A staple of the British stage for nearly a quarter of a century before he gained his first significant measure of international notice, Nigel Hawthorne has had one of the acting profession's more slow-burning careers. However, it has been an undeniably distinguished career marked with any number of critical peaks, perhaps most notably his brilliant, Oscar-nominated title performance in Nicholas Hytner's 1994 adaptation of Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George.
Born in Coventry on April 5, 1929, Hawthorne grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where he moved with his family at the age of four. After attending the University of Cape Town, where he started acting, he returned to England in 1951. Determined to pursue an acting career, Hawthorne slogged away for years in relative obscurity, oftentimes hovering precipitously close to complete bankruptcy. His early career proved to be so disappointing that the actor returned to Cape Town for a time, but he ultimately returned to England to try his luck all over again. His second attempt was thankfully more successful than his first, and although it would be years before he would be duly appreciated, he did enjoy some measure of success in London's West End.
Hawthorne's first helping of international acclaim came with his portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby on the popular British television series Yes, Minister during the '80s. His work on the political satire earned him a number of BAFTA awards and such fame in his native country that he was on occasion mistaken for being an actual politician, even, reportedly, by Queen Elizabeth herself. The actor went on to establish himself as one of Britain's great performers, winning a 1991 Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production of Shadowlands and a 1992 Olivier Award (as well as an Evening Standard Award and a host of other honors) for his title role in the Royal National Theatre's production of The Madness of George the Third. His work in the latter play was adapted to the screen in 1994 with Nicholas Hytner's widely acclaimed The Madness of King George. Again, Hawthorne enjoyed great critical praise for his portrayal of the mentally unbalanced king, earning an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for his rich, manic, and ultimately dignified performance.
Hawthorne, who had been appearing onscreen since 1972's Young Winston, subsequently did starring and supporting work in a number of high profile films, including Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1996), Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), The Object of My Affection (1998), and David Mamet's acclaimed adaptation of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy (1999), which cast Hawthorne as the father of the title character.
The actor, who offscreen has enjoyed a long relationship with writer Trevor Bentham, earned additional recognition for his contributions to film, television, and the theatre when he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1987. In 1999, he was further recognized in the Queen's 1999 New Year's Honours List when he received a much-deserved knighthood.