Primarily a New York-based actor since the '40s, Michael Higgins' film appearances were relatively limited until the late '70s -- but that didn't stop him from doing some exceptional and memorable work on the big and small screens. Born in Brooklyn, he attended St. Michael's High School in the middle and late '30s, which was where he was first bitten by the acting bug -- while in his teens, he ended up joining the Shakespeare Fellowship of America, a semi-professional performing group that performed the Bard's plays in high schools.
His theatrical aspirations were interrupted by the Second World War, during which Higgins served with the 337th Infantry in Italy, where he was wounded in combat and achieved the rank of lieutenant, and earned a Bronze Star as well as the Purple Heart. After the war, he resumed his career and made his Broadway debut with Katharine Cornell in Candida in 1946. His subsequent Broadway credits included Antigone, The Lark, and Romeo and Juliet, and he also became a familiar figure on the off-Broadway stage, in productions of Doctor Faustus, White Devil, The First Year, and The Crucible, the latter in the role of John Proctor opposite Barbara Barrie as Elizabeth Proctor. His other theatrical credits included J.B., which he did on tour with Basil Rathbone in 1959 and 1960. Apart from a few isolated instances -- an early appearance in Joseph Henaberry's 1948 documentary Shades of Gray, and a lead performance in Irving Lerner's independently produced crime drama Edge of Fury (1958) -- Higgins didn't start working in movies until he had 25 years under his belt in theater. He did do lots of television, however, including some exceptional performances on anthology shows such as Omnibus, Playhouse 90, Studio One, One Step Beyond, and The Outer Limits ("The Mice," playing the too-trusting lead scientist), and even managed one major sitcom appearance, on The Andy Griffith Show (in "Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting," a much-watched episode that featured a return appearance by co-star Don Knotts). Generally, however, he was associated with more serious vehicles -- John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune, writing of his portrayal of Hector in The Iliad, in the 1955 season opener of Omnibus, called Higgins "easily the best actor on the premises." He racked up exceptional reviews on the stage throughout the '50s and '60s, including a memorable turn as Macbeth at the 1962 New York Shakespeare Festival. From 1969 onward, starting with Elia Kazan's The Arrangement, Higgins began appearing regularly on the big screen, in important supporting roles and the occasional lead, such as in Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970), working with such diverse talents as Francis Ford Coppola in The Conversation (1974), Bryan Forbes in The Stepford Wives (1975), and Woody Allen in New York Stories (1989), and in cult favorites such as King of the Gypsies (1978) as well as mega-hits like The Black Stallion (1979). All of this was interspersed with occasional returns to television in vehicles such as James Goldstone's Kent State (1981). Indeed, television audiences of the 21st century may know Higgins best for his award-caliber guest performances in two episodes of the series Law & Order, in "In Memory Of," in which he played a man hiding an unspeakably brutal, decades-old crime that he committed against a 10-year-old boy, who is willing to sacrifice even his own daughter's mental health to protect himself; and "Ramparts," playing a retired campus security guard implicated in a 35-year-old shooting who discovers that he was himself an unintended victim of a subterfuge by the very forces of law-and-order that he thought he was protecting. Michael Higgins made both episodes memorable by his presence and performances, in roles evoking widely divergent levels of sympathy.