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Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)


Main image of Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)

One of the great character actors, with an enormously productive stage, TV and screen career, Denholm Elliott trained at RADA and served with the RAF (1940-45), including three years as POW; postwar, on stage from 1945, usually in notable new plays, like T.S. Eliot's The Confidential Clerk (1953) though there was also a Stratford season in 1960.

On screen from 1949 (Dear Mr Prohack, d. Thornton Freeland), he was an only moderately interesting young leading man in the likes of The Sound Barrier (d. David Lean, 1952) and Pacific Destiny (d. Wolf Rilla, 1956). There was perhaps something too shy, too cautious, about him for conventional stardom, and he looked sensitive rather than handsome.

His real ascendancy began with Nothing But the Best (d. Clive Donner, 1964) as the seedy, minor-public-school man who is Alan Bates' social mentor, and almost everything he did after this had a touch of this persona - wry, a bit battered, cynical. Whether the films were dross or gold, he never failed to rivet the attention, whether as the abortionist in Alfie (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1966), a decadently trendy parent in the execrable Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (d. Clive Donner, 1967), an embittered Krogstad in A Doll's House (d. Patrick Garland, 1973), snobbish Dr Swaby in A Private Function (d. Malcolm Mowbray, 1984), warm-hearted Mr Emerson in A Room with a View (d. James Ivory, 1985) or the decent drunken journalist in Defence of the Realm (d. David Drury, 1985).

There were international films as well, including Raiders of the Lost Ark (US, d. Steven Spielberg, 1981), Trading Places (US, d. John Landis, 1983) and The Razor's Edge (US, d. John Byrum, 1984), in Clifton Webb's original role, and masses of memorable TV: the seedy butler in Blade on the Feather (d. Richard Loncraine, 1980), cynical Philip in Hotel du Lac (d. Giles Foster, 1986) and George Smiley in A Murder of Quality (d. Gavin Millar, 1991). There are over 120 major film and TV credits, and it is hard to encapsulate their versatile understanding and immaculate technique briefly.

He was married to Virginia McKenna, and his second wife, Susan Elliott, collaborated on a biography, Denholm Elliott - Quest for Love (1994). He died of AIDS complications.

Biography: Denholm Elliott: Quest for Love by Susan Elliott with Barry Turner (1994)

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopaedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bad Timing (1980)Bad Timing (1980)

Nicolas Roeg's intricate, disturbing account of a doomed love affair

Thumbnail image of Cruel Sea, The (1952)Cruel Sea, The (1952)

Distinguished Ealing war film about the inexperienced crew of a naval warship

Thumbnail image of Defence of the Realm (1985)Defence of the Realm (1985)

Tense 80s conspiracy thriller about a nuclear near-accident

Thumbnail image of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1967)Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1967)

The Swinging Sixties hit Stevenage, with suitably tragicomic results

Thumbnail image of Maurice (1987)Maurice (1987)

Merchant-Ivory Forster adaptation, about a gay affair in Cambridge

Thumbnail image of Missionary, The (1981)Missionary, The (1981)

Gentle Michael Palin comedy about a missionary amongst 'fallen women'

Thumbnail image of Private Function, A (1984)Private Function, A (1984)

Alan Bennett-scripted Yorkshire comedy about pigs and social climbing

Thumbnail image of Room with a View, A (1985)Room with a View, A (1985)

Much-loved Merchant Ivory adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel

Thumbnail image of Sound Barrier, The (1952)Sound Barrier, The (1952)

Little-known David Lean film about ambition, courage and jet aircraft

Thumbnail image of To the Devil a Daughter (1976)To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

Occult horror starring Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinski

Thumbnail image of Blade on the Feather (1980)Blade on the Feather (1980)

Meditation on loyalty and treachery by Dennis Potter

Thumbnail image of Brimstone and Treacle (1987)Brimstone and Treacle (1987)

Potter's notorious banned play about a Satanic visitor

Thumbnail image of Hammer House of Horror (1980)Hammer House of Horror (1980)

Horror series about supernatural goings-on in the present day

Thumbnail image of Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)Let's Murder Vivaldi (1968)

Taut David Mercer play about relationship conflicts

Thumbnail image of Ripping Yarns (1976-79)Ripping Yarns (1976-79)

Blissfully funny parodies of Boy's Own adventure stories

Thumbnail image of Signalman, The (1976)Signalman, The (1976)

Charles Dickens adaptation set in a haunted railway station

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