One of the most accomplished character actors of the 20th century, Denholm Elliott was an award-winning performer who embodied the extraordinary lives of ordinary men in films ranging from "Nothing But the Best" (1964) and "The Doll House" (1973) to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Trading Places" (1983) and "Room with a View" (1985), which earned him an Oscar nomination. Elliott's stock in trade was his enormous capacity to strike an emotional chord within his characters, which tended towards officious professionals or outsiders contending with past regrets. He rose to fame in the early 1960s as a wayward aristocrat in "Nothing but the Best" and soon established himself as a versatile character actor on television and in numerous films. Elliott reached his apex in the early 1980s with a string of high-profile hits including "Raiders," "Trading Places" and "Room" before he was diagnosed with the HIV virus in 1987. He would spend the remaining years of his life active in features and TV before his death in 1992, which brought to a close a remarkable and well-respected career.
Denholm Mitchell Elliott was born May 31, 1922 in London, England, the son of Myles and Nina Elliott. Educated at Malvern College, he began training at the Royal Academy of Art but dropped out shortly before World War II. While serving as a radio operator and gunner with the Royal Air Force, his plane was downed near Sylt, Germany. He would spend the next three years in a prisoner of war camp, where he passed the time by organizing an amateur theater group called the No Name Players. Shortly after being freed by Allied forces, he was discharged and returned to London, where he joined a stock theater company. His feature film debut came in 1949 with a supporting role in the comedy "Dear Mr. Prohack."
In 1950, Laurence Olivier chose him to play his son in a production of Christopher Fry's comedy "Venus Observed," which put his stage career into high gear. He was soon treading the boards in New York in "Ring Round the Moon" while making the rounds of American live television anthologies. Elliott returned to British cinema in 1952 as Ralph Richardson's craven son in David Lean's "Breaking the Sound Barrier," and settled into a prolific career in features and television. He enjoyed a brief if unremarkable tenure in leading roles, most notably in "The Cruel Sea" (1953) and "Pacific Destiny" (1956), but fared better in character roles, where he displayed an uncanny knack for imbuing even the smallest parts with subtle grades of emotional depth.
Elliott's best roles often involved a sense of world-weariness; his characters bore their lots in life with varying degrees of cynicism, aloofness or sadness, which he depicted in small but telling expressions or gestures. He first captured the attention of critics as the forgotten black sheep of an aristocratic family who took Alan Bates' sociopathic social climber under his wing, with tragic results in Clive Donner's "Nothing But the Best" (1964). He made his American feature debut as an embittered British POW in Bryan Forbes' "King Rat" (1965), and then gave a shocking turn as a back-alley abortionist in "Alfie" (1966). From that point on, Elliott was in demand as a character actor in all manner of features, from highbrow productions like Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Chekov's "The Sea Gull" (1968) and "The Doll House" (1973) as the scheming bank official determined to unseat Anthony Hopkins, to nonsense like "Percy" (1971), a sex comedy about a penis transplant, and Hammer Films' appallingly tasteless "To The Devil, A Daughter" (1976), with Elliott as the father of a young nun (Nastassja Kinski) chosen by Satanists to carry a demonic fetus. However, he could be counted upon to deliver professional, polished turns that frequently rose above the material.
After spending much of the 1970s on British television and in undistinguished features like "The Boys from Brazil" (1978) and "Zulu Dawn" (1979), Elliott experienced a career flourish that led to an Oscar nomination and three consecutive BAFTA awards. After enjoying a brief but notable turn as Indiana Jones' friend Marcus Brody in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) - his first bona fide blockbuster film - he earned his first BAFTA as Dan Aykroyd's acerbic butler in John Landis' breezy comedy "Trading Places" (1983). A second came the following year with "A Private Function" (1984), the Alan Bennett-penned comedy about social niceties gone to seed during World War II food rationing, with Elliott as a prickly small town doctor who persecuted meek chiropractor Michael Palin. This extraordinary streak continued the following year with an Oscar nomination for his turn as the free-thinking Mr. Emerson in the Merchant-Ivory production "A Room with a View" (1985) and a third BAFTA for the political thriller "Defence of the Realm" (1985), where Elliott's turn as a dissolute journalist was informed in part by his own real-life struggles with alcoholism. The quartet of honors solidified Elliott's status as one of the film industry's most respected actors, as well as its most notorious scene stealers, a notion his "Realm" co-star Gabriel Byrne underscored by stating that the actor's cliché of never working with children or animals should be amended to include Elliott on that list of upstaging forces.
But as Elliott's screen career enjoyed its finest hours, his personal life had descended into tragedy. Privately bisexual, his second marriage, to actress Susan Robinson, was an open one, and he indulged in numerous affairs with both men and women during the course of their 20-year marriage. But in 1987, he was diagnosed with the HIV virus. He would spend much of the next half-decade working at a frenetic pace on projects like "Maurice" (1987), his second collaboration with the Merchant-Ivory team, and "September" (1987), a rare non-comedic feature by Woody Allen, who cast Elliott as a lovelorn French teacher pining for Mia Farrow's troubled heroine. There was also a reprise of his "Raiders" character, though with a stronger comic streak, in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989), and scores of quality television appearances, including a 1987 adaptation of Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (HTV), the Australian prison drama "Bangkok Hilton" (10 TV, 1989) with Nicole Kidman, and "A Murder of Quality" (Thames Television, 1991) as John Le Carre's master spy, George Smiley.
Elliott's final film appearance was largely unseen by audiences. Cast as a doddering, alcoholic stage veteran in Peter Bodgdanovich's adaptation of Michael Frayn's hit play "Noises Off" (1992), he was joined by an all-star cast, including Michael Caine, Carol Burnett and John Ritter, but the film failed to find viewership during its brief theatrical release in March of that year. By the fall of 1992, Elliott's health had deteriorated dramatically, and he was flown to Ibiza, where he had owned a bar in the late 1980s. On Oct. 6, 1992, he died of AIDS-related tuberculosis. Soon thereafter, Susan Robinson memorialized her husband by establishing Can Bufi, a hotel complex on the island where HIV-positive visitors could enjoy a free holiday.
By Paul Gaita