The virtuosic British actor Sir Ian Holm, who, according to the New York Times, had “a magic malleability with a range that went from the sweet-tempered to the psychotic,” sadly passed away on Friday, aged 88, following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. I drew this montage sketch a few years ago, which incorporated three of his most defining performances, two from the stage (Lenny and King Lear) and one screen (Sam Mussabini) portrayal.
The stage was his initial and natural stamping ground, becoming a star with the Royal Shakespeare Company, after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1953. He originated the role of the sleek, entrepreneurial pimp Lenny in Sir Peter Hall’s London premiere of Harold Pinter’s THE HOMECOMING at the Aldwych Theatre in 1965, which transferred to the Music Box Theater on Broadway two years later, collecting four Tony Awards, including Sir Ian’s win for Best Performance by a Featured Actor. He reprised the role for the 1973 film adaptation, also directed by Sir Peter.
In 1976, at the height of his career, Sir Ian suffered from acute stage fright, later described as a breakdown, playing Hickey during previews for Eugene O’Neill’s London production of THE ICEMAN COMETH. He left the show and never returned to the stage until the early 1990’s. His lengthy hiatus from the theatre was cinema’s gain.
His first major film role was Ash, the calm but chilling, technocratic android is Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979). He would go on to play many memorable movie performances, including the ‘ultimate passport to screen fame’, the homely Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins in Sir Peter Jackson’s series of Tolkien trilogies. He features in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) and THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003) and as the elder Bilbo in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012) and THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014).
In his moving tribute after Sir Ian’s passing, Sir Peter recalled meeting him for dinner in London, where they discussed the possibility of him playing THE HOBBIT’s older Bilbo. He was very sorry, initially declining because he had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and no longer could remember lines and certainly couldn’t travel to New Zealand. But he agreed to do it after it was decided to shoot his part in London. “l know he was only doing it as a favour to me,” said Sir Peter, who held his hands and thanked him with tears in my eyes. “We witnessed a wonderful actor delivering his last performance,” he said.
In 1982 Sir Ian received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role as the straw-boated, pioneering athletics coach Sam Mussabini in CHARIOTS OF FIRE, winning a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and a BAFTA, his second from the British Academy, having previously collected the famous golden mask for playing Flynn in THE BOFOR’S GUN (1968). Sir Ian received a further four BAFTA nominations throughout his distinguished career.
Sir Ian was once asked what would entice him back to the stage. He replied a new Pinter play and that’s what triumphantly happened. In 1993, his portrayal of Andy, an angry bitter man facing death in MOONLIGHT at the Almeida Theatre was was recognised by the London critics at their annual awards. Following that success he returned to Shakespeare in 1997, performing a ‘stocky, grizzled, bullet-headed’ title role in KING LEAR directed by Sir Richard Eyre on the Cottesloe stage at the National Theatre, winning an Olivier, a Critics’ Circle Theatre and the Evening Standard Award. Sir Ian also received an Emmy nomination for the televised version. “This is Holm’s Lear,” wrote the International Herald Tribune’s Sheridan Morley, “and we are unlikely to leave this century with a better… piercing to the heart of the character as king and father he exploited all his emotions and at a crucial point, mad on the heath, he dropped his cloak to reveal an old man’s nudity.”
While I had the privilege of meeting Sir Ian on a couple of occasions, I had not drawn a sketch. Eventually this was rectified and sent to him in 2016, hoping to get it signed. But it was returned with a letter from his agent, apologising, but he was unable to personally sign autographs any longer, understandably for health reasons. A small black and white photo with a pre-printed signature was enclosed.
However In 2000, when Sir Ian was filming LOTR in Wellington, New Zealand, he did sign a small copy of a poster for one of my personal favourites, Atom Egoyan’s THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997), which surprisingly, at the age of 65 was his first lead role in a film and arguably his greatest screen performance as Mitchell Stephens, a troubled lawyer who tries to persuade bereaved families to sue following a fatal school bus crash in a small Canadian community.
RIP Sir Ian.