Ian Holm, actor

Born: September 12, 1931;

Died: June 19, 2020.

SIR IAN Holm, who was regarded as one of the finest theatre actors of his generation, and who starred in major films such as Alien, Chariots of Fire and The Lord of the Rings, has died aged 88, from an illness related to Parkinson’s disease.

He considered himself a Scot, as his father James Cuthbert, a doctor, and his mother, Jean Holm, a nurse, were from the Helensburgh area. He simply felt Scottish, but he suggested in his autobiography, Acting My Life, that the dry, unemotional Presbyterian home in which he grew up somehow contributed to his “lack of obvious personality.”

“Maybe my mother’s lack of engagement with the world was actually a way of holding herself together; my father’s habit of closing himself off from people a defensive mechanism designed to protect himself from otherwise disturbing incursions into his mind?”, he asked. Paradoxically, perhaps, being taught to contain feelings helped him to become an actor. He grew up, he says, a man in search of a character.

He was not a natural performer while he was growing up in Ilford, Essex; it wasn’t until he attended Chigwell Grammar school that he was coaxed into appearing in a play. A stint in am-dram followed and a local actor encouraged him to apply for RADA in 1950.

As Holm once observed, “There’s a gaping hole in the middle of all of us so that everything becomes a bit of a performance, a reaction to the sense of lack. Life itself is a kind of performance. Putting on a show of being something is less painful than doing nothing, being nothing.”

Was it his upbringing that created this sense of “being nothing” and having an inner vacancy? Or was he simply wired that way? Whatever, this heightened introspection would go on to serve him well.

He began playing spear-carriers at Stratford in 1954 and his small stature, vocal precision and sense of mischief made him a natural comedian. This led to his being cast as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as the Fool to Charles Laughton’s Lear in 1959. He studied, hard, “watching and falling in love” with the talent of Laurence Olivier at close quarters in Titus Andronicus, (“a synthesis of technique and emotion”) and developed as a dramatic actor.

He also fell in love with Lynne Shaw, who worked in the wardrobe department; he shocked her – and himself – by asking her to marry him after just two weeks. They went on to have two daughters but they divorced in 1965 after he had begun an affair with 17 year-old wardrobe assistant, Bee Gilbert.

Ian Holm struggled with the role of Contented Husband. Falling in love was a comfort to him, he wrote. “My drug was not LSD or marijuana but romance. And sex was tangible proof that I was worth something.”

With Gilbert he had a son and a daughter. T hey remained together until 1976. “While others [actors] misbehaved I tended to marry, or at least embark on a long relationship, though neither necessarily excluded bad behaviour,” Holm once said. Throughout his life he had a long series of affairs, always searching for the next relationship while hanging onto the remains of the last one.

He was doing well in his stage career but misfortune struck him in 1976. During rehearsals for an RSC revival of The Iceman Cometh at the Aldwych Theatre, he was struck by a paralysing terror. He was found curled up in his dressing-room, unable to go on stage. Psychiatrists were called upon. The actor partly blamed his relationship crises, and guilt at having let his children down.

It was all hard to comprehend, given that he had been a leading figure at the RSC, had won an Evening Standard award for his Henry V; Harold Pinter considered him his favourite actor. He resolved to work more in film – a move supported by critics who believed the medium suited his quiet stillness and the intensity in his eyes.

His playing of Ash, the android, in Alien (1979) was mesmerising. During Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) director Hugh Hudson was in tears watching Holm shoot a scene in which he shows Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) how to use a razor. “He turned the words into something comic and magical and extremely moving”.

Hudson adds: “Someone told me that Laurence Olivier once came up to him and said: ‘How do you do it?’” Ian had these amazing little inflections, incidental bits of performance genius. It’s striking that an actor like Olivier, the opposite of Ian in style, was so impressed.”

Holm’s film success continued within the likes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). He won a BAFTA award and was Oscar-nominated for best supporting actor in Chariots of Fire (1981). There were numerous other film projects, large and small. He would voice a key character in the Pixar/Disney hit, Ratatouille, while his role of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-laden The Lord of the Rings made him familiar to millions of movie-goers. His stage awards included the Olivier Best Actor accolade for King Lear.

Holm was certainly made happy by the partners in his life but true happiness came from his career. “The one thing that settles this dizziness is work,” he once acknowledged. “Acting is what makes me complete. It stands in for life itself.”

“For me, he is the genius who invented contemporary Shakespeare acting,” said Sir Trevor Nunn, the theatre director. Anne-Marie Duff, who played Cordelia to his Lear, loved working with Lear. “Ian was very mischievous, which made him feel super-young. He was cheeky, but there was nothing lascivious about him. He was funny – which I think is insanely attractive.”

Ian Holm is survived by his fourth wife, Sophie de Stempel, his five children from previous relationships, as well as his third wife, the actor Penelope Wilton.