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Bill Nighy - Biography

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Bill Nighy

Personal details

Name: Bill Nighy
Born: 12 December 1949 (Age: 65)
Where: Caterham, England
Height: 6' 2"
Awards: Won 2 BAFTAs and 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


For most movie fans, Bill Nighy was a sudden revelation. Seizing attention as the cynical and flamboyant ex-rock star Billy Mack in 2003's Love Actually, he quickly won a Golden Globe as the spin doctor paralyzed by his own lies in Stephen Poliakoff's Gideon's Daughter, then struck worldwide as the ruthless, tentacle-faced Davey Jones in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. His range was clearly immense, his talent undeniable, yet he was well into his fifties. How could he have remained unnoticed for so long?

The answer's simple. Most actors find themselves in the same Catch-22 position; you're not given lead roles until you've proven yourself in a lead role. Nighy suffered years of frustration due to this. Before he broke through in the movies, though, he had enjoyed a fantastically rich career. Onstage, he'd done Shakespeare, Pinter, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and a mass of more contemporary, often contentious pieces, enjoying big hits alongside Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench. On TV, he'd appeared with Dench, Peter Ustinov, Faye Dunaway, Hugh Grant and Imelda Staunton; in films with Diane Keaton, Richard Harris, Robin Williams and Peter O'Toole. And he'd been underground, deep underground. In his early days he was a political firebrand, surrealist agitator and cosmic japester, being involved in some of the most revolutionary, challenging and downright crazy theatre Britain has ever produced. His story is fascinating.

He was born William Francis Nighy on December 12th, 1949, in Caterham, Surrey, a southern suburb of London. His father, Alfred Martin Nighy hailed from a Croydon family of chimney sweeps, Alfred's father having left the business to become a horse dealer. At the time of Bill's birth, Alfred was running a garage, the family living in a flat above that came with the job. Bill's mother, Catherine Josephine (nee Whittaker) had married Alfred in 1938. Born into a family of ten kids in Cork (the family later left for Glasgow "under a cloud"), she was a psychiatric nurse and found work in the many hospitals and asylums in the Croydon area. Alfred and Catherine would leave a big gap between kids, Bill arriving years after brother Martin and sister Anna.

Typically, being of part-Irish stock, Bill would be raised a Catholic, serving as an altar boy. He was an extremely shy boy, his condition made all the worse by his inheriting the condition Dupuytren's Contracture. Here the ring finger and little finger of each hand bend inward towards the palm, the condition getting worse with age. As a youth he'd be given two nicknames, Nerve and Knucks, the first being short for Nervous, the second referring to his misshapen knuckles.

When he was 11 his parents hoped to send him to John Fisher, a Catholic secondary grammar school at Peak's Hill in nearby Purley. Though he was bright, Bill was neither sporty nor academically gifted, he had little to recommend him. Keen to strike a balance between rich kids and the more disadvantaged, the kind folk at John Fisher gave him a chance to impress them with work he'd done in his own time; pictures he'd drawn, stories he'd written, songs he'd mastered, anything would do. Unfortunately, a consummate dreamer, he hadn't done any of those things, or any other things, for that matter. In desperation, his father sent him in with a colour-by-numbers book he'd completed. It wasn't much but, well, needs must, despite the excruciating embarrassment it caused Bill. And, as it turned out, young Bill was accepted. Never let it be said that the Catholics don't look after their own.

Many pupils react well to the stricter Catholic education process. Not Bill. He didn't fit in here, didn't fit in anywhere, and his sense of alienation was heightened by the stirring music being made in the early Sixties, in particular by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Railing against the Establishment, they proposed a wilder, more honest, creative and exhilarating way of life that violently appealed to the young boy. Indeed, he'd be hooked for good, not just to alternative music (which he'd follow avidly until he reached his fifties), but also to that alternative lifestyle.

To genuinely follow such a lifestyle takes courage, and young Bill had that in spades. Just before his O-Levels, at age 15, he and a friend took off for pastures new. Very new. Aiming to reach the Persian Gulf, in ten days they made it as far as the south of France before lack of cash brought them to a shuddering halt. Bill was forced to throw himself on the mercy of the hated Establishment, his journey home being paid for by the British consulate. It cost '25, enough to make Bill's father very angry, indeed, and Bill would be expected to pay him back. Not so easy when he left John Fisher with just two O-Levels to his name (unsurprisingly, he was successful in English Language and English Lit).

