Ian Holm passes away: Veteran film and stage actor discovered new depths of compassion in the most unlikely characters

A character actor who eventually played leading roles, Ian Holm had a kind of magical malleability, with a range that went from the sweet-tempered to the psychotic.

The New York Times June 20, 2020 12:22:44 IST
Ian Holm passes away: Veteran film and stage actor discovered new depths of compassion in the most unlikely characters

Ian Holm, a virtuosic British actor celebrated for his performances in plays by Shakespeare and Harold Pinter and in movies from Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, died on 19 June in London. He was 88.

Isabella Riggs, an employee of his agents, Markham, Froggatt & Irwin, confirmed the death, in a hospital. She said the cause was an illness related to Parkinson’s disease.

A character actor who eventually played leading roles, Holm had a kind of magical malleability, with a range that went from the sweet-tempered to the psychotic. In the theater he ran the gamut of Shakespeare, from the high-spirited Prince Hal to the tormented King Lear, and he left his imprint on two roles in Pinter’s The Homecoming: the sleek, entrepreneurial Lenny and his autocratic father, Max.

Ian Holm passes away Veteran film and stage actor discovered new depths of compassion in the most unlikely characters

Ian Holm. Twitter

In films, Holm incarnated characters of diverse geographic origin and nature, including a tough New York cop in Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), a big-city negligence lawyer in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and a bohemian genius manqué in the title role in Stanley Tucci’s Joe Gould’s Secret (2000).

Exploring the world of fantasy, he was a malfunctioning robot in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Return of the King (2003), from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Jackson’s subsequent Hobbit films.

Explaining his ability to immerse himself in such disparate characters, Holm said simply, “I’m a chameleon.” The transformation was emotional as well as physical, as he discovered new depths of compassion even in the most unlikely characters.

In 1993, overcoming a serious case of stage fright, he returned to the theater after an absence of more than 15 years to star in Pinter’s Moonlight. Four years later he set himself the monumental challenge of King Lear at the National Theater in London. It brought him the Laurence Olivier Award as best actor. Playing Lear, he said, was “like climbing Everest with no oxygen.”

In 1989 he played Captain Fluellen in a film adaptation of Henry V. In his memoir, Beginning (1990), Kenneth Branagh, the director and star of the movie, said of Holm: “Acting with him was like playing a racket game with someone very much more skilled. One was never sure how the ball would come back, but it would always be exciting and unexpected.”

“He is a master of film technique,” Branagh continued. “I’d heard the Ian Holm School of Acting described as follows: ‘Anything you can do, I can do less of.’”

Holm was most closely identified with Pinter’s work. In 1965 he created the role of Lenny in The Homecoming, and he won a Tony Award after the play moved to Broadway two years later. He also played the role in a 1973 film version directed by Peter Hall.

Years later, in 2001, he took the role of Max, the aging patriarch, in the same play, presenting it at a Harold Pinter festival at Lincoln Center in New York and in London. The switch was as dramatic as his move from Prince Hal to King Lear. In fact, his Max had more than a touch of Lear.

Ian Holm Cuthbert was born on 12 September, 1931, in Goodmayes, England, northeast of London, to Jean Wilson (Holm) Cuthbert, a nurse, and Dr. James Harvey Cuthbert, a psychiatrist. Because his father was the superintendent of a mental hospital, Holm was fond of saying that he had been born “in a loony bin,” hinting that it qualified him to be an actor.

After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he made his stage debut at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1954 as a spear carrier in Othello. He was a member of the Shakespeare company there for two years, then made his London debut in 1956 in Love Affair.

Returning to Stratford with the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company, he quickly moved up in the ranks, along with Judi Dench, Ian Richardson and Diana Rigg. He played Sebastian in Twelfth Night, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Fool to Charles Laughton’s Lear.

Holm added Chekhov to his laurels in 1961. In a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Cherry Orchard, starring Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dench and Dorothy Tutin, he played the idealistic young intellectual Trofimov.

