Ian Holm, Shakespearean actor who played Bilbo Baggins, dies at 88


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Ian Holm, the classically trained Shakespearean actor best known to film audiences for his performances in films including the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, “Chariots of Fire” and “Alien,” has died. He was 88.

A rep for the actor has said Holm died in hospital on Friday morning. The actor had been battling Parkinson’s Disease for a number of years. However, as recently as January, Holm appeared in person to collect the Newport Beach Film Festival’s Icon Award in London.

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Holm, who was celebrated for interpretations of most of the Shakespeare canon, including a towering “King Lear,” also excelled onstage in the original production of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” which he also brought to Broadway. He began working in films only midway through his career, debuting with an adaptation of his stage performance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1968.

In later years, however, he worked increasingly in movies and more selectively onstage, appearing in high-profile films such as “Alien,” “The Fifth Element,” “Lord of the Rings” pics “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Return of the King” and “Hobbit” movies “An Unexpected Journey” and “The Battle of the Five Armies.”

But his finest work was contained in independently made productions like Oscar best picture winner “Chariots of Fire,” which brought him a nomination as best supporting actor in 1982; “The Madness of King George”; “Joe Gould’s Secret”; “Big Night”; and “The Sweet Hereafter.”

He also worked regularly on British television series such as “The Borrowers,” “Bells,” “Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill,” “We the Accused” and “Game Set and Match.”

Holm was remarkably versatile and, despite his short stature, rarely limited in his selection of roles. He was very much an actor’s actor, too chameleon-like to have a strong star impact. In 1998, he received his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to drama.

Holm had been working as an actor for decades when he first achieved mainstream notice for his work as an android in 1979’s “Alien” and as the Olympic trainer Sam Mussabini in 1981’s “Chariots of Fire.”

Over the next decade the roles became larger and more distinctive, including Napoleon in “Time Bandits,” Polonius in Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” alongside Mel Gibson, Captain Fluellen in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V,” as well as turns in “Dreamchild,” “Brazil,” “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” “Wetherby,” “Dance With a Stranger” and Woody Allen’s “Another Woman.”

During the ’90s he had meaty starring roles in Steven Soderbergh’s “Kafka” and David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” as well as in Nicholas Hytner’s “The Madness of King George,” Branagh’s “Frankenstein” and “The Fifth Element.”

Holm turned in several outstanding performances in top independent movies including Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night” and “Joe Gould’s Secret” and, especially, in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” where his performance as the pained lawyer futilely seeking redress in the wake of a Canadian town’s tragedy was “bottomless with its subtlety,” Roger Ebert said.

He worked for Cronenberg again but was wasted in “eXistenZ.”

The actor, who cut his teeth in the theater, still did stagework occasionally. Holm starred as Astrov in “Uncle Vanya” in 1979 and as King Lear in 1997. The latter brought him an Olivier award as best actor, and he repeated both performances on television, winning an Emmy for “Lear” in 1999. In 1993, he starred in a production of Pinter’s “Moonlight” onstage with wife Penelope Wilton.

He returned to the role of Napoleon in 2001 film “The Emperor’s Clothes.” (He had first played Bonaparte in the 1972 TV series “Napoleon and Me,” then comically in “Time Bandits.”) In a generally negative review of the film, the New York Times said, “In a sly, deadpan performance, Mr. Holm does his best to realize the movie’s gentle comic vision.”

In his 70s Holm continued to show up in high-profile films — none more high profile than the “Lord of the Rings” movies, in which he played Bilbo Baggins. He was a sadistic doctor in the Hughes brothers’ “From Hell,” with Johnny Depp, and played meteorologists in Roland Emmerich’s disaster epic “The Day After Tomorrow” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.”

But he was also one of the starring voices in the stylish animated film noir sci-fier “Renaissance” and the delightful animated feature “Ratatouille.” Holm made some other interesting choices in the 2000s, appearing in the indie comedy “Strangers With Candy”; as an outrageous psychoanalyst in “The Treatment”; and as David Ben Gurion, the first president of Israel, in Elie Chouraqui’s “O Jerusalem.”

He returned to the role of Bilbo Baggins for two “Hobbit” films, “An Unexpected Journey” and “The Battle of the Five Armies.”

Ian Holm Cuthbert was born in Goodmayes, England, and entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1950, leaving in 1953 to do his military service.

The following year he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon and made his debut as a spear carrier in “Othello.” Holm made his West End debut in 1956’s “Love Affair” and toured Europe with Laurence Olivier in “Titus Andronicus,” rejoining the RSC in 1957 and breaking out in 1959 with his celebrated Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and as the Fool in “King Lear.” He remained with the RSC until 1967, appearing in starring roles in “The Tempest” (as Ariel), “Richard III,” “Henry V” and “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Part 2.”

In 1965 he appeared to great acclaim as Lenny in the original production of Pinter’s “The Homecoming”; he won a Tony when he repeated the role on Broadway in 1967 and played the role again in Pinter’s 1973 big-screen adaptation.

In 1968 he made his film debut in “The Bofors Gun,” a British film that brought him a BAFTA Award for supporting actor. Thereafter, he appeared more regularly in movies and on television than onstage.

Over the next few years, he had supporting roles in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Fixer,” “Oh! What a Lovely War,” “Nicholas and Alexandra” and as King John in “Robin and Marian.” Other assignments included “Young Winston,” “Juggernaut,” “Shout at the Devil” and, for television, “Les Miserables,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Jesus of Nazareth.” For the American miniseries “Holocaust” and “Inside the Third Reich,” he played Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, respectively.

He won a second Emmy in 2001 for his roguish work opposite Judi Dench in HBO telepic “The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.” With wife Wilton he appeared in “The Borrowers” and “The Return of the Borrowers” for Brit TV, and he was one of an all-star cast of voices that contributed to the live-action version of “Animal Farm” that aired on TNT in the U.S.

Holm also did a considerable amount of voiceover and narration work. He narrated the documentaries “Stalin,” “Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen” and “Hiroshima: The Decision to Drop the Bomb”; “The Seas of Zanzibar” and “Skin Deep,” both for the Discovery Channel; and “Holocaust on Trial” for PBS.

Holm was married four times, first to Lynn Mary Shaw. His second wife was film still photographer Sophie Baker. Their marriage ended in 1986. Holm married Wilton in 1991, and divorced in 2001.

He is survived by his fourth wife, artist Sophie de Stempel, whom he married in 2003; three daughters, Jessica, Sarah-Jane, who did some film acting, and Melissa, a casting director; and two sons, Barnaby, who acted as a child, and Harry, a filmmaker who makes music videos.

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Originally published