Bill would begin his working life on the Croydon Advertiser. The job wouldn't last. As he required at least five O-Levels to begin training as a journalist, he was doomed to remain on the bottom rung and soon left. Taken by his parents to the dole office, he was asked what jobs, in particular, he was seeking. Much to Alfred and Catherine's chagrin, he claimed he was an author. Playing along, the officer skimmed through his papers and replied that, sorry, they didn't have any vacancies for authors at that moment. Thus Bill would continue his lowgrade career in newspapers, taking a position as a messenger boy at The Field magazine. Based on Stratton Street in central London, this was a bit more like it, with travel in black cabs and free tea and cheese rolls at the Dorchester during edition changes. The money came in useful as Bill was now a Mod, clad in loafers, Fred Perries and sharp suits. He spent his first pay-packet on mohair jumpers. Yet still he was not satisfied.

Oddly, he was actually considering a life as an author. A keen reader, particularly of modern American literature, he saw it as a glamorous existence, especially when you lived it like Hemingway, Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And so, at 17, he did what they had done and skipped off to Paris, where fame, fortune and fanny were sure to be found. His friend Jamie was already over there, and another mate, Brendan, would accompany him. Bill would leave a letter for his father, explaining how he couldn't bear to spend another day unde his fascistic tyranny (when his father died, in 1976, Bill would find these ungracious scribblings among his letters and be forced, by sheer embarrassment, to destroy them).

Of course, there was to be no writing - it was never really the work that interested him - and the lads soon wound up begging on the Trocadero. Bill's only chance of a job came from the sweet folk at Madame Cuckoo's who offered him 200 francs if he serviced a woman of a certain age. Briefly he wondered how many grannies he'd have to pork in order to buy a Harley, so he could cruise the boulevards like the cool French kids in their suits and shades. But he was still a virgin, fearful of failure in the sack, and a Catholic to boot. Fear and guilt would end his career as a gigolo before it even began.

Back in Croydon, he kept himself busy with several menial jobs, working the petrol pumps or skivvying at his mum's hospital. But this was the mid-Sixties and the possibility of that alternative life was still high on the cultural agenda. Of course he was in a band with some friends, but never made it past the rehearsal stage. When a friend of Bill's, studying to be a drama teacher, suggested he try out at drama school, he thought Why not? Though he'd only attended the theatre twice, he'd quite enjoyed drama at school. It would at least be something different.

So, he applied for an audition at the Guildford School of Drama and Dance, known locally and rather disrespectfully as the School of Murmur and Prance. This was formerly the Grant-Bellairs School of Dance and Drama that had moved from London to Guildford at the beginning of WW2 and was situated in Millmead Terrace. Now known rather pompously as the GSA Conservatoire, it has since produced such luminaries as Celia Imrie, Brenda Blethyn, singer Michael Ball and TV presenter Gaby Roslin. For his audition, Bill was asked to perform two pieces, one modern, one classic. In his usual challenging style, he chose a speech by Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion and another by Cesario in Twelfth Night, not realising, as Cesario is in fact Viola disguised as a man, that he'd chosen two speeches by women. His ignorance mattered little, though, as he was taken on for a two-year course. Now it seemed that this wilful, frustrated boy had found his calling, eventually being chosen to play the lead in John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon.

Leaving Guildford, he took the traditional route into repertory theatre. His first production would be Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at the recently converted Watermill Theatre just outside Newbury. Starring would be American diva Marcella Markham. 1971 would see him at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in Olwen Wymark's Speak Now, later described by Nighy as the first full acting job he had where he didn't have to drive the van. There'd be a spell at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, including a run of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, and time spent at Chester's Gateway Theatre where he'd perform in Landscape And Silence, two one-act plays by Harold Pinter.

Nighy's next step would be the making of him, and nearly the ruin. In the early 1970s he be recruited to Liverpool's Everyman Theatre by its troupe leader and star performer Jonathan Pryce. Here he'd join an extraordinary ensemble drawn together by artistic director Alan Dossor, featuring Julie Walters, Anthony Sher, Alison Steadman, Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve, Peter Postlethwaite, Nicholas Le Prevost, Barbara Dickson, several McGanns and Pryce's long-term partner Kate Fahy. Everything about the Everyman was exciting, inspiring. A converted chapel on Hope Street, it was down-at-heel, with gas lighting in the corridors and toilets and, due to lack of storage space, next week's props stacked all around. But in the downstairs bar you could enjoy such exotic treats as chilli con carne, Newcastle Brown ale and Bertorelli's ice cream and the food mirrored the artistic fare on offer. With the walls covered with graffiti by world-renowned Liverpool poets, the place was a hot-bed of new ideas and the troupe was dedicated to updating the classics and promoting new work by young writers, including in-house scribes like Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. 1973 would see Pryce star in a famous production of Richard III where he played the king as a psycho in a track-suit. Beyond this there'd be The Taming Of The Shrew, The Sea Anchor and A Taste Of Honey.

