Obituary: Ian Holm

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Sir Ian Holm was the consummate supporting actor, happy to let others bask in the limelight of stardom.

He built his career in the theatre with the Royal Shakespeare Company, later wowing critics in Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production of King Lear, and electrified audiences in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.

His move into cinema saw him playing a variety of supporting roles including an android in Alien, the professional coach in Chariots of Fire and Dr Willis in The Madness of King George.

And he achieved international fame as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Ian Holm Cuthbert was born on 12 September 1931 in a psychiatric hospital in Goodmayes, Essex, where his father, a psychiatrist and a pioneer of electric shock treatment, was the superintendent. His mother was a nurse.

He suffered from anxiety as a child and was bullied at his private school, where he took refuge in a love of drama. A chance meeting with the noted actor-manager Henry Baynton saw him enrolled at Rada in 1949.

His studies were cut short by National Service, most of which he spent in Germany with the British army. He eventually returned to Rada and graduated in 1953.

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He played Richard III in the RSC’s 1964 Wars of the Roses series

He secured a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, where his first recorded role was as a spear carrier in a 1954 production of Othello. He also played Mutius in a production of Titus Andronicus that toured Europe in 1956.

Over the ensuing years he moved further up the cast list with roles that included Donalbain in Macbeth, The Fool in King Lear and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

He established a reputation as a talented and reliable actor – so much so that by the mid-1960s he was playing meatier parts, including the title roles in Henry V and Richard III.

Holm stepped away from the works of the Bard to take the role of Lenny in both the London and New York premieres of Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming. Appearing in the latter won him a Tony award.

Stage fright

He made his first foray into cinema in John Frankenheimer’s film of The Fixer, based on a true story of a Jew falsely accused of murder in Tsarist Russia. It was just one of more than 90 films in which he would appear.

Holm became the master of the sound, supporting performance in a variety of roles. During the 1970s these included David Riccio in Mary, Queen of Scots and Yakovlev in Nicholas and Alexandra.

In 1973 he reprised the role of Lenny in the film version of The Homecoming.

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He found the filming of Alien an unpleasant experience

For a time he had parallel careers in both theatre and cinema. But he had a history of depression and was finding stage appearances more difficult.

“The crack-up”, as he later termed it, came during a 1976 production of The Iceman Cometh, when a sudden attack of stage fright forced him to stop performing.

Apart from two brief appearances, one as Uncle Vanya in 1979, he did not return to the stage for 18 years.

But his career was rescued by his TV and film work and the awards started to come. His role as Peter Pan author J M Barrie in the BBC’s production of The Lost Boys won him a Royal Television Society award and a Bafta nomination.

Critical praise

In 1979 he made his first big Hollywood appearance, as the android Ash in Alien. “It wasn’t a particularly pleasant film to do,” he later recalled. “It was 16 weeks of bloody hard work down at Shepperton Studios.”

Two years later he appeared as Sam Mussabini in Hugh Hudson’s film Chariots of Fire, based on the story of the athletes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams as they prepared for the 1924 Olympics.

His performance as the professional coach, shunned by the authorities in an age of amateurism, won him a Bafta for best supporting actor as well as an Oscar nomination.

In the same year he took the part of Frodo Baggins in BBC Radio 4’s massive adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which featured Holm alongside a host of other stars including Michael Hordern and Robert Stephens.

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Holm (r) recording The Lord of the Rings for BBC Radio with Michael Hordern and John Le Mesurier

He continued to receive critical praise for his film roles, notably in Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and a performance as Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild, Dennis Potter’s fantasy based on the life of Alice Liddell.

And the awards continued, including a Bafta for the Granada TV series Game, Set & Match, based on Len Deighton’s spy trilogy.

Holm never lost his fascination with Shakespeare. He took the role of Fluellen in Kenneth Branagh’s highly acclaimed 1989 film of Henry V and, a year later, played Polonius alongside Mel Gibson as Hamlet in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of the play.

He was eventually lured back to the stage in 1993 to star in the premiere of Harold Pinter’s Moonlight. Pinter was said to have described Holm as his favourite performer, “an actor of total integrity”.

‘Rage and vulnerability’

He continued to demonstrate his versatility in a wide range of roles, from Pod Clock in the BBC children’s series The Borrowers to Kenneth Branagh’s father in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

His performance as Dr Willis, the physician who treated George III in The Madness of King George, garnered yet another Bafta nomination.

There were further nominations and awards for his portrayal of lawyer Michael Stephens in critically acclaimed Canadian film The Sweet Hereafter. Back on stage he won an Olivier for his King Lear in 1998, the year in which he received a knighthood.

In 2001 he took what was probably his highest-profile role, that of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s epic production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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His portrayal of Bilbo Baggins brought Ian Holm a new generation of admirers

In the same year he once again appeared in a production of Pinter’s The Homecoming, this time as Max, the father of his previous character Lenny.

The critic Charles Spencer said his performance captured “both the rage and the vulnerability of a life-long bully who is appalled to discover that his word is no longer writ”.

In 2012, at the age of 81, he reprised the role of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on The Hobbit.

Away from stage and screen he was much sought-after as a narrator, notably on the BBC documentary Elizabeth R and for voiceover work in commercials and video games.

Holm married Lynn Shaw in 1955, a union that lasted for 10 years. His four-year marriage to Sophie Baker ended in divorce in 1986 and, five years later, he married the actress Penelope Wilton.

The couple divorced in 2001 and he subsequently married Sophie de Stempel in 2003.

Ian Holm was once asked how he felt about being so often the supporting actor, rarely the star. “As an actor,” he replied, “I’m very much a company person.

“I have a dread of responsibility. I like someone else to be in charge.”



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