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Cox, Brian (1946-)


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A stage actor of distinction who has also enjoyed a formidably prolific career in film and television, Brian Denis Cox is a performer of great versatility best known on screen for gruff authority figures, benign and malign, and for his skill at endowing even the most loathsome of them with an eerie humanity.

The youngest of five children, he was born on 1 June 1946 to a Roman Catholic family in Dundee. His father, a mill worker, died when Brian was eight, after which his mother suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and was eventually hospitalised.

Brought up by his eldest sister and an aunt, Brian was drawn to acting after he got a job helping backstage at Dundee Rep. He worked there for two years, then trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. After a spell in regional repertory, he made his London stage debut as Orlando in As You Like It in June 1967.

By then Cox was also landing roles on television, in The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-1970) and Nigel Kneale's dystopian sci-fi drama The Year of the Sex Olympics (BBC, tx. 29/7/1968). His first film appearance was as Leon Trotsky in Nicholas and Alexandra (d. Franklin J. Schaffner, 1971).

In Lindsay Anderson's 1969 theatre production of David Storey's In Celebration, Cox played one of three working-class brothers at a tense family reunion, a role he reprised in Anderson's 1975 film version. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, he shone on stage, with leading roles in Danton's Death, Three Sisters and The Taming of the Shrew, among many others.

On television Cox played Henry II in the 13-part BBC series The Devil's Crown (1978), Therese Raquin's murderous lover in the 1980 BBC serial of that name and the Duke of Burgundy to Laurence Olivier's >cite>King Lear (Granada for Channel 4, tx. 3/4/1983).

As Hannibal Lecktor (spelled thus) in Michael Mann's Manhunter (US, 1986), Cox made a powerful impression as the brilliant psychopath, but problems with the film's release muted its - and his - impact, and the actor returned to the stage, with acclaimed interpretions of Titus Andronicus and King Lear.

His next major screen role was in Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda (1990), as a senior British police officer investigating a cover-up in Northern Ireland. His closeted homosexual in the BBC's The Lost Language of Cranes, BBC, 9/2/1992) earned him a BAFTA nomination.

Cox now became phenomenally productive. He appeared in historical dramas for television, including the popular Sharpe series (ITV, 1993). 1995 saw him in two US-made Scottish-set epics, Rob Roy and Braveheart, followed by a stream of Hollywood action-adventures: Chain Reaction (1996), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Kiss the Girls (1997) and Desperate Measures (1998). He played an IRA boss in Jim Sheridan's The Boxer (Ireland/UK/US, 1997) and the beleaguered headmaster in Wes Anderson's offbeat comedy, Rushmore (US, 1998).

He won an Emmy for his Hermann Goering in the docudrama mini-series Nuremberg (Channel 4/TNT, 2000) and was nominated for another for a guest appearance in the sitcom Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004). His profile was elevated further by villainous roles in several blockbusters: The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy (US/Germany, 2002/2004), X2: X-Men United (US, 2003) and Troy (d. Wolfgang Petersen, UK/US/Malta, 2004).

At the same time, Cox nurtured his credentials in the independent sector with an admired performance as a child molester in the low-budget L.I.E. (US, 2001), followed by Spike Jonze's Adaptation (US, 2002), Spike Lee's 25th Hour (US, 2002), Woody Allen's Match Point (UK/US, 2005) and Ryan Murphy's Running with Scissors (US, 2006). He played an eccentric theatre-owner in HBO's award-winning Western series Deadwood (2004-2006), and attracted attention in a cameo as a flamboyant celebrity lawyer in David Fincher's serial killer film, Zodiac (US, 2007).

In Britain he appeared in the well-received children's movie The Water Horse (d. Jay Russell, 2007), the prison-break drama The Escapist (d. Rupert Wyatt, 2008), the BBC's updated remake of the Day of the Triffids (2009) and, in one of his best recent roles, On Expenses (BBC, tx. 23/2/2010), as Michael Martin, the brash Speaker of the House of Commons forced to resign in the MPs' expenses scandal.

Cox lives in New York with his second wife, the German actress Nicole Ansari. He was awarded a CBE in 2002.

Sheila Johnston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Hidden Agenda (1990)Hidden Agenda (1990)

Tough, Belfast-set thriller about the British army's 'shoot to kill' policy

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 King Lear (1983)King Lear (1983)

Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)

Prescient drama painting a bleak portrait of future television

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