With a career spanning over 55 years Ian Holm established himself as possibly one of the best-known English actors of his time. From Shakespeare adaptations to historical films, fantasy epics and sci-fi classics and appearing on the big and small screens and as a stage mainstay Sir Ian Holm was a master of his craft who brought to life numerous iconic characters in several franchises making him a household name. A Tony winner, BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee, Holm certainly left his mark on the industry. Sadly, we said goodbye to this incredible performer on June 19, 2020 when he succumbed to his battle with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 88. Today to honor his memory as one of my personal favorite Englishmen to ever grace the big screen I’m taking a look back at his origins and the highlights of his career. This is In Memoriam: Sir Ian Holm.
Sir Ian Holm Cuthbert was born in 1931 in Essex where his father James Harvey Cuthbert served as a psychiatrist and a pioneer in electric shock therapy while his mother, Jean Wilson (née Holm) worked as a nurse. Holm was educated at the Independent Chigwell School in Essex before his parents retired and eventually settled in Worthing where Holm joined an amateur dramatic society officially beginning his career as an actor. Holm eventually came under the tutelage of Shakespearean actor Henry Baynton who helped him earn admission to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the 1950s. After serving a year in the British Army where he earned the rank of Lance Corporal and volunteering with an acting tour in the United States Holm finally graduated the Academy in 1953 and hit the stage for the first time in 1954 in a production of “Othello”. By 1956 he was performing on stage in London with his debut performance in “Love Affair”. Over the next decade he would become a mainstay of the Royal Shakespeare Company before finally breaking in to acting on the big and small screen in the 1960s.
Holm continued to stretch his acting skills in theater productions even earning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role in Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and even became Pinter’s personal favorite actor. By 1968 he made the shift to the big screen appearing in three features released that year, “The Fixer”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Bofors Gun” which won him a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor. The 1970s saw his career truly take off as he appeared in several television plays, movies and series and thirteen feature films including a film version of “The Homecoming”, “Mary, Queen of Scots”, “Jesus of Nazareth” and others. Most importantly this decade would see Holm bring to life his first truly iconic character in pop culture. In 1979 he portrayed Ash, a member of the crew of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic “Alien”. Serving as the main non-alien antagonist and a major part of the big twist reveal Ash helped solidify Holm in mainstream film although it would be far from his last iconic performance.
The 1980s started off with a BBC radio adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” where Holm portrayed Frodo Baggins. He would return to that book series in the 2000s, but more on that later. That same year Holm became the narrator for the British documentary series “Horizon” which served as his longest running commitment in the industry as he remained on the show until 2008. In addition to several more television shows, mini-series and TV movies Holm added several more big-screen features to his filmography throughout the 80s including the iconic science fiction feature “Brazil”, the Shakespeare adaptation “Henry V”, “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan”, and the Academy Award winning “Chariots of Fire”. Holm earned his one and only Oscar nomination for the latter film for Best Supporting Actor and the movie itself has gone on to become an iconic piece of 80s cinema.
The 90s were a slightly less memorable decade for Holm although he did have a few standout performances that helped further his fame. He started with an appearance in Mel Gibson’s adaptation of “Hamlet” and appeared in the 1994 adaptation “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”. Other credits included his first notable voice role in “Animal Farm” and the sci-fi horror film “eXistenZ”. His two most prominent roles from the 90s were both from 1997. That year he played the priest Vito in “The Fifth Element” and lawyer Mitchell Stephens in “The Sweet Hereafter” which both further helped introduce him to mainstream audiences. That same year, 1997, would also see Holm’s final notable theatre appearance in “King Lear” in London which earned him an Emmy nomination after it was broadcast on PBS. He only appeared in three television series during the decade: “Uncle Vanya”, “The Borrowers” and “The Return of the Borrowers”. The best was yet to come for Holm however as the 2000s would become possibly his biggest decade solidifying him as a cinema icon thanks to one character in particular.
After starting the 2000s with appearances in “From Hell” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” Holm would debut possibly his single most iconic character on the big screen, Bilbo Baggins. After playing Frodo in the aforementioned BBC radio adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings”, Holm signed on to play Frodo’s uncle Bilbo in the epic fantasy trilogy by Peter Jackson making him, and the rest of the cast, household names virtually overnight. While he wasn’t present in the second film in the trilogy, he reprised the role in the Best Picture-winning third entry, “Return of the King”. After the trilogy wrapped up Holm spent the final decade of his career further cementing himself as a recognizable big screen performer with features like the blockbuster “The Day After Tomorrow”, the biopic “The Aviator”, and the Pixar animated film “Ratatouille” which was his final film role until the 2010s where Holm appeared in only two pictures reprising his take on Bilbo for two “Hobbit” movies. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” would serve as his swan song on the big screen ending Holm’s cinematic career with he his most iconic role.
Holm was married four times throughout his life, first to Lynn Mary Shaw then to Sophie Baker, later to Penelope Wilton and finally to artist Sophie de Stempel whom he remained with through his death. These marriages and other relationships resulted in five children all of which inherited his last name Holm. The actor spent his last decade and a half battling health issues including prostate cancer in 2001 and later Parkinson’s disease which contributed to his passing. Throughout his career he was honored with numerous awards including from the Cannes Film Festival, his Tony Award and BAFTA Award, numerous critics awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Annie Award just to name a few. He was knighted by the Order of the British Empire in 1989.
While I’ll admit I wasn’t as well versed on Ian Holm’s expanded filmography, I still grew up as a fan of his work thanks to classics of my youth like “Alien”, “The Fifth Element”, and, of course, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy which was released while I was in middle school. As such I found Holm to be one of the most recognizable Englishmen in film along with the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart. Whether you enjoy his work adapting characters from Shakespeare or in iconic masterpieces like “Chariots of Fire” or just appreciate the iconic characters like Ash and Bilbo that he helped bring to life, it’s almost guaranteed that you in some way have an understanding for the talent that Holm brought to his craft. He will be sorely missed but forever remembered thanks to his many iconic contributions to cinematic history.