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Obituary: Ian Holm

Stage and film actor whose many triumphs included roles in 'King Lear', 'Alien' and 'The Lord of The Rings'


VERSATILE: Ian HolmBorrower.

VERSATILE: Ian HolmBorrower.

Getty Images

VERSATILE: Ian HolmBorrower.

Ian Holm, who has died aged 88, was one of the most versatile actors of his generation on both stage and screen; in a career which spanned the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1950s and 1960s, to film roles in Alien, Chariots of Fire and Lord of the Rings and an award-winning performance as King Lear at the National Theatre, he constantly defied categorisation.

Holm was an actor's actor, admired by all his peers.

Although, at 5ft 6in, he was rarely cast as romantic leads, he commanded the stage through an intensity of stillness and restraint, and his poetic intonation.

He was invariably memorable on screen. He regarded himself as a character actor, and his talent for supporting roles meant that he became much in demand.

His career path was shaped by an incident in 1976 when, during an RSC performance of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh he succumbed to such debilitating stage fright that he walked into the wings and subsequently abandoned the theatre for the next 16 years.

In his autobiography he described the episode, which has entered theatrical folklore as one of the great crack-ups in acting history, as like "drowning in dread". Unable to cure his fear with either therapy or medication, he turned to cinema, television and radio.

Of Scottish parentage, Ian Holm Cuthbert was born on September 12, 1931 at Goodmayes, Essex.

He attended Chigwell Grammar School in Essex, but had decided on becoming an actor at the age of seven after seeing a stage version of Les Miserables. In 1950 he won a place at Rada, and four years later (with an interruption for National Service) he joined the RSC at Stratford, making his debut as a sword-bearer in Othello.

In 1955 Holm briefly left the RSC for a spell in a West End production of Dulcie Gray's Love Affair. That was followed by a European tour with Laurence Olivier's production of Titus Andronicus, in which Holm played Mutius, one of Titus's sons. He returned to the RSC in 1957, and during the next decade built up a reputation as one of the most talented young actors on the British stage.

In 1965 audiences were transfixed by his interpretation of Richard III (a performance, enthused one critic, "lighted by intelligence and a fine sense of malevolence") and Henry V (for which he won an Evening Standard Actor of the Year Award) in the RSC's epic Wars of the Roses cycle

Two years later he won an Olivier for his performance in the first staging of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming.

Holm made his film debut in 1968 in Jack Gold's The Bofors Gun, set in Germany after World War II and during the next 10 years he had supporting roles in films such as Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Young Winston (1972), The Homecoming (1973) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1976). He also starred in television miniseries, taking the lead role in Napoleon in Love and playing J M Barrie in The Lost Boys.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s he appeared in films ranging from Les Miserables (made for TV, 1978) to the role of Ash, the treacherous spaceship officer who turns out to be an android in Alien (1979).

He then took on the part of Sam Mussabini, the Jewish athletics coach, in Chariots of Fire (1981). His performance earned him an Oscar nomination and a Bafta.

In 1985 he played Stanley Pilborough in David Hare's film Wetherby and Mr Kurtzmann in the fantasy Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam.

The same year he also took the part of Lewis Carroll in Gavin Millar's Dreamchild and played Desmond Cussen, the man who tried in vain to rescue Ruth Ellis - the last women in England to be hanged - in Dance with a Stranger.

He was critically acclaimed for his portrayals of Fluellen in Kenneth Branagh's film version of Henry V (1989) and Polonius in Franco Zeffirelli's interpretation of Hamlet (1990).

In 1992 Holm appeared opposite his then wife, Penelope Wilton, in the BBC children's television films based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Then in 1993 he finally made his theatrical comeback in Pinter's Moonlight, in which he again played opposite Penelope Wilton, as a dying husband in a cold marriage. It was a triumphant, if nerve-racking, return.

But his return to the stage by no means marked the end of his film career. In The Madness of King George (1994) he was wonderfully cast as the slightly dotty royal physician.

That same year he was given his first starring role, in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. The following year, Holm appeared as King Lear at the National Theatre. The performance was hailed as a dramatic tour de force, and proof that he had retained his talent for the stage.

In 2001 he was delighted to acquire a legion of new fans as a star of epic fantasy films, appearing as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's hugely popular Lord of the Rings trilogy. Eleven years later he reprised the role, with Martin Freeman as "young Bilbo", in a new three-part film series again directed by Jackson, starting with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2012.

Holm, who was appointed CBE in 1989 and knighted in 1998, published his candid autobiography Acting My Life in 2004, but on the whole guarded his privacy. "I think too much is known about people," he said. "There used to be an air of mystery about thespians. Nowadays, everybody knows everything about everybody."

In 2001 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but recovered. He developed Parkinson's disease 10 years ago.

Ian Holm, who died on June 19, was married four times and had four children.

© Telegraph