Critic Michael Billington, in his biography Peggy Ashcroft (1990), wrote that Alec Guinness had told him that Holm’s Trofimov — “intense, urgent, on the brink of neurosis” — was “very much the kind of performance” that Guinness would have liked to have given when he played the role in 1939.

In 1963, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Wars of the Roses, an adaptation of the Henry VI plays and Richard III, Holm was a psychopathic Richard III. He subsequently shifted to playing Prince Hal and his older incarnation, Henry V, which he did in repertory with The Homecoming. Peter Hall, again the director, said, “The company of actors, led by Peggy Ashcroft and Ian Holm, had made something live that had never lived before.” (The BBC turned The Wars of the Roses into a TV miniseries in 1965, with Holm reprising his Richard III.)

Holm’s first films, both in 1968, were The Fixer, directed by John Frankenheimer, and Hall’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he played Puck. In 1981 he was nominated for an Academy Award for playing an Olympic trainer in 1920s Britain in Chariots of Fire.

In films he played Napoleon in Time Bandits (1981); a thriving competitor of Tucci’s struggling restaurateur in Big Night (1996); the physician to the king in The Madness of King George (1994); and the scientist’s elderly father in Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Other films included Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil (1985) and Luc Besson’s science fiction drama The Fifth Element (1997).

On television, Holm did The Browning Version, Murder by the Book (he was Hercule Poirot to Ashcroft’s Agatha Christie), The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (with Dench) and The Borrowers, a 1992 miniseries in which he appeared with his wife at the time, Penelope Wilton, who later played the widowed Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. (That marriage ended in divorce in 2001.)

In 1976, at the height of his career, Holm was cast as Hickey in a London production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one of the most demanding of contemporary roles. During previews he suffered from stage fright so acute that it was later characterized as a breakdown. He left the production and, unable to perform in the theater, he concentrated on films and television, gathering a reputation for being outstanding in small roles in movies that included Dance With a Stranger (1985), Greystoke (1984), Dreamchild (1985) and A Life Less Ordinary (1997).

After many years of avoiding the theater, he was asked what it would take for him to return to the stage. He answered, “Well, maybe if Harold Pinter wrote a new play and asked me to be in it, it would be an offer I couldn’t refuse.” That is what happened.

In Pinter’s Moonlight, which premiered in London in 1993, Holm played an angry, bitter man facing death. Having triumphed once again in a Pinter play, he then did Lear at the National Theater in 1997. Preparing for the role, he worked intensively with voice coach Patsy Rodenburg, investigating, in her words, “the manifestations of his fear.”

When Holm opened in Lear, it turned out to be a defining moment in his career, bringing him rapturous notices. Piercing to the heart of the character as king and father, he exposed all his emotions, and at a crucial point, mad on the heath, he dropped his cloak to reveal an old man’s nudity.

“This is Holm’s Lear,” critic Sheridan Morley wrote in The International Herald Tribune, “and we are unlikely to leave this century with a better.”

The production was later presented on television.

Holm was Frodo Baggins in the 1981 BBC radio version of The Lord of the Rings. But later in his career he was much better known for playing another hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, in the highly successful Lord of the Rings and “Hobbit” movie trilogies. These were roles he was naturally suited to, not just because of his acting skill but also because of his size — at 5 feet, 5 inches tall, he had the perfect height for a hobbit.

“I’m completely amazed by the reaction that the films have had,” he told British newspaper The Independent in 2004. “I get a lot of fan mail addressed to Bilbo and sometimes Sir Bilbo,” he said. “It’s hardly ever addressed to Ian Holm.” He made sure to sign replies with his character’s name, he added.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Sophie de Stempel; five children; and eight grandchildren, Riggs, of his agency, said.

Holm was knighted in 1998.

Reflecting on his two primary theatrical sources, Shakespeare and Pinter, Holm said that they were equally difficult to perform. Carefully choosing his words, he added, “You need so much control for all that stillness and discipline.”

Mel Gussow c.2020 The New York Times Company

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