John Rhys-Davies is one of modern cinema's most recognizable character actors. While best known for his work as Indiana Jones' (Harrison Ford) comic sidekick, Sallah, in two of Paramount's Indiana Jones adventure films, the actor has appeared in over 100 television shows and films since the early '70s. He has built an impressive onscreen career, especially for a stage actor who once swore that he would never perform in front of a camera.
Born in Wales on May 5, 1944, Rhys-Davies grew up in England, Wales, and East Africa. He studied English and History at the University of East Anglia at Norwich, where he became interested in theater while reading classical literature. Upon graduating, Rhys-Davies earned a scholarship to study acting at London's prestigious Academy of Dramatic Art. He then worked briefly as a schoolteacher before joining the Madder-Market Theatre in Norwich. The actor, who eventually advanced to the Royal Shakespeare Company, performed in over 100 plays. His theatrical credits include starring roles in Shakespeare's Othello, The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Henry the Fourth, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and Moliere's The Misanthrope.
Rhys-Davies was 28 when he made his television debut in 1972 as Laughing Spam Fritter in the BBC's Budgie, a comedy starring former British pop star Adam Faith as an amusing ne'er-do-well. In 1975, he joined John Hurt in the cast of the television show The Naked Civil Servant, which chronicled the rich life of Quentin Crisp. One year later, Rhys-Davies re-teamed with Hurt, as well as Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart, for the BBC's unforgettable three-part adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Titled I, Claudius, the television miniseries appeared on PBS's Masterpiece Theater and gave American audiences their first glimpse of the actor. He subsequently starred as Vasco Rodrigues in NBC's adaptation of James Clavell's Shogun, which told the adventures of an English sailor stranded in Japan during the early 17th century. Rhys-Davies' performance earned him both an Emmy nomination and the attention of director Steven Spielberg.
In 1981, Spielberg cast Rhys-Davies as the comic, fez-wearing Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first installment of the Indiana Jones movies. The film was an instant success and Rhys-Davies' comedic skill made Sallah an audience favorite. He went on to film Victor/Victoria (1982) with Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, Leslie Ann Warren, and former pro-football player Alex Karras.
For the next two decades, the actor worked on numerous films and television shows and made memorable guest appearances on ChiPs, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Murder, She Wrote, Perry Mason, Tales From the Crypt, Star Trek: Voyager, and The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. In 1987, he portrayed Front de Boeuf in the television adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe that starred James Mason and Sam Neill. That same year, he played the evil Russian General Koskov in the Timothy Dalton-helmed James Bond film The Living Daylights. 1989 saw Rhys-Davies playing Joe Gargery in the Disney Channel's adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations, starring in the miniseries version of War and Remembrance with Robert Mitchum, David Dukes, and Jane Seymour, and returning as Sallah in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 1990, he wrote and starred in the safari adventure film Tusks. In 1991, he hosted the documentary Archaeology. In 1993, he signed onto the series The Untouchables, based on Brian De Palma's hit film. The show was short-lived and Rhys-Davies did not work on a successful television series until 1995's Sliders with Jerry O'Connell. The sci-fi venture accrued a rather large fan base: Audience members were openly upset when Rhys-Davies' character, the bombastic Professor Maximillian P. Arturo, left the series after only three seasons.
After appearing with Damon Wayans in The Great White Hype (1996), Rhys-Davies recorded voice work for the animated films Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996) and Cats Don't Dance (1997). The actor has done additional voice work for Animaniacs, Batman: the Animated Series, Gargoyles, Pinky and the Brain, The Fantastic Four, and The Incredible Hulk. He has also branched out to other medias, starring in video games such as Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Dune 2000, and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and the CD-ROM game Quest for Glory IV.
In 1999, Rhys-Davies read for the minor character of Denethor in the second installment of Peter Jackson's highly anticipated three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson offered him the role of the warrior dwarf Gimli, a major figure in all three pictures. As Gimli, Rhys-Davies is utterly unrecognizable: The part required that he wear heavy facial prosthetics and perform on his knees in order to portray the 4'2" dwarf (the actor, himself, is over six feet tall). The three films -- The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003) -- were shot simultaneously over an 18-month period in New Zealand, after which Rhys-Davies was asked to return to the set and record the voice of Treebeard, a computer-generated character in the second picture.
In 2001, in the midst of attending press junkets for the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, Rhys-Davies began work on the Jackie Chan film Highbinders (2002) and the Eric Roberts B-picture Endangered Species (2002). Besides being an actor, Rhys-Davies is also a serious vintage car collector and a thriving investor. In the '80s, he invested heavily with his earnings and purchased a company that conducts genetic engineering feasibility studies. The actor resides in both Los Angeles and the Isle of Man.