Nighy would never act alongside Pryce at the Everyman, but he would work under his direction. Onstage, he'd appear in Brian Friel's Freedom Of The City, inspired by the Bloody Sunday incident in 1972, where three people would be thrown together by the terrible events of the day - a mother of 11, an idealistic student and Nighy's cynical drifter, Skinner. In a provocative ending, all three would be shot dead by the armed forces. At one performance a bomb threat would see actor Kevin Lloyd ask the audience to leave the hall. They thought it was part of the performance and just laughed. Another thought-provoking show would be Chris Bond's Under New Management, concerning the closure of the Fisher Bendix plant at nearby Kirkby in 1971, with 600 job losses. The troupe were ever-informed by the political chaos of the times, with England being beset by massive demonstrations and lengthy strikes.

Nighy was right at the centre of all of this. Indeed he was very keen to help promote the Everyman as a people's theatre, taking theatre into the community. Along with Walters, Postlethwaite, Lloyd and Matthew Kelly (yes, Matthew Kelly), he joined the Everyman's raucous touring offshoot Van Load, playing in pubs, clubs, schools, borstals, supermarkets and prisons around Merseyside. Deliberately, they'd speak to the people in their own language, performing the works of Bleasdale and, at one point, Russell's Sam O'Shanker, a Robert Burns tale reset in present-day Liverpool with the hero's horse replaced by a battered Ford Escort van. And what a vanload they were, containing two future Oscar nominees and a future Golden Globe winner.

These were great times for Nighy, who spent three years with the Everyman. All the actors were expected to muck in, and so he found himself working at every backstage job, from costume design to fixing the seats and tending the bar. The social life was wild, too. Liverpool was a 24-hour city and the players at the Everyman, respected for their communal efforts, were allowed into clubs for free. Consequently, their days began after the evening show and centred around drinking. Nighy was good at this, good at fun, dangerously good at drinking. At one club, as he reached the top of the steps leading down to the dancefloor, the DJ would announce his arrival with Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. Nighy would later say that he felt like a movie star when "In reality, I was an average mess of a young man".

This wasn't an average time, and Nighy wasn't an average guy. Though the Everyman had provided him with his longed-for alternative lifestyle, he was still a sucker for the new and outlandish. Enter Ken Campbell - actor, writer, director, clown prince of the avant garde. In the Sixties his One Night I Danced With Mr Dalton had seen the introduction of famed acting couple John Alderton and Pauline Collins (Alderton would later admit he based his character of Mr Hedges in Please Sir! on Donald Churchill's perfomance in the play). His travelling road show had seen him mentor both Bob Hoskins and Sylvester McCoy. He'd soon appear in Fawlty Towers and Brookside and rewrite Macbeth in pidgin English "to make it better". Married to actress Prunella Gee, he was charismatic and massively entertaining.

In the mid-1970s, Campbell was at his most ambitious and outrageous. Along with friend and fellow actor Chris Langham (who'd soon find fame in Not The Nine O'Clock News), he was seeking a new form of thought-provoking absurdism and found it when he stumbled across the Illuminatus! trilogy, an eye-popping avalanche of sex, drugs, magic and mythology written by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Campbell would adapt the books as five plays, each comprising five 23-minute acts (the number 23 being given a mystical significance in the books). To stage it, he and Langham formed the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, based around Campbell, Langham and Gee, the trio soon being joined by David Rappaport and a young Jim Broadbent. The set decorator would be Bill Drummond, later to form the KLF, while on guitar in the house-band would be Ian Broudie, years later to hit big with The Lightning Seeds. Nighy couldn't resist either. It was so challenging, so nutty, so rock 'n' roll.

