Monday 21 October 2019

Obituary: John Hillerman

Texas-born actor who found fame playing English gent Higgins in Magnum, PI

TEXAN TOFF: John Hillerman perfected his English accent
TEXAN TOFF: John Hillerman perfected his English accent

John Hillerman, who has died aged 84, played one of the most joyous creations of 1980s popular American television: Higgins, the prissy English major-domo who was the foil to Tom Selleck's eponymous private eye in Magnum, PI.

A stuffed shirt par excellence, Higgins gave every impression of having missed his calling as the secretary of a golf club near Hemel Hempstead. Instead, he fetched up as the caretaker of a large Hawaii estate, the Robin's Nest.

This belonged to a permanently absent owner, Robin Masters, a successful writer modelled on the likes of Harold Robbins and heard occasionally as the voice of Orson Welles.

For services rendered but never explained, Magnum lived in the guest house, when not solving crimes, and had the use of Robin's Ferrari Testarossa. But he needed Higgins's permission to enjoy facilities such as the tennis courts and swimming pool.

This naturally led to many a contretemps between the short, uptight Briton and the tall, relaxed American, their personalities expressed by their respective moustaches: Magnum's luxuriantly abundant, Higgins's trim to the point of repression. Both were bachelors, and the whole thing was hugely camp but charming fun.

So spot-on was Hillerman's performance, which earned him an Emmy in 1987, that it came as a surprise to many to learn that he hailed not from Tunbridge Wells but Texas.

Having spent a year as a young actor shedding his native drawl, he listened for months to tapes of Laurence Olivier to perfect Higgins's urbane manner and clipped pronunciation. "It wasn't difficult for me," he said. "I'd played a great deal of Noel Coward." Higgins was indubitably Hollywood's view of an Englishman.

The only son of a petrol station owner, of French and German ancestry, John Benedict Hillerman was born in Denison, Texas, on December 20, 1932. He was educated at the town's St Xavier's Academy and then at the University of Texas, where he studied journalism, having won essay competitions at school.

However, on graduating, he joined the US Air Force, serving for four years and rising to sergeant, but military life soon bored him and after discovering a taste for amateur theatricals, he trained as an actor in New York.

Having refined his accent, he found steady work in minor roles on Broadway during the 1950s. Eventually, he tired of penury and, with just $700 saved, moved to Hollywood.

He was encouraged to do so by his friend Peter Bogdanovich, who had been a fellow spear-carrier in a park production of Othello before making it as a film director.

From 1971, Hillerman appeared in small parts in four of Bogdanovich's films, including The Last Picture Show, as well as in movies such as High Plains Drifter, Blazing Saddles and Chinatown. He was also in a number of television series of the time, including Kojak, Hawaii Five-O and Wonder Woman, before landing the part of Higgins in 1980. The character became so well-known that Higgins even appeared in episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Simon & Simon.

Hillerman made the most of his success, buying a sea-view penthouse in Waikiki, where he read prodigiously and played cards. He lost hundreds of dollars to Selleck while teaching him poker.

After Magnum ended in 1988, he made few screen appearances on screen, one exception being as Dr Watson to Edward Woodward's Holmes in a 1990 TV movie, Hands of a Murderer. He retired in 1999. Hillerman never married and died on November 9, 2017.

Sunday Independent

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