Nigel Hawthorne, 72; British Actor, Oscar Nominee in 1994


Sir Nigel Hawthorne, an award-winning stage actor who received a best actor Oscar nomination for his vivid portrayal of the title role in the 1994 film “The Madness of King George,” has died. He was 72.

Hawthorne, who achieved his first taste of fame playing the Machiavellian civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby in the popular 1980s British television series “Yes, Minister,” died of a heart attack Wednesday at his home in Hertfordshire, north of London. Hawthorne was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his pancreas last year and had undergone chemotherapy, said his agent, Ken McReddie.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 28, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday December 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Hawthorne obituary--A reference to the obituary of actor Nigel Hawthorne on the front of Thursday’s California section noted incorrectly that he had won an Academy Award for “The Madness of King George.” In fact, Hawthorne was nominated but did not win in the best actor category.

Major recognition came relatively late in Hawthorne’s career.


He was 50 before he co-starred in “Yes, Minister,” the satirical series in which he played the devious, stiff-lipped principal aide to a befuddled cabinet minister. The series was a hit in more than 50 countries and led to the sequel, “Yes, Prime Minister,” in which the hapless politician winds up at 10 Downing Street.

The two series--the latter reportedly then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s favorite program--ran from 1980 to 1987.

Hawthorne, a versatile actor who could play everything from farce to Shakespearean tragedy, won a Tony Award in 1991 for his portrayal of writer C.S. Lewis in the play “Shadowlands” on Broadway.

He followed that triumph by sweeping his country’s major theatrical awards for his starring role in “The Madness of George III,” Alan Bennett’s prize-winning play about the mentally tormented 18th-century British monarch.

Hawthorne’s reprisal of the role in director Nicholas Hytner’s screen version, “The Madness of King George,” earned the actor international recognition--at age 65.

Praising the film as “one of the triumphs of the year,” Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote that “this is due in great measure to Nigel Hawthorne’s work as the deranged monarch, a heroic performance that enlarges our understanding of what acting can accomplish.”

Born in Coventry, England, in 1929, Hawthorne moved with his family to Cape Town, South Africa, when he was 2. The son of a doctor--a distant, authoritarian figure--Hawthorne made his stage debut in a Cape Town production of “The Shop at Sly Corner” in 1950.

He sold insurance briefly but, determined to be an actor, moved to London in 1951.

It was tough going and, Hawthorne later said, his parents gave him neither financial nor moral support. He spent most of his time knocking on agents’ doors and often found himself so immobilized by fear that he would be unable to finish auditions. And although he later worked as an understudy for more than 18 months, he was never called on to perform.

In 1957, a defeated Hawthorne returned to South Africa.

Returned to England

“It was an admission of total failure,” he recalled in an interview with London’s Evening Standard in 1999. “My dad had said, ‘You can always come back, you know.’ But because we didn’t really get on I used to say, ‘No, I bloody well won’t.’ And then I did.”

But he continued acting in Cape Town, and in 1963, he returned to England, where he slowly began to build his career, first in small repertory companies and with occasional work in British television, until “Yes, Minister” made him a household name.

With the unexpected success of the series, Hawthorne initially chose to quit doing stage work.

“I thought, what a relief I don’t have to do any more of that,” he once recalled. “Then you realize, however easy television seems by comparison, theater is the only thing that gives you stature. That’s how you develop.”

Despite the adulation and artistic and financial rewards that later came his way, Hawthorne reportedly fought a lifelong battle to control feelings of inadequacy.

While portraying Sir Humphrey Appleby before a studio audience, he told the London Daily Mail in 1994, he had to rely on medication to cope with acute nervousness brought on by his insecurities.

A soft-spoken, gentle man, Hawthorne described himself as “a quiet, private person with nothing very much to say to anyone.”

“I went into acting because I was hiding from myself, and although acting has become more of a habit now, I think I am still hiding. . . . As the years have gone by, I have become more confident, but I’m still not completely at ease with myself.”

In 1999, the same year he starred in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s millennium production of “King Lear,” Hawthorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

He is survived by his longtime companion, Trevor Bentham.