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Sir Nigel Hawthorne dies

Wednesday, 26 December, 2001, 14:42 GMT
Sir Nigel said acting life was a "struggle for dignity and justification"

Sir Nigel Hawthorne, one of Britain's most respected actors, has died aged 72.

His agent confirmed that he died at 0930 GMT on 26 December at his Hertfordshire home.

He died from a heart attack but had been fighting cancer for the last 18 months.

The roles of Sir Humphrey Appleby on television in Yes, Minister and as King George III on the big screen ensured his celebrity across the world.

By the age of 19, he was set on a performing career

His agent of 30 years, Ken McReddie, said: "He was a brilliant actor and a wonderful friend.

"I feel very sad and extremely cut up."

Nigel Hawthorne was in his fifties by the time he enjoyed television success, and this notoriously insecure actor admitted acting life had been "a struggle for dignity and justification."

He was born in Coventry in 1929, but moved with his family to South Africa soon afterwards. An authoritarian upbringing and brutal schooling left Hawthorne lonely and lacking in confidence.

Little initial luck

His father considered acting a "cissy profession" and wanted his son to enter the diplomatic corps.

But after appearing in a Cape Town theatre production, Hawthorne was convinced he would find happiness on the British stage, and aged 22, left for England with £12 in his pocket.

His first foray into British theatre was not a success. He had little luck getting parts and finally took the role of understudy to Leslie Phillips for a West End comedy. In 19 months, Hawthorne did not appear on stage once and finally returned abashed to South Africa.

There he appeared in the first overseas production of Beyond the Fringe and, in 1963, decided to chance his theatrical hand on British soil once more.

Yes Minister brought celebrity to Hawthorne

This time Nigel Hawthorne was more fortunate. After a spell in revue, he joined the Joan Littlewood Company in time to tour with their production of Oh What a Lovely War!

With roles ranging from a two-liner in an early episode of Dad's Army on television to Shakespeare's Falstaff and Macbeth on stage, Hawthorne earned the reputation of a solid character actor.

In 1977, writers Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn saw Hawthorne on stage and gave him the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby in their new political TV sitcom Yes, Minister, playing opposite Paul Eddington and Derek Foulds.

Hawthorne needed medication to cope with the stress of the filming and of the studio audiences, saying "I just don't see the need for them."

But his portrayal of the verbally dexterous civil-servant who balanced suavity and servility with blatant self-interest earned the actor four Bafta awards and made him a household name.

Two further Baftas were later added for the film The Madness of King George (1994) and the television mini-series Fragile Heart (1996).

Just like any good comedy, it's the hen-pecked husband. George and Mildred, really

Hawthorne on the success of Yes Minister

With Yes, Minister in its heyday, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invited him to tea at Downing Street, and insisted on filming a scene with the cast. Civil servants invited him to meet the Israeli Prime Minister.

Recalling Yes, Minister, Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, said: "It captured the personal agenda of the senior civil servant in any department, who will have his own views as to what should go on.

"Margaret Thatcher's fascination was with the games between the elected politician and the unelected official, who had a very clear concept that his was the way to carry on government.

"She thoroughly enjoyed the exchanges and I'm pretty certain that she enjoyed it especially when Jim Hacker, who was frequently portrayed as thick as two short planks, actually came out on top."

Sir Bernard remembered Mrs Thatcher performing a three-minute sketch in the series in which she demanded the abolition of economists.

Global appeal

He added: "And it turned out that Sir Humphrey was a double-first in economics, politics and philosophy."

In all, five series of Yes, Minister were made, and the show, together with its sequel Yes Prime Minister, was shown in more than 50 countries.

Although Hawthorne relished Sir Humphrey's polished scripts, following this success, he broke away from television to take roles on both West End and Broadway stages.

In 1991, he appeared in Shadowlands. Although the role of bereaved academic CS Lewis moved audiences to tears and earned Hawthorne a 1991 Tony award, he was overlooked for the film role in favour of the more celebrated Anthony Hopkins.

He triumphantly portrayed the Madness of King George

The title role in The Madness of King George was, however, always going to be Hawthorne's. After his Olivier-winning portrayal on stage of the inspiring but insane monarch, scriptwriter Alan Bennett insisted the film role went to the actor. Hawthorne earned an Oscar nomination for the part.

Increased tabloid attention focused on his relationship of 20 years with theatre manager Trevor Bentham, and disturbed Hawthorne intensely.

But the Academy nomination also made Hawthorne one of Britain's most sought after actors, and he was the busiest performer at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. He was awarded his knighthood the same year.

Hawthorne received his knighthood in 1999

His attempt at directing the film The Clandestine Marriage starring Joan Collins was less successful, but he confounded critics with his 1999 performance of Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was his first invitation to appear at Stratford, despite 20 years of audition.

Hawthorne enjoyed his late flowering, saying "I didn't really know who I was, until I was middle-aged."

But if his star burned late, it burned brightly. For an actor equally at home in comedy and tragedy, he brought depth and humanity to both.

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