With the SFTL based at the equally odd Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, Illuminatus! was set to open on November 23rd, 1976. Those involved would come to believe that the choice of the 23rd brought bad luck, and indeed bad luck was had. Five different members would be injured in accidents in the run-up to the show, one of them being Nighy who suffered a severe car crash with his girlfriend, fracturing his thigh. He'd thus miss the show's successful Liverpool run, though he'd be back for its transfer to London, where it was the first ever show on the Cottesloe stage at the National Theatre. It was brilliant, but tremendously hard work, Broadbent for one playing over a dozen characters. At one point, driven to the end of his tether, Drummond would pop out for Araldite and never return.

Enthused by the success of Illuminatus!, Campbell now went further. He teamed up with Neil Oram, a poet and painter obsessed with conspiracies, magic and outre science theories, a man so out-there that a pregnant Prunella Gee wouldn't let him in the house in case his weird vibes affected the baby. Together they'd write The Warp, a 1000-page script that would enter the Guinness Book of Records as the longest play in the world. It was actually written as ten separate plays, but was usually performed as a marathon, with each of the very few actors taking on hundreds of roles. Again, how could Nighy resist? Broadbent was back in too, playing Arthur the Cosmic Grocer as well as many, many others. Rehearsals would begin in December, 1978 at the Bubble Theatre, Hampstead, with the play's run beginning at the ICA on the Mall in January, 1979. The plan was to stage one play a night for five nights a week over two weeks. The first five would then be staged consecutively on the following Tuesday, the second five on the Wednesday. Then would come the marathon. It was theatrical madness, close to impossible, but a fabulous testing-ground for an actor now approaching 30. Nighy was serving a hell of an apprenticeship.

Away from this craziness, Nighy was making other appearances. In 1976, he'd made a brief TV debut as a robber in police series Softly Softly. 1978 would see him on TV again, starring alongside Everyman pals Julie Walters and Bernard Hill in a Play for Today called Soldiers Talking, Cleanly, by Mike Stott. That same year, he'd make his London stage debut in Comings And Goings, again by Stott, at the Hampstead Theatre Club, a play originally titled Followed By Oysters and performed in Liverpool. Lindsay Duncan and John Normington would be Nighy's co-stars as a group of intelligent folk gradually revealed their moral bankrupcy. It was typical fare for the Hampstead Theatre Club which had earlier championed the tough works of Pinter and Mike Leigh, and Nighy would remain with them for Andre Gide's The Immoralist, where a man dumped his wife, career and wealth to fully experience a late homosexual awakening. Very different would be an attempted film debut in The Bitch, a tawdry, deeply stupid follow-up to The Stud where a desperate smuggler hides a diamond ring in Joan Collins' fur coat and, oh, why bother? Nighy was supposed to appear as a delivery man but was, quite happily under the circumstances, left on the cutting-room floor.

Nighy's next performance would be in Illuminations at the Lyric, Hammersmith. This was the first play by renowned political journalist Peter Jenkins (his daughter, Amy, would later write the series This Life) and would star Paul Eddington, Nigel Stock and Judy Loe. Then, at last, his onscreen career would begin to take off. He'd pop up in the TV series Fox where Peter Vaughan would play an East End godfather, with Ray Winstone and Bernard Hill being among his sons. After this would come a feature film debut in a new adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy, directed by Jack Gold, who'd just scored a horror hit with Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch. Blue-eyed, bob-haired Ricky Schroder would play the annoying lord of the title, being backed by such thespian heavyweights as Alec Guinness, Eric Porter and a young Patrick Stewart.

1980 was a very productive year for Nighy as he'd also appear onscreen in a BBC2 Playhouse version of Malcolm Bradbury's Standing In For Henry, and in the hit sit-com Agony where Maureen Lipman would star as an agony aunt trying to deal with her own problems, one being philandering hubbie Simon Williams. Nighy would stand out as Vincent Fish, a libidinous hack who makes erotic films on the side. Most important of all, though, would be a Play For Today named Dreams Of Leaving, screened in January of 1980. Written by David Hare, with whom Nighy would have ludicrously productive career-long involvement, this would see Nighy as a keen young journalist down from Nottingham to try his luck on Fleet Street, where he works with old hand Mel Smith. Falling for Kate Nelligan, a beautiful art gallery assistant, he's drawn into her wild life as she gradually descends into madness, at the same time coming to despise his new world and the stupidity of his job. With Nighy narrating, it was like a painfully serious Annie Hall.

