Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Esteemed British Actor, Is Dead at 72

News   Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Esteemed British Actor, Is Dead at 72
Nigel Hawthorne in Shadowlands on Broadway in 1990.
Nigel Hawthorne in Shadowlands on Broadway in 1990. Photo by Photo by Martha Swope

Sir Nigel Hawthorne, the much-loved actor, has died today, Dec. 26, of a heart attack. He was 72.

Sir Nigel came to fame through television: his performance as Sir Humphrey Appleby, the senior civil servant in the long-running series "Yes, Minister" and its successor, "Yes, Prime Minister," endeared him to millions.

Sir Nigel's fame — and subsequent knighthood — came late in his career: he was in his 50s before he found artistic success and financial security, and was knighted in 1999. His television and film fame aside, he was a notable stage actor. His performance as C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands at the Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue in 1989 (later repeated on Broadway) gave him the hugely difficult task of giving a convincing and prolonged burst of sobbing every night. It was a mark of his ability that audiences were often brought to tears as well.

The pinnacle of his stage career came two years later, in 1991, when he was given the starring role, at the National Theatre, in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. This was later filmed, with its title being subtly altered to "The Madness of King George," on the grounds that for most younger members of American audiences, there was only one King George they had heard of, and the III in the title might lead them to think they'd missed the previous two sections of a series. Hawthorne's performance of the ill-fated King effortlessly dominated the Lyttleton Theatre - the National's proscenium-arch auditorium. He was also superb in the film version (and was nominated for an Oscar). Having successfully played a historic mad King, Sir Nigel was persuaded to take the next logical step and portray the legendary one, King Lear, for the RSC, in 1999. This, however, was not the triumph that many expected. Sir Nigel also earned some unwelcome publicity by agreeing to an interview with a gay magazine, in which it was made clear that he himself was gay: his 'outing' was, like his success, at a later stage of his life than might be expected.

The subsequent discussion of his personal life in no way affected the great personal affection in which he was held by the public, for there was something curiously vulnerable about him that came through even in the unlikeliest of roles, and which was very endearing.

With his death British theatre - and television, and cinema - has lost one of its most experienced actors, whose determination to carry on in his chosen career for some thirty years before he finally found fame, justified his belief in his own talent: a belief that was triumphantly vindicated in the last twenty years of his life.

— by Paul Webb

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