Ian Holm, a virtuosic British actor celebrated for his performances in plays by Shakespeare and Harold Pinter and in movies from “The Sweet Hereafter” to the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, died on Friday in a London hospital, said Isabella Riggs, an employee of his agents, Markham, Froggatt & Irwin. He was 88.
The cause was an illness related to Parkinson’s disease, she added.
A character actor who eventually also played leading roles, Mr. Holm had a kind of magical malleability, with a range that went from the sweet-tempered to the psychotic. In the theater he ran the gamut of Shakespeare from the high-spirited Prince Hal to the tormented King Lear, and he left his firm imprint on two roles in Mr. Pinter’s “The Homecoming”: the sleek, entrepreneurial Lenny and his autocratic father, Max.
In films he incarnated characters of diverse geographic origin and nature, including a tough New York cop in “Night Falls on Manhattan,” a big-city negligence lawyer in “The Sweet Hereafter” and a bohemian genius manqué in the title role in “Joe Gould’s Secret.” Exploring the world of fantasy, he was a malfunctioning robot in “Alien” and the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Return of the King” from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Explaining his ability to immerse himself in such disparate characters, he said simply, “I’m a chameleon.” The transformation was emotional as well as physical, as he discovered new depths of compassion even in the most unlikely characters.
In 1993, overcoming a serious case of stage fright, he returned to the theater after more than 15 years to star in Mr. Pinter’s “Moonlight.” Four years later he set himself the monumental challenge of “King Lear” at the National Theater in London, winning the Laurence Olivier award as best actor. He said that playing Lear was “like climbing Everest with no oxygen.”
In 1989 he played Fluellen in the film of “Henry V.” In his memoir, Kenneth Branagh, the director and star of the movie, said of Mr. Holm: “Acting with him was like playing a racket game with someone very much more skilled. One was never sure how the ball would come back, but it would always be exciting and unexpected.”
“He is a master of film technique,” Mr. Branagh continued. “I’d heard the Ian Holm School of Acting described as follows: ‘Anything you can do, I can do less of.’”
But it was with Mr. Pinter’s work he was most closely identified. In 1965 he created the role of Lenny in “The Homecoming,” and he won a Tony Award when the play went on Broadway two years later. He also played the role in the 1973 film version, directed by Peter Hall.
Years later, in 2001, he took the role of Max, the aging patriarch, in the same play, presenting it at the Harold Pinter festival at Lincoln Center and in London. The switch was as dramatic as his move from Prince Hal to King Lear. In fact, his Max had more than a touch of Lear.
Ian Holm Cuthbert was born Sept. 12, 1931, in Goodmayes, England. Because his father was a doctor and the superintendent of a mental hospital, he was fond of saying that he was born “in a loony bin,” hinting that it qualified him to be an actor. Holm was his mother’s maiden name.
After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he made his stage debut at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1954 as a spear carrier in “Othello.” He was a member of the Shakespeare company there for two years, then made his London debut in 1956 in “Love Affair.”
Returning to Stratford with the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company, he quickly moved up in the ranks, along with Judi Dench, Ian Richardson and Diana Rigg, among others. He played Sebastian in “Twelfth Night,” Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Fool to Charles Laughton’s Lear.
Mr. Holm added Chekhov to his laurels in 1961. In a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “The Cherry Orchard,” starring Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Judi Dench and Dorothy Tutin, he played Trofimov. In his biography “Peggy Ashcroft,” Michael Billington wrote that Alec Guinness told him that Mr. Holm’s Trofimov — “intense, urgent, on the brink of neurosis” — was “very much the kind of performance” that Guinness would have liked to have given when he played the role in 1939.
In 1963, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “The War of the Roses,” Mr. Holm was a psychopathic Richard III. Subsequently he shifted to Prince Hal and his older incarnation as Henry V, which he did in repertory with “The Homecoming.” Mr. Hall, again the director, said, “The company of actors, led by Peggy Ashcroft and Ian Holm, had made something live that had never lived before.”
Mr. Holm’s first films, both in 1968, were “The Fixer,” directed by John Frankenheimer, and Peter Hall’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which he played Puck. In 1981 he was nominated for an Academy Award for playing an Olympic trainer in “Chariots of Fire.” His other films included “Time Bandits” (as Napoleon), “The Fifth Element,” “Big Night,” “Brazil,” “The Madness of King George” and “Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’
On television Mr. Holm did “The Browning Version,” “The Borrowers,” “Murder by the Book” (he was Hercule Poirot to Ms. Ashcroft’s Agatha Christie) and “The Last of the Blond Bombshells” (with Ms. Dench).
In 1976, at the height of his career, he was cast as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh,” one of the most demanding of contemporary roles. During previews he suffered from stage fright so acute that it was later characterized as a breakdown. He left the production and, unable to perform in the theater, he concentrated on films and television, gathering a reputation for being outstanding in small roles in movies that included “Dance With a Stranger,” “Greystoke,” “Dreamchild” and “A Life Less Ordinary.”
After many years of avoiding the theater, he was asked what it would take for him to return to the stage. He answered, “Well, maybe if Harold Pinter wrote a new play and asked me to be in it, it would be an offer I couldn’t refuse.” That is what happened.
In “Moonlight” he played an angry, bitter man facing death. Having triumphed once again in a Pinter play, he then did “Lear.” Preparing for the role, he worked intensively with the voice coach Patsy Rodenburg, investigating, in her words, “the manifestations of his fear.”
When Mr. Holm opened in “Lear,” it turned out to be a defining moment in his career, bringing him rapturous notices. Piercing to the heart of the character as king and father, he exposed all his emotions, and at a crucial point, mad on the heath, he dropped his cloak to reveal an old man’s nudity. The production was later presented on television.
He was Frodo Baggins in the 1981 BBC radio version of “The Lord of the Rings,” but, later in his career, Mr. Holm was much better known for playing another hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, in the highly successful “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogies. These were roles he was naturally suited to, not just because of his acting skill, but also his small stature. (He was 5 foot 5 inches, a perfect height for a hobbit.)
“I’m completely amazed by the reaction that the films have had,” he told The Independent newspaper in 2004. “I get a lot of fan mail addressed to Bilbo and sometimes Sir Bilbo,” he said. “It’s hardly ever addressed to Ian Holm.” He made sure to sign replies with his character’s name, he added.
He was survived by Sophie de Stempel, his fourth wife; five children; and eight grandchildren, Ms. Riggs, of his agency, said.
Reflecting on his two primary theatrical sources, Shakespeare and Mr. Pinter, Mr. Holm said that they were equally difficult to perform. Carefully choosing his words, he added, “You need so much control for all that stillness and discipline.”
Mel Gussow, a critic and cultural reporter for The Times, died in 2005. Alex Marshall contributed reporting.
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