Increasingly renowned as the finest British character actor of his generation, with an Oscar and BAFTA to prove it, Jim Broadbent has become such an indelible part of the respectable acting establishment that it's startling to recall his roots in the more far-out branches of 1970s experimental theatre. But this doubtless contributed to his massive range, and an all too evident willingness to try anything, whether a pitch-perfect reincarnation of real-life historical figures (W.S.Gilbert, John Bayley, Lord Longford), one of many beautifully-shaded Mike Leigh creations, a grotesque comic caricature for Terry Gilliam, or the showstopping (and jaw-dropping) moment in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (US/Australia, 2001) where he performs a high-kicking cover version of Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' that could have come straight out of The Rocky Horror Show.
He was born in Lincolnshire on 24 May 1949, the son of a furniture-maker and a sculptress. Interested in acting from an early age (his parents were keen amateur actors), he graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1972, and spent much of the next decade on the stage with companies as varied as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and his own two-man National Theatre of Brent, which he founded with fellow actor Patrick Barlow. Theatrical high points include his twelve different parts in Ken Campbell's 12-hour epic Illuminatus (1976), followed by the first of many collaborations with Mike Leigh in the plays Ecstasy (1979) and Goose-Pimples (1981).
He began playing small film roles in the late 1970s, alongside larger television parts, including three appearances in Alan Bennett plays (Intensive Care, tx. 9/11/1982, Our Winnie, tx. 12/11/1982; The Insurance Man, tx. 23/2/1986, all for the BBC). Terry Gilliam spotted his gift for the grotesque, casting him as the sleazy television compere in Time Bandits (1981) and the demented plastic surgeon in Brazil (1985), though he also played straight dramatic roles for Stephen Frears (Walter, Channel 4 tx. 2/11/1982; The Hit, 1984) and Mike Newell (The Good Father, 1986). He made increasingly frequent appearances in television sitcoms, notably the recurring character of dodgy detective Roy Slater in Only Fools and Horses (BBC, tx. 1981-96). He had originally been offered the central role of Del Boy, but turned it down due to other commitments.
A big-screen reunion with Mike Leigh increased his public profile. In Life is Sweet (1990) he played Andy, mild-mannered head of an increasingly dysfunctional family, who would rather pursue his dreams of opening a catering van without having to run them by his hyper-critical wife and offspring. Back-to-back roles in Enchanted April (1991) and The Crying Game (1992) got him noticed in America, where both films were enormously successful, and he spent much of the mid-1990s working over there. In Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (US, 1994), Broadbent was theatrical legend Warner Purcell, coping with increasing stress by compulsive eating. Other memorable roles included the Duke of Buckingham in Ian McKellen's Fascist-inspired update of Richard III (d. Richard Loncraine, 1995), and another family patriarch, only this time four inches tall, in The Borrowers (d. Peter Hewitt, 1997).
In between increasingly higher-billed film roles, Broadbent played his first and only sitcom lead in the title role of The Peter Principle (BBC, 1997-2000), about an inept bank manager whose staff are far more competent and ambitious than he is. Broadbent's hilarious performance justified a second series, but the scripts were always weaker than the surprisingly strong cast.
Cast as the lead in Mike Leigh's first period drama, Topsy-Turvy (UK/France, 1999), Broadbent was asked to read almost every scrap of available literature both by and about his character, no mean feat in Broadbent's case since he was playing the prolific and popular W.S.Gilbert. But the research paid off triumphantly, his Gilbert a convincingly troubled and complex man, resentful of his talent for light comedy and wishing that he had the gift to push it onto a higher plane. He won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for what is widely regarded as his finest performance to date.
The early 2000s saw Broadbent cementing his reputation with a series of small but significant roles in high-profile films. His impresario in Moulin Rouge has already been mentioned, but he also played the villainous Boss Tweed in Martin Scorsese's long-gestating Gangs of New York (US, 2002) and the title character's kindly father in Bridget Jones's Diary (d. Sharon Maguire, 2001) and its sequel. In between, he played a lead role in Iris (d. Richard Eyre, 2002) as John Bayley, husband of Judi Dench's increasingly Alzheimer's-afflicted Iris Murdoch. Despite both performance and character being instinctively self-effacing, Broadbent won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
2006 saw two major returns to the small screen in wholly serious roles, as part of the high-calibre ensemble cast of Jimmy McGovern's The Street (BBC), and in the title role of Longford (Channel 4, tx. 26/10/2006). In the former, he was heartbreaking as the reluctantly redundant Stan McDermott, while his Lord Longford was uncannily accurate, a tribute as much to Broadbent's technical and vocal skills as to his make-up artist. Longford won him a richly-deserved Best Actor BAFTA, at the same time that his deceptively benevolent rural police chief in Hot Fuzz (d. Edgar Wright, 2007) proved that his comic timing remained as immaculate as ever.