple has set their own rules when it comes to their relationship. Although they’ve enjoyed almost a decade together, Dench is firm in saying that she is not planning on marrying again.

Judi Dench (2019), (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images)

“He’s not going to propose. No, no, no, no, no,” the actress said when asked if she would walk down the aisle for Mills. “Let’s all just pull ourselves together and be our age.”

Dench and Williams’s love had blossomed that to their mutual interest in nature and conservation. The actress even once said that she found solace in her “secret woodland.” The woodland she referred to was is a small forest located on the six-acres of land she owns where she resides in Surrey. The forest offers Dench a place to connect and relax with the things she loves the most; nature and trees.

“I think of trees as my extended family, living, breathing, and social, like us,” Dench explained. “Whenever I can, whatever the season, this is where I escape to.”

The actress first moved to her Surrey home over three decades ago with her late husband. Together they began a tradition of planting a tree for each loved one that passes away. Dench still carries on that tradition today. The forest includes trees for her brother Jeff, fellow actor and old friend Robert Hardy, and of course, her late husband, Michael Williams. For Dench, the act is a bittersweet way of keeping memories of those who are gone alive.

“It is about remembering, but it’s through a living thing, so you don’t remember them and stop. The memory goes on, and gets more wonderful,” the actress said.

Filming her documentary, “Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees,” has taught her so much about the trees she grew up loving.

Judi Dench (2021), (Comic Relief/Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images)

The actress said that even though she’s always been passionate about trees, the documentary was an eye-opener about just how special they really are.

“It’s been wonderful to discover that my trees aren’t just amazing individuals, but that they are part of an extended family,” Dench said. “When I plant my trees, I always hope that they feel part of a community, that they would be communicating with each other. And now it’s so reassuring to find out that it’s true.”

Her new learnings have made her see forests and trees in a whole new light. After the documentary, Dench said she would “never be able to look at [trees] in the same way again.”

“I shall never be able to walk so nonchalantly through a woodland again without thinking of all that incredible work that’s going on underneath the surface,” she added.

A conservationist who has dedicated his life to the study of nature, perhaps Mills is the perfect match for Dench after all. Just like the actress, however, Mills admitted that he was taken by surprise when the two first developed a relationship. He never expected, he said, to fall in love later in life. “Neither of us set out for it. We laugh and joke so much, and enjoy one another’s worlds so much, it’s great, especially when you get to our age,” Mills said.

The couple chooses to live apart, and have stayed in the respective homes – about four miles away from each other. But they know to still make time for one another. “It works very well,” the conservationist said.

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