1981 would see Nighy back with Nelligan in Eye Of The Needle, a WW2 thriller where Donald Sutherland starred as a German spy on a remote English island, trying to get details of the D-Day landings to his bosses and horribly mistreating Nelligan and her crippled husband Christopher Cazenove. Nighy would appear, again briefly, as a Squadron Leader. Far more worthwhile for Nighy would be a BBC radio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, where he played Sam Gamgee to Ian Holm's Frodo. Airing over 13 hours in 26 weeks, it would come to be known as the definitive adaptation and was indeed given by Peter Jackson to each of his cast members before he filmed his epic some 20 years later. Nighy would come to enjoy a long and fruitful career in radio, soon enjoying another hit in Yes, Minister, with his Illuminations co-star Paul Eddington.

Turning down a recurring role in long-running soap opera Coronation Street (much to the chagrin of his mother), Nighy would next be seen in another Play For Today, this time Janey Preger's Under The Skin where he'd be stuck inbetween the then Mrs Sting Frances Tomelty and Jacqueline Tong as race and class tensions flared up in the Women's Movement. Notably, this season of Play for Today would also include Alan Bleasdale's The Black Stuff which would launch a successful TV series starring Bernard Hill as Yosser Hughes. After popping up in an episode of Minder, Nighy would then be seen in a far weightier Play For Tomorrow, made by BBC Northern Ireland, called Easter 2016 and written by Graham Reid. Taking Nighy back to the Troubles, this would see problems at Northern Ireland's only religiously integrated teacher training college, where charismatic lecturer Nighy, against the wishes of a heavy-handed security force, tries to lead the students in a centenary re-enactment of the Easter rising., his egotism and messy private life giving ammunition to his enemies. Also featuring Gerard McSorley, Colm Meaney and a young Kenneth Branagh, it would be tough stuff, indeed.

1983 would be another big year, personally and professionally. On TV, he'd appear in an episode of Jemima Shore Investigates, featuring posh journalist and private dick Patricia Hodge. Then there'd be another short showing as an Ears, Nose and Throat doctor in Curse Of The Pink Panther, the second gross cash-in to be made following the death of Peter Sellars. There'd also be an episode of Reilly: Ace Of Spies where Sam Neill would battle for the Brits during WWI, in Nighy's episode trying to steal plans for a big gun from the Germans.

For Nighy, though, the real joy of 1983 came via the theatre when he was reunited with David Hare for A Map Of The World at the Lyttelton. This would be set in a luxurious Bombay hotel in 1978, with a UNESCO conference on world poverty taking place nearby. Roshan Seth would star as an Indian writer with Nighy as a intellectual left-wing journalist, the pair of them arguing vociferously, provokingly and amusingly over politics. Extra spice would be added by the fact that they both fancy an actress staying at the same hotel and, at the suggestion of the lady herself, they begin a formal debate, the winner getting to sleep with her. The show would be a big hit, really launching Nighy's career on the stage. Better still, he'd begin a real-life relationship with co-star Diana Quick. Quick had been the first female president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society back in the late 1960s, had appeared in Ridley Scott's debut The Duellists, and had recently been much lauded for her efforts as Lady Julia Flyte aloingside Olivier, Gielgud, Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited. Nighy had first seen her on the cover of the Sunday Times magazine under the headline "Is this the most beautiful woman in the world?" In the flesh, she was even better, and he quickly became besotted. She would take some time to fall for him, but she would and, though never marrying, they'd be together for good, their union producing one child, Mary Nighy, who'd also become an actress, later appearing as Princess Lamballe alongside Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.

With theatrical success on the way, the mid-Eighties would see Nighy continue his screen career in the most desultory fashion. He'd appear briefly in The Little Drummer Girl, directed by George Roy Hill from a Le Carre novel. Diane Keaton would play an American actress recruited by Israeli intelligence, led by Klaus Kinski, to entice and entrap terrorists. The movie would closely examine Keaton's journey to this point, covering her theatre career in London, where Nighy would be part of her troupe. There'd then be a showing in a Crown Court two-parter starring Peter "Jason King" Wyngarde. Next would come a meatier role in The Last Place On Earth, directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, where Martin Shaw would play Robert Falcon Scott as he prepared for and suffered his attempt on the South Pole. Nighy would play the plummy Cecil Meares, hired as a dog handler on the expedition and mortified when he must instead purchase ponies. Also onboard would be Max Von Sydow and a very young Hugh Grant.

