Ian Holm obituary: an actor of many facets

From Bilbo Baggins to Alien’s Ash, Dreamchild’s Lewis Carroll and three Napoleons, Ian Holm was as versatile as he was prolific and unostentatious. 12 September 1931–19 June 2020.

Ian Holm

Has there been a more versatile British actor than Ian Holm? A virtuoso stage performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he’d already won major awards on both sides of the Atlantic before his first substantial cinema role at a comparatively late 37. Wider fame came at the turn of the 1980s (Alien, Chariots of Fire) and was reinforced two decades later (The Lord of the Rings), but Holm generally shunned stardom’s bromides, preferring smaller, precision-crafted character parts.

Consider his Desmond Cusson in Dance with a Stranger (1985), far less showy than co-stars Miranda Richardson or Rupert Everett, but Holm’s pathetic quasi-cuckold anchors the film, quietly seething at Richardson’s jokey suggestion that she adjust his carefully trimmed moustache.

Desmond Cusson in Dance with a Stranger (1985)

That same year, a professional annus mirabilis, he played Lewis Carroll (né Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in Dreamchild, outward shyness concealing a very peculiar personality (Holm was always adept at not quite concealing inner demons); Jonathan Pryce’s boss in Brazil, desperately trying to keep on top of life-or-death paperwork; and in both David Hare’s Wetherby and the small-screen Noël Coward adaptation Mr & Mrs Edgehill his onscreen wife was former RSC colleague Judi Dench, faced with, respectively, the aftermath of a mysterious suicide and being unexpectedly posted to a tiny island in which the US has a strategic interest. Meanwhile, in a BBC revamp of the Terence Rattigan warhorse The Browning Version, he more than held his own against memories of Michael Redgrave.

Dreamchild (1985)
As Mr Kurtzmann in Brazil (1985)

By then Holm had taken a lengthy break from the theatre, following a debilitating 1976 bout of stage fright that he was never able to rationalise. Perhaps his father, psychiatrist and electric shock therapy pioneer James Harvey Cuthbert, might have explained it. Born in Goodmayes, Essex on 12 September 1931, Holm (who took his mother’s maiden name) grew up near the West Ham mental hospital, and became fascinated by his father’s patients. He later said that this first attracted him to the idea of performance, not least the challenge of pretending to be sane.

After being bullied at school over his diminutive size, Holm found his calling in amateur dramatics, leading to a successful RADA audition. When he gingerly floated the notion of becoming an actor to his parents, Dr Cuthbert replied, “Prove it”. He joined the RSC in 1954, and by the 1960s he was one of its major stars, physically natural for Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream was adapted for film in 1968), but he also used his stature to less predictable ends, such as a Henry V that Penelope Gilliatt described as “a grim slip of a king”. He paralleled Shakespearean mastery with becoming a great Harold Pinter interpreter, creating the role of Lenny in 1965’s The Homecoming (preserved by the 1973 film).

As Lenny in The Homecoming (1973)
As Gunner Flynn in The Bofors Gun (1968)

Although regularly on television from the late 1950s, Holm didn’t play a credited feature film role until The Bofors Gun (1968), with Holm’s BAFTA-winning Gunner Flynn reluctantly mediating between David Warner and Nicol Williamson’s temperamentally incompatible colleagues. An equally adept ensemble headlined 1970’s A Severed Head, with Holm’s stuffy wine merchant part of an adulterous quintet involving Richard Attenborough, Claire Bloom, Jennie Linden and Lee Remick.

As Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head (1971)

He spent much of the 1970s playing real-life historical figures: President Poincaré (1969’s Oh! What a Lovely War), Bolshevik revolutionary Vasily Yakovlev (1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra), David Riccio, allegedly bisexual private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), Times editor George Earle Buckle (1972’s Young Winston) and White Star Line managing director J. Bruce Ismay (1979’s S.O.S. Titanic). For television, he played Heinrich Himmler (Holocaust, 1979), Joseph Goebbels (Inside the Third Reich, 1982) and Lech Wałęsa (Strike: The Birth of Solidarity, 1981). Unsurprisingly, he was a physical natural for Napoleon Bonaparte, as demonstrated via the ITV series Napoleon and Love (aka Eleonore, 1974) and the more fantastical features Time Bandits (1981) and The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001).

As Napoleon in Napoleon and Love (1974)
As Napoleon in Time Bandits (1981)
As Napoleon in The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001)

Less conventional casting in Alien (1979) pushed Holm’s career onto a new plane. If fellow Briton John Hurt’s demise was the film’s most viscerally memorable shock, the revelation that Holm’s Ash had reasons for his icy composure beyond his nationality provided the film’s most startling narrative twist, his final speech delivered as a disembodied head in a pool of milky gunk.

As Ash (right) in Alien (1979)

Back on Earth, he played real-life trainer Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire (1981), involuntarily punching his fist through his signature straw boater as his protégé Harold Abrahams wins the Olympic 100 metres.

As Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire (1981)

Although this brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, Holm preferred to be based in Blighty, with surprisingly few forays abroad for an actor at his level. Exceptions included Gena Rowlands’ emotionally distant husband in Another Woman (1988), the sinister Dr Murnau in Kafka (1991), an unscrupulous restaurateur in Big Night (1996), an NYPD detective in Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), priest-cum-astrophysicist Vito Cornelius in The Fifth Element (1997) and real life physician Sir William Gull in From Hell (2001).

In Canada, he worked with David Cronenberg twice (Naked Lunch, 1991; eXistenZ, 1999), but by common consent one of his greatest screen performances was in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), where his past-haunted lawyer tries to engineer a class-action suit over a mass bereavement. This was a comparatively rare leading role: others included farmer Ben Singleton holding his own opposite thousands of geese in Laughterhouse (1984), the MI6 fixer in the 13-part Len Deighton adaptation Game, Set and Match (1988), and as Pod Clock, paterfamilias of the tiny The Borrowers (1992). In the first and last of this trio, he starred opposite Penelope Wilton, his third wife (of four).

As Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

During his long break from the stage, Holm kept his Shakespeare in trim via Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989, as Fluellen) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990, as Polonius) before a triumphant, emotionally and physically naked King Lear for the National Theatre (1997). He’d tentatively returned to live performance at Pinter’s urging, for Moonlight (1993) and Landscape (1994), and worked with Alan Bennett, in the film version of The Madness of King George (1994). He also collaborated with Dennis Potter twice, in the aforementioned Dreamchild, and in Moonlight on the Highway (1969) for television, in which he played the first of many Potter characters to find his life guided by memories of old popular songs.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Holm’s 21st-century career was overshadowed by the older Bilbo Baggins in multiple instalments of The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and The Hobbit (2012-14), and, sadly, by bouts of serious illness (prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease) that ultimately forced his retirement. His last original screen role was a vocal one, as the head chef in Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), released three years after an expectedly thoughtful and unexpectedly colourful autobiography, Acting My Life.

Ian Holm with his 1989 CBE (Commander of the British Empire) medal