Nigel Hawthorne

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Nigel Hawthorne (1929-2001) [1] was a British-born stage, film and TV actor and director.


Born Nigel Barnard Hawthorne in Coventry, England, the son of Agnes Rosemary (née Rice) and Charles Barnard Hawthorne, a physician. The family came to Cape Town in 1932. He grew up in central Cape Town (no 80 Queen Victoria Street) and later in Camps Bay, and was educated at St George's Grammar School, Cape Town and Christian Brothers College, Green Point. After a short stint in the Southern Life Insurance Company, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a BA course, with a diploma in "broadcasting". He later also attended acting classes with his friend Jobie Stewart. He did some amateur acting, and two professionmal shows before dropping out in his second year of University and going to the United Kingdom in the 1951 determined to pursue a career in acting.

Here he met Bruce Palmer, who would be his partner in a tempestuous relationship for over 25 years. He and Bruce came to South Africa in 1957 at the behest of Leonard Schach, since his career was not taking off and he had to do stage management, house-cleaning and other jobs to pay his way. Here he would appear in local productions between 1957 and 1961, before returning to London.(See further the section on his South African period below)

He left South Africa permanently for London in 1962, only returning to visit his family on occasion, and began to build a long, varied and highly successful career as actor for stage, film and TV in England. In 1968 he met the stage manager and scriptwriter Trevor Bentham[2], who would become his life partner for 22 years, till his death in 2001. It was in this period that he was cynically "outed" by the press in the year he had been nominated for an Oscar for The Madness of King George.

His autobiography Straight Face appeared posthumously in 2002.

His stage career

His career started as bit player and stage hand with the Charles Hawtrey company in Buxton, his first appearance being in Murder at the Vicarage (Christie). His first London appearance was in Can't Take it with You in 1951, and he then worked on and off for the next years on a variety of shows, but frustratingly only as bit-part actor, stage hand and so on. Then, in 1957 Leonard Schach offered him the role of "Cliff" in Look Back in Anger for the Cockpit Players in Cape Town and he returned to South Africa.

So, after an interlude of 5 years, he was back in South Africa, he returned in 1962 and and went on to play numerous roles over the years, among them Macbeth, **, ** The Madness of George III (Bennett) and, in his final production , King Lear (2001).

His film and TV career

This was equally remarkable, and perhaps the aspect best known in South Africa. He began with an advert for Mackeson stout and a bit part in Dad's Army, then went on to one of his most famous roles as Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary of the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in the television series Yes Minister (and Cabinet Secretary in its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister), for which he won four BAFTA awards.

His film career started slowly, culminating in the role of King George III in The Madness of King George, the filmed version of Alan Bennett's stage play, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Hawthorne was also a voice artist and lent his voice to two Disney films, "Fflewddur Fflam" in The Black Cauldron (1985) and "Professor Porter" in Tarzan (1999).

His contribution to South African theatre

While at school he began performing, often for an amateur group in Camps Bay led by Mary Fenton. The plays included The Late Christopher Bean (Emlyn Williams)and The Astonished Heart (Coward).

He performed in or worked as assistant stage manager on a number of plays in the Little Theatre at University, besides making radio programmes for his diploma course in "broadcasting" (with student friends such as Cecil Jubber). Among the productions were an English Department production of Twelfth Night (1949?*) and a number of plays staged and directed by Leonard Schach, including The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, 1949), Cockpit (Boland, 1949), and Home of the Brave (Arthur Laurent - Hawthorne's first paid performance, 1949).

Now he was invited to join the Brian Brooke Company company at the Hofmeyr Theatre as a professional, working as assistant stage manager, publicity manager, and bit-part actor, as required. He appeared as actor for them in The Shop at Sly Corner (Edward Percy, 1950), Edward My Son (Noel Langley and Robert Morley, 1950) and Charley's Aunt.

He starred in Leonard Schach’s Cockpit Players production of Basil Warner’s Try for White, which opened in 1959 at the Pretoria Opera House before moving to the Intimate Theatre for the remainder of their highly successful run. It also starred Marjorie Gordon, Zoë Randall, Michael Turner. Joyce Grant and Fiona Fraser replaced Minna Millsten and Heather Lloyd-Jones respectively, from the Cape Town cast. He starred in A Long Day's Journey into Night at the Intimate Theatre for the Cockpit Players, together with John McKelvey, Joan Blake and Leon Gluckman in 1959. He starred in Thornton Wilder’s lively period-New York comedy, The Matchmaker, which was staged by the Cockpit Players in 1959. He played in the Cockpit Players productions of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Paddy Chayefsky’s prizewinning The Tenth Man at the Playhouse in 1961 with actors Michael McGovern and Siegfried Mynhardt.

After this he left the country permanently in 1962, working mainly in England and Hollywood (see above) and only returned for work briefly in 1995, to make the film Inside with director Arthur Penn.


He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1987, and was knighted in 1999.


Hawthorne, 2002.

[[Inskip, 1972.

Schach, 1996.

Tucker, 1997.

Wikipedia [3]

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