Sir Ian Holm is one of those actors whose ubiquity you only realize after his passing.
On television, film, and the stage, Holm filled a career with iconic rolls of all stripes. From the dastardly King John in Robin and Marian, to the bumbling space priest in The Fifth Element, to numerous supporting roles in iconic films such as Brazil and Alien, Holm celebrated a career of tremendous achievement. We honor his legacy with three of our favorite roles from the seasoned actor.
Ian Holm (Sep. 1931-Jun. 2020)
Born in Essex county in the east of England to Scottish parents, Holm studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he graduated from in 1953 after a brief interruption for service in the British Army.
His early stage work for the Royal Shakespeare Company led to television roles as Richard III, and film roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His early success lay in television and radio (even playing Frodo Baggins in a BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings…presaging his iconic turn as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s six film adaptations).
In 1979 he scored his big break-out role in Hollywood as a duplicitous android in Ridley Scott’s Alien, and scored an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Chariots of Fire. He would score numerous awards and nominations during his career, from the Oscars to the Emmy’s, his last being the Annie Award for the animated film Ratatoiulle.
After overcoming prostate cancer in 2001, he succumbed to a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 88 on June 19, 2020.
The Serious Pick: Chariots of Fire (1981)
This historical drama tells the story of two very different British runners – Harold Abrahams, a Jewish collegiate athlete competing to disprove prejudice, and Eric Liddell, a Christian missionary running for the glory of his God. Both men overcome hurdles to win gold medals as the 1924 Olympics.
Holms plays Abrahams’ coach in a role which won him a nomination for best supporting Actor. Re-watching the film decades later, you come away impressed with the subtle but intense physicality Holm brought to the role. His performance takes the best of stage theater traditions and deftly translates it to the big screen.
The Lighthearted Pick: Ratatouille (2007)
A plucky young chef and culinary rodent team up to revive the reputation of a once great restaurant, that has fallen into disrepute due to a cynical head chef.
Ratatouille stands out as one of Pixar’s oddest stories, yet the film feels firmly in line with Disney’s 1990’s renaissance. The atmosphere recalls hits like Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while its comedy feels more in line with genial children’s classics like The Mouse and the Motorcycle or The Borrowers. Holm plays the film’s antagonist, Skinner, a chef bereft of ideas who schemes to steal our heroes’ success. In a catalogue filled with delightfully villainous characters, Holm gets to lean into the role to great effect.
The Unconventional Pick: The Madness of King George (1994)
After the loss of the American colonies, King George III of England begins to succumb to a mysterious madness, which sets off a power struggle in the court. An unorthodox physician is recruited to treat the monarch, and eventually his strict methods bear fruit.
The Madness of King George is one of my all time favorite films. Nigel Hawethorne gives a tremendous performance as King George III. Playing a flamboyantly mad monarch would seem like an actor’s dream, and Hawthorne certainly brings gusto to the king’s fits. He also provides a heartbreaking look at the man beneath the crown in his lucid moments, humiliated, infuriated, and frightened.
Ian Holm plays the doctor who treats him, with what would today be seen as horrific treatments. His doctrinaire manner and cold demeanor could easily come off as a purely villainous role, but again we see the humanity beneath it. He believes his harsh methods will save the king, and he’s willing to go to any lengths to do so.
The Madness of King George boasts a stellar supporting cast, with Helen Mirren, Rupert Graves, and other established British stars. Director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible) strips his magnificent sets of splendor, using lighting and muted color to evoke the rot underlying the court. For all its bleakness, the film has a redemptive arc to it. You struggle through the morass – sometimes comical, often tragic – and come out on the other side the better for it.
- Robin and Marian (1976) – an early career hit, playing the villain against Sean Connery as Robin and Katherine Hepburn as Marian.
- Alien (1979) – Holm played the iconic synthetic human, Ash, in Ridley Scot’s franchise-launching classic.
- Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) – One of the best Tarzan adaptations, and definitely Christopher Lambert’s strongest leading roles.
- Brazil (1985) – Holm’s second collaboration with Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits being the other).
- Hamlet (1990) – While not quite as big as Kenneth Branagh’s version, Mel Gibson’s Hamlet included a stellar cast.
- The Fifth Element (1997) – Holm had several supporting comedy gems, including this action comedy opposite Bruce Willis.
- The Lord of the Rings (2001) – While Holm’s Bilbo had minimal screen time, his engaging performance went a long way towards informing Martin Freeman’s take on the character for The Hobbit trilogy.