It took filmmakers a while to work out what to do with Ian Holm, even though he had won the best supporting actor BAFTA on his debut in The Bofors Gun (1968). Fresh from landing a Tony for his performance as Lenny in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, the RADA-trained Holm seemed set to spread his wings after a decade with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But he kept being cast as historical figures in the likes of Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and Robin and Marian (1976).
Indeed, it wasn’t until a crippling attack of stage fright during a 1976 production of The Iceman Cometh that Holm found a way to channel on screen what the New York Times called his “magical malleability”. Buoyed by a BAFTA nod for playing J.M. Barrie in The Lost Boys (1978), he followed a mind-blowing turn in Alien (1979) by receiving an Oscar nomination for the best picture-winning Chariots of Fire (1981).
Lead roles such as he had in Singleton’s Pluck (1984) were a rarity. Instead, Holm made a virtue of not being “a movie-star type…so people don’t demand that I’m always the same”. Joking that he was too lazy to do research, he proved positively chameleonic in over 90 features, whether being emotionally conflicted in Dance with a Stranger (1985), Wetherby (1986) and Another Woman (1988), enduring the dystopias of Brazil (1985), Naked Lunch and Kafka (both 1991), or springing comic surprises in A Life Less Ordinary (1997), Joe Gould’s Secret (2000) and The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2001).
Here are 10 of his most indispensable performances.
Director Ridley Scott
In Ridley Scott’s interstellar horror, Holm was cast as Ash, the android who pays a severe price for his treachery. There are echoes of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the way in which Ash uses his artificial intelligence to manipulate the crew of the Nostromo, and the trademark precision of Holm’s delivery similarly puts the audience off its guard. Despite the film making his name in Hollywood, Holm didn’t enjoy the “16 weeks of bloody hard work” at Shepperton Studios.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Director Hugh Hudson
At a time when the amateur spirit was still sacrosanct at the Olympic Games, the relationship between British sprinter Harold Abrahams and professional coach Sam Mussabini in the months before Paris 1924 was highly contentious. Colin Welland might have proclaimed that the British were coming after winning the Academy Award for his screenplay, but Mussabini’s mixed ancestry reinforced the outsider status that Holm captures with his customarily unshowy focus. Despite triumphantly punching the straw boater he removes at his hotel window on hearing the National Anthem playing in the nearby stadium, Holm himself was unlucky to be pipped to best supporting actor by John Gielgud for Arthur.
Director Gavin Millar
Holm gives perhaps the most delicate performance of his entire career in this Dennis Potter-scripted analysis of the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell, the dean’s daughter whom the ordained academic immortalised in his guise of Lewis Carroll. Inspired by Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Wonderland sequences are memorably brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. But director Gavin Millar also presents Victorian Oxford as a kind of Neverland, as Alice (Coral Browne) reflects on the impact that the bashful Dodgson’s chaste adoration had on her as a girl and as an 80 year-old woman helping celebrate his centenary in 1930s New York.
Director Franco Zeffirelli
During his RSC heyday, Holm had suggested he was leading man material, particularly with his performances in Peter Hall’s ‘War of the Roses’ trilogy (1964). By the time Kenneth Branagh filmed Henry V (1989), however, he had become a character stalwart, whose Fluellen prompted his director to define the Ian Holm School of Acting as “Anything you can do, I can do less of.” They would reunite on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), but Franco Zeffirelli allowed Holm to give more of a performance as Polonius opposite Mel Gibson. Conquering his nerves, Holm saved the best for last, however, by winning the Olivier for his 1997 stage interpretation of King Lear.
The Madness of King George (1994)
Director Nicholas Hytner
Nigel Hawthorne rightly drew the plaudits for his BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated performance as the ailing George III. But Holm provides sterling support as Francis Willis, the unconventional doctor who is branded a “scabby bumsucker” and “Lincolnshire lickfingers” on first meeting the monarch. But he stands up to his patient’s rages, dismissing court protocol in order to prioritise his medical duty over his fealty as a subject. Following this BAFTA-nominated display, Holm was cast as another royal physician, Sir Francis Gull, in the Hughes brothers’ 2001 adaptation of the graphic novel From Hell, in which he boldly claims to have given “birth to the 20th century”.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Director Atom Egoyan
Having just played a tough New York cop in Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), Holm won the Genie Award for best actor for his mesmerising performance as Mitchell Stephens, the Canadian lawyer who tries to persuade the families mourning the 14 children killed in a school bus crash to bring a class action for damages. When Donald Sutherland withdrew, Holm landed the role in this adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel because director Atom Egoyan not only recalled his “strangely compassionate, yet furtive and menacing” presence in Peter Hall’s The Homecoming (1973), but also reckoned he was frequently “the most memorable thing about the movies he’s been in”.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Director Luc Besson
Holm had the happy knack of making good choices. More importantly, he had the talent to ensure his characters were often remembered more favourably than the film itself, as is the case with Father Vito Cornelius in Luc Besson’s sci-fi adventure. Holm later shrugged off playing this authority on the Great Evil and the four stones that can destroy it by claiming, “Sometimes, you have to think financially, and small parts in big films pay very well.” But maybe nobody realised it was him, as the New York Times shrewdly pointed out that Holm was “so good at what he does that he simply disappears into his roles”.
The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001)
Director Alan Taylor
Standing around 5’ 6”, Holm was a natural to play Napoleon Bonaparte and he did so in both the 1974 miniseries Napoleon and Love and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) before essaying both the deposed emperor and his lookalike in this underrated adaptation of Simon Leys’s short novel, The Death of Napoleon. Leaving deckhand Eugene Lenormand on St Helena while he makes his way back to France, Bonaparte comes to realise that status isn’t everything, as he finds contentment in the everyday. This study in power makes for compelling contrast with Holm’s portrayals of Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels in Holocaust (1978) and Inside the Third Reich (1982).
The Lord of the Rings (2001-14)
Director Peter Jackson
In the early 1990s, Holm had proved he could connect with younger audiences as Pod Clock, opposite third wife Penelope Wilton, in the BBC adaptations of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. But he earned a new legion of fans for his work as Bilbo Baggins in two-thirds of Peter Jackson’s epic six-part dramatisation of the Middle Earth writings of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Return of the King (2003), An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Curiously, in 1981, Holm had played Frodo in a 13-hour Radio 4 serial that had cast John Le Mesurier as his cousin.
Director Brad Bird
Holm’s most memorable vocal excursion came as Skinner (who was modelled on French comic icon Louis de Funès) in Brad Bird’s Pixar gem about a culinary Parisian rodent. Puffed up after taking over as head chef at La Côte d’Or, Skinner is furious when Remy gets him fired and vows vengeance in cahoots with a health inspector. But this wasn’t the first time that Holm had played a hissable restaurateur, as he had excelled as Pascal in the 1996 Stanley Tucci co-directed restaurant comedy Big Night (1996).