Denholm Elliott; Veteran Character Actor


Denholm Elliott, veteran British character actor who proved as adept in front of a Hollywood camera as on the London stage, died Tuesday. He was 70.

Elliott died of the complications of AIDS at his home in Ibiza, Spain, his agent, Jean Diamond, announced in London.

With his familiar creased face, Elliott is remembered for such roles as Mr. Emerson in the 1985 low-budget film “A Room With a View,” which won him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He also appeared in the three Indiana Jones films.


Active until quite recently, he performed earlier this year as the burglar in a film based on the raucous British play “Noises Off.” Last year he portrayed George Smiley, author John le Carre’s British super-spy, for PBS’ season opener of Masterpiece Theater, titled “Murder of Quality.”

One of his best-known roles was the sarcastic butler in the 1983 comedy “Trading Places,” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

Respected as a serious actor as well as comedic one, Elliott was also memorably cast as the noble, humorless philanthropist Jarndyce in a 1985 television adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.”

“I’ve always been much happier playing character parts,” Elliott once told The Times. “There’s something two-dimensional about leading men.”

Elliott, who was born into a family of lawyers, began his study of theater at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He lasted a single term.

“They wrote a letter to my parents,” he told The Times, “which said, ‘You are wasting our time and your money; please take the little fellow away.’ ”

He was far from disappointed, recalling: “I disliked it intensely there. It was all filled with acting students who thought they were so grand and knew it all. It made me feel ridiculously stupid.”

On his 18th birthday at the outset of World War II, Elliott joined the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. He was shot down in 1942 and spent the next three years in a German prison camp--learning how to act by performing Shakespeare and other classics in camp shows.

Elliott launched his theatrical career in 1946, and three years later appeared with Laurence Olivier in “Venus Observ’d.” His first American role was as twins in “Ring Around the Moon.”

Elliott made his film debut in 1948 in “Dear Mr. Prohack,” quickly followed by “The Sound Barrier” in 1949.

He appeared regularly in dozens of plays, films and television shows, rarely doing much preparation for his roles.

“I always think instinct is more interesting than anything you can think up,” he told The Times last year. “I mistrust and am rather bored with actors who are of the Stanislavski (method) school who think about detail. God almighty. Children just do it when they act. I think we should too--jump in and do it.”

Elliott’s first marriage to actress Virginia McKenna ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Susan Robinson, a son, Mark, and daughter, Jennifer.