Six bottles of Guinness and Joan Littlewood changed Nigel Hawthorne’s life forever, the late actor claims in the lively autobiography he wrote while battling cancer and completed just days before dying last Dec. 26. “I owe everything to her,” he says of legendary British director Littlewood, who also died recently, crediting her for his career.
Probably best known worldwide through his performances in the 10-year TV series “Yes, Minister”‘ and “Yes, Prime Minister” as well as the “Mapp and Lucia” series, Hawthorne was born in Coventry, England, in 1929 and moved to Cape Town, South Africa with his family when he was four. He was educated and began his acting career there, a local producer telling him that “I was a character actor and that it would be many years before I would make my mark.”
And so it was. Those were formative years that Hawthorne evokes affectionately, just as he does his doctor father, mother and siblings.
He was 22 when he left Cape Town to try his luck in London. But he didn’t have much, and after six years of provincial rep and other less than starry jobs (including house-cleaning) he returned to South Africa in 1957. Among his roles back there was one in the English revue “Beyond the Fringe,” at the end of the highly successful run of which he returned to London in 1962 for a second try.
Hawthorne’s luck changed magnificently when he downed six bottles of Guiness before auditioning for a role in a production of Littlewood’s hit “Oh! What a Lovely War” planned for a tour of England and Europe, and was cast.
This led to his invaluable relationship with Littlewood and his career blossomed, leading to highly rewarding work on stage, screen and television.
Along the way Hawthorne was coping with his inability to find a suitable life partner (for many years he lived with a man who depended upon him for emotional support but was not a lover). Around 1978 he fell “sensibly in love” for the first time in his life and settled into a highly successful relationship with Trevor Bentham who wrote this autobiography’s touching epilogue (as well as the screenplay for the 1995 Miramax movie “A Month By The Lake”‘). Hawthorne writes both seriously and amusingly about the two men being outed in 1994 (note his book’s title) just before the Oscar ceremony at the time of his “King George” nomination. He’s also pretty funny about the ceremony itself, which they attended with their old friend Loretta Swit, and the bun-fights following it, at which the three couldn’t find a thing to eat.
Fiercely loyal to his friends, Hawthorne wasn’t afraid to be critical of others. He added his criticism to the recent deluge hurled at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in his case because of their complete lack of sensitivity to everyone when he was playing King Lear for them in a production that wasn’t well received critically but was a box-office bonanza. He wasn’t too keen on Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes either when he appeared with them in the film “Demolition Man,” referring to the experience as “miserable” as the two thoughtless stars kept everyone waiting.
But all told this is an upbeat book, liberally illustrated with photographs, by a man who, after a slow start to his acting career and love life, found success, fulfillment and happiness before cancer struck him down. His final job, performed while on painkillers, was as Santa in Whoopi Goldberg’s Christmas TV special “Call Me Claus.” It was a hit, and he loved Whoopi.