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Thursday, 27 December, 2001, 09:20 GMT
Hawthorne's late blooming career
Nigel Hawthorne, and Paul Eddington perform a sketch with Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher was a fan of Yes, Minister
Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who has died aged 72, was one of Britain's most respected actors.

The roles of civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby on television and King George III on the big screen, in particular, ensured his celebrity across the world.

But 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."

Hawthorne (right) with his Yes Prime Minister co-stars
Hawthorne's portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby was seen in over 50 countries

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.

His father considered acting a "sissy 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.

Hawthorne portrays the Madness of King George
The Madness of King George brought Hawthorne an Oscar nomination
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.

Household name

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 Fowlds.

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

Hawthorne on the success of Yes Minister
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.

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.

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

Hawthorne as King Lear
Hawthorne confounded critics with his portrayal of King Lear
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.

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.

I didn't really know who I was, until I was middle-aged

Nigel Hawthorne
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.

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.

The BBC's Nick Higham
"His father thought acting was for sissies"
See also:

26 Dec 01 | UK
Sir Nigel Hawthorne dies
26 Dec 01 | Talking Point
Your tributes to Sir Nigel Hawthorne
24 Feb 99 | Entertainment
Knighthood for Sir Humphrey
26 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Hindi makeover for Yes Minister
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