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Nighy, Bill (1949-)


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One of the most versatile character actors of today, Bill Nighy's recent meteoric rise to household name status should not obscure several decades' worth of interesting work. He was born on December 12th, 1949, in Caterham, and initially worked as a journalist in Paris but failed to become a novelist like his idol Ernest Hemingway. Deciding that his career lay in acting, he enrolled at the Guildford School of Dance and Drama, before joining the famous Liverpool Everyman Theatre in the 1970s.

His screen debut was, inauspiciously, in the Joan Collins vehicle The Bitch (d. Gerry O'Hara, 1979) as a delivery boy. His 1980s screen appearances were limited to bit parts and cameos, some in worthwhile projects such as Richard Marquand's Eye of the Needle (1981), others in artistic dross like the 're-imagining' of Phantom of the Opera as a teen slasher film (US, 1989). His stage work was more distinguished, including appearances at the National Theatre in David Hare's Pravda and King Lear, in both cases opposite Anthony Hopkins. He also, famously, came very close to playing Withnail in Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I (1987).

However, his appearance as a dashingly lecherous academic in the TV drama The Men's Room (BBC, 1991) established him as a believable middle-class professional, as well as showcasing his witty, louche style of underplaying to great comic (and, if necessary, dramatic) effect. He had little to do in Bill Forsyth's ambitious but unsuccessful Being Human (UK/Japan, 1993), but was predictably excellent in small roles as upper-class types in True Blue (d. Ferdinand Fairfax, 1996) and Charles Sturridge's FairyTale: A True Story (UK/US, 1997).

If he had needed a big break, it came with his deliriously funny performance as washed-up, spaced-out rocker Ray Simms in Still Crazy (d. Brian Gibson, 1998). Stealing the show from bigger names such as Billy Connolly, Jimmy Nail and Timothy Spall, he had the pick of the best lines, and deservedly won an Evening Standard Peter Sellers Award for his performance. Yet the film was not a major hit, and so he continued to play supporting roles in his inimitably drawling, laid-back style.

Sometimes this worked superbly, as in his fine semi-comic performance in the unjustly neglected The Lawless Heart (d. Tom Hunsinger/ Neil Hunter, 2001), or his striking cameo as Lord Sandwich in Longitude (ITV, 2000). However, his appearances in such disappointments as Guest House Paradiso (d. Adrian Edmondson, 1999) and Blow Dry (d. Paddy Breathnach, 2001), fine though he was in both films, suggested that his quality control had slipped somewhat. His most notable work at this time was his Machiavellian yet oddly sympathetic psychiatrist in Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, again at the National.

However, his career seemed on the cusp of greatness, and 2003 and 2004 proved an extended Indian summer for him. Highlights included a marvellously restrained, poignant performance in the Dodie Smith adaptation I Capture the Castle (d. Tim Fywell, 2003), a highly effective cameo as the King's private secretary in Stephen Poliakoff's The Lost Prince (BBC, 2003), and another strong collaboration with Penhall in the Ian McEwan adaptation Enduring Love (d. Roger Michell, 2004), playing a character invented for the film, and giving it some welcome dry comic relief. His attempts at catering for the youth market (he has claimed that his neighbours are worried about his career because they haven't seen him in any films) were met with success in Shaun of the Dead (d. Edgar Wright, 2004), but with some bemusement in Underworld (US/ Germany/ Hungary/ UK, d. Len Wiseman, 2003), where his immortal vampire king perhaps predictably lacked the wit and subtlety of his other work.

However, his two most striking individual successes, both BAFTA-winning, were his hilarious portrayal of another washed-up old rocker, Billy Mack, in Richard Curtis' Love Actually (UK/US, 2003), and the more conventional, if nonetheless wonderful, role of a witty, committed newspaper editor in Paul Abbott's State of Play (BBC, 2003). As Mack, he also had a minor chart hit with a cover of The Troggs' 'Love Is All Around Me', knowingly bastardised into 'Christmas Is All Around Me'.

Since then, he has continued to alternate between amusing cameos, as with his Slartibartfast in the long-awaited Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (US/UK d. Garth Jennings, 2005), and lead roles, notably in Richard Curtis' agitprop comedy-drama The Girl in the Café (BBC, 2005), which highlighted Nighy's ability to play middle-aged poignancy and disappointment just as strikingly as the eyebrow-raising roué. Likewise, he added suavely insidious villainy to his resume as the corrupt Sir Bernard Pellegrin in The Constant Gardener (d. Fernando Meirelles, 2005), which will doubtless be reinforced by his appearance in the next two Pirates of the Caribbean films (US, 2006/7) as the diabolical Davy Jones.

Alexander Larman

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