The second child of physician Charles Barnard Hawthorne and his wife Agnes Rosemary Rice, Nigel Hawthorne was three years old when the family moved to the Gardens district of Cape Town, South Africa. He attended Cape Town’s St. George’s Grammar School and later its Christian Brothers College. Hawthorne enrolled at the University of Cape Town where he acted in plays with fellow student Theo Aronson, who became biographer to England’s royal family and partner of historian Brian Roberts. Hawthorne’s professional theatrical debut was the character Archie Fellows in the 1950 Cape Town production of British playwright Edward Percy Smith’s 1940 thriller “The Shop at Sly Corner”.
Dissatisfied with life in South Africa, Hawthorne relocated to London where he pursued a career in acting. Through his performances, he gradually gained recognition as one of London’s great character actors. Starting in the late 1950s, Hawthorne appeared in various character roles in British television series. Seeking opportunities in the United States, he traveled to New York City where, in 1974, he was cast as Touchstone in Broadway production of Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Through the persuasion of British stage actors Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, Hawthorne joined the Stratford-upon-Avon based Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1970s.
In 1980, Nigel Hawthorne began his most famous television role of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Administrative Affairs, in the BBC2 political satire series “Yes Minister” which ran from 1980 to 1984. He later portrayed the character of the Cabinet Secretary in its sequel “Yes Prime Minister”. For this role, Hawthorne won four British Academy Television Awards for Best Light Entertainment Performance.
Hawthorne appeared as Mr. Kinnnoch in Richard Attenborough’s long delayed 1982 historical film “Gandhi”, which became the winner of eight Academy Awards and the third highest grossing film in the world for 1982. In the same year, he appeared as dissident Russian scientist Dr. Pyotr Baranovich in Clint Eastwood’s cold war thriller “Firefox”. Hawthorne returned to the New York stage in 1990 to appear as British writer C. S. Lewis in the Broadway production of William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands” performed at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. For that role, Hawthorne won the 1991 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.
In 1991, Nigel Hawthorne played his most famous theatrical role, King George III, in playwright Alan Bennett’s fictionalized biographical study “The Madness of George III”. Bennett’s play toured the United Kingdom and the United States before returning to London’s Royal National Theater in 1993. For this role, Hawthorne won a Best Actor Olivier Award. He also appeared in the same role for the 1994 film adaption of the play, entitled “The Madness of King George”, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Actor.
Hawthorne followed this success with the role of George the Duke of Clarence, playing opposite his friend Ian McKellen, in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 British period drama “Richard III” adapted by McKellen and Loncraine from Shakespeare’s play. He won his sixth BAFTA award for his role in the 1996 television mini-series “The Fragile Heart” and also drew praise for his role of Georgie Pillson in the London Weekend Television series “Mapp and Lucia”, based on the three 1930s novels by Edward Frederic Benson. Hawthorne next appeared in the film role of U.S. President Martin Van Buren in director Steven Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama “Amistad”, a story based on the 1839 events aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad and the legal battle that followed.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Nigel Hawthorne began work as a voice actor and appeared in several animated films. In 1978, he was cast as the voice of Campion in Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down”, a British animated adventure-drama film based on Richard Adams’s 1972 novel. Hawthorne was also cast in two Disney films: the voice of Ffiewddur Fflam in the 1985 dark fantasy “The Black Cauldron” and Professor Porter in the 1999 “Tarzan”, the first animated version of the novel.
In 1968, Hawthorne met his life-long partner Trevor Bentham who at that time was the stage manager for the Royal Court Theater in the West End of London. Bentham later became a scriptwriter and wrote for John Irvin’s 1995 romantic comedy “A Month by the Lake” and “The Clandestine Marriage”. From 1979 until Hawthorne’s death, the couple lived together and acted as fundraisers for the North Hertfordshire Hospice and other local charities.
In 2001 after undergoing several surgeries for diagnosed pancreatic cancer, Nigel Hawthorne was discharged from the hospital in time for the Christmas holidays. On the twenty-sixth of December in 2001, he died at the age of seventy-two from a heart attack at his home. His funeral, attended by many of his fellow actors, was held at St. Mary’s, the Parish Church of Thundridge, Hertfordshire; Trevor Bentham served as one of the pallbearers.
Notes: Nigel Hawthorne completed his autobiography just before he died. “Straight Face”, which covered his ambition to be an actor, his career, and his battle with cancer, was published posthumously in 2002 by Hodder & Stoughton.
An interview with Sir Nigel Hawthorne and film critic Dan Lybarger, in which Hawthorne discussed King George III, director David Mamet, and the film “The Big Brass Ring”, can be found at the Lybarger Links website located at: http://www.tipjar.com/dan/hawthorne.htm
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Nigel Hawthorne”, Studio Publicity Photo, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: “Derek Fowlds, Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington”, circa 1980, “Yes Minister”, Television Series Studio Shot, BBC2
Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Nigel Hawtorne”, Studio Publicity Photo, Gelatin Silver Print
Fourth Insert Image: “Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren”, 1994, “The Madness of King George”, Film Clip Shot, Director Nicholas Hylner, Cinematographer Andrew Dunn
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Nigel Hawthorne and Trevor Bentham”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print