Following this would be another classy drama, Hitler's SS: Portrait In Evil where two brothers, Nighy and John Shea would both join the Nazis. Nighy, an intellectual student, would be spotted by David Warner's Heydrich while fencing and join the SS, never losing his moral qualms over their behaviour but over-ruling them again and again as the film explored how exactly it all happened. Also appearing would be Stratford Johns, star of Nighy's first ever show Softly Softly, with Himmler being played by John Normington, co-star in his London stage debut, Comings And Goings. 1985 would end with Thirteen At Dinner, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's Lord Edgware Dies, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot alongside Faye Dunaway and future Poirot David Suchet. Here Lord Edgware would die with a knife to the base of his skull, Nighy playing his ne'er-do-well nephew who's inherited the whole bundle. Naturally, when asking Poirot to join him in a toast to murder, he becomes a suspect.

As said, Nighy's main efforts would now be concentrated on the stage and 1985 would bring his biggest hit yet when he reunited with David Hare for Pravda at the Olivier Theatre. Hare co-wrote the play with Howard Brenton, author of the controversial Romans In Britain,and Anthony Hopkins took the lead as Lambert Le Roux, a Robert Maxwell-style newspaper magnate, a kind of Richard III on Fleet Street. Ripping into tabloid culture and the money-grubbing megalomaniacs behind it - this was the time of the Wapping riots - Pravda would see Nighy as Hopkins' business manager, Eaton Sylvester, faithful to Hopkins but a backstabbing bastard to everyone else. Nighy would then remain with Hare and Hopkins for their famous 1986 production of King Lear, also at the Olivier. Designed by Hayden Griffin, the set would be dominated by splintered light and four giant, billowing sails as Hopkins' unleashed his tormented monarch, Nighy also pulling out the stops as Edgar, cast out, pretending to be insane as "poor Tom", protecting his cruelly blinded father then defeating his evil illegitimate brother Edmund in single combat. A hell of a role, brilliantly played.

The next year would bring more stage success in Mean Tears, at the Cottesloe. Directed by the play's writer Peter Gill, this would see Nighy as Julian, a bisexual adorted by both men and women. Through his relationships, Gill would explore the boundaries of sex and love, our notions of sexual ownership and the selfishness of yuppie culture.

The theatre had kept Nighy from the screen for some four years. He'd quickly make up for it. 1989 would see him in a new adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera, a gory rendition, as you'd expect when the phantom is played by Robert "Freddie Kruger" Englund. Nighy would play the manager of the opera, desperately placating diva Stephanie Lawrence (these were the best-written scenes) and incurring the wrath of Englund by ignoring the claims of young singer Jill Schoelen. Visiting the set, Nighy would later recall, was a young hipster Schoelen had started dating on the recent Cutting Class - Brad Pitt.

Nighy's first appearance of the 1990s would be in Making News, a TV series spin-off from a one-off he'd made in 1989. Again based in the world of newspapers, it featured fellow Guildford grad Celia Imrie, Paul Darrow (the moody Avon in Blake's Seven) and Richard Attenborough's daughter, Charlotte. It lasted only a few episodes. More challenging, artistically, would be Mack The Knife, an ambitious adaptation of Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera by Menahem Golan, who'd recently produced The Phantom Of The Opera. This would see Raul Julia's titular gangster facing off against Richard Harris's crime lord (Nighy's old mucker Julie Walters would play Harris's wife), with Nighy as the police chief who's friendly with Julia but still has to arrest him and send him to his death. Part theatrical, part realist, the movie would be lent vocal power by Julia Migenes and Roger Daltrey, but would still fail to attract viewers.

Nighy would keep it theatrical with his next TV piece, Absolute Hell, originally released as The Pink Room in 1954 but rewritten after it caused a fearful controversy. Featuring the seedier denizens of Soho, this saw Judi Dench as the owner of a backstreet drinking club, joking and dealing with a mixed clientele, Nighy starring as Hugh Marriner, a failed writer, wholly dissolute with a long-term boyfriend, who's desperate to make money by flogging a story to a film director. Also featuring Francesca Annis and his Fox co-star Ray Winstone, Nighy would later recall the show with delight, particularly one scene with Dench. "A chap comes in with a gun," he'd explain "and says 'Who wants a bullet up the botty?' Judi just looked at me with the most unprofessional look anyone has ever given me, and we never got through that scene without corpsing".

The same year, 1991, would see Nighy return to the stage proper in Pinter's Betrayal at the Almeida. This, featuring Cheryl Campbell and Last Place On Earth co-star Martin Shaw, would be a bitter autobiographical tale of Pinter's own affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell, Nighy playing the Pinter role, a fellow who feels "betrayed" when he discovers his lover's husband has known about the affair all along. Nighy's next film appearance would be in the oddball comedy Antonia And Jane, co-starring Imelda Staunton and Saskia Reeves. They'd play two longtime friends who measure themselves against each other and consequently suffer a stilted relationship, particularly when Staunton falls for artist Nighy, whom she meets at his exhibition of photos of buttocks, and Reeves steals him away and marries him, only to regret it. Far harder-hitting would be TV series The Men's Room, directed by Antonia Bird and co-starring Harriet Walter. Exposing ongoing sexism in the workplace, this would see married mother Walter having an affair with co-worker Nighy with everyone - Walter, her husband and Nighy - suffering emotional fall-out. The year would end with appearances in both Boon and Bergerac (well, a fella's gotta eat). In the first, he'd be a right brute, a local entrepreneur and DJ who sues a paper for alleging he sleeps with underage girls, sleeps with a lawyer to get inside info on a rival, then beats up the lawyer and a reporter and menaces everyone else. Classic Nighy, then. The Bergerac episode, the last ever, would be a special at Christmas 1991,and feature Simon Williams, the naughty husband back from Bill's time in Agony.

1992 would see Nighy reuniting with Antonia Bird and Imelda Staunton in A Masculine Ending, based on a Joan Smith novel, where feminist academic Janet McTeer suspects her college peers of involvement in a possible murder in Paris. In her investigation she'd be aided by her former, still amiable journalist husband, Bill. Next would come an episode of Chillers, based on a short story by Patricia Highsmith called Something The Cat Dragged In, where he'd co-star with Edward Fox and Michael Hordern, earlier Gandalf in his radio take on The Lord Of The Rings.

1993 would be a busier year, in part because, on May 17th, 1992 when he was 42, he'd given up drink and drugs completely. For years he'd been caning it, drinking heavily and taking drugs to help him drink even more. Now, before it really began to get in the way of his work, he stopped dead, never to touch a drop again. Naturally, his work rate increased immediately. First he'd appear in the kids' fantasy series Eye Of The Storm, famed as being one of the scariest TV shows ever produced for children, where Nighy would play an environmentalist with a teenage daughter, the pair trying to stop a magnificently evil Judy Parfitt from channeling her wicked ancestors through a troubled boy and causing an almighty eco-disaster.

The year would continue with a part in the Roman segment of Bill Forsyth's Being Human, where Robin Williams was continually reincarnated throughout the ages as the movie explored notions of family, fate and identity. Actually made in 1989 when David Puttnam was head of Columbia, it would be hacked up and given a limited release once Puttnam had been ousted. Nighy's next release would be Unnatural Causes, part of the Mystery! series and based on a PD James novel. Here Adam Dalgliesh would investigate the grisly murder of a writer on the Suffolk coast, Nighy playing a critic who panned the dead man's final play. After another cameo in the country doctor series Peak Practice would come Don't Leave Me This Way, a follow-up to A Masculine Ending, with Janet McTeer and Imelda Staunton reprising their roles as boffin detectives and investigating a friend's suspicious death in a car crash. Finally would come a TV presentation of Ronald Mackenzie's popular play The Maitlands, set in the 1930s and concerning a well-to-do family fallen on hard times in a seaside town. Nighy, in the role originally played onstage by John Gielgud, would play Roger Maitland, a private school teacher with an expensive wife who dumps him while on holiday in Europe and returns just as he's falling for a friend of his cousin. Also involved would be Eileen Atkins, Jennifer Ehle, Emma Fielding and recent co-stars Edward Fox and Harriet Walter.

Nighy's biggest success of 1993, though, would again come onstage, when he reunited with Emma Fielding and Harriet Walter in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at the Lyttelton. Here he and Felicity Kendal would play rival academics, both researching the story of Byron's buddy Septimus Hodge and his affair with a young student. Sex, chaos theory and gardening would be covered as the pair argued their cases, with super-cad Rufus Sewell seducing Fielding in flashbacks to 1809. Nighy would stick to the boards in 1994, too, this time appearing as the feckless, opportunistic but winning novelist Trigorin in a modern take on Chekhov's The Seagull at the Olivier, cavorting on a rug with Judi Dench's aging thespian Arkadina. Nighy would later say that working so closely with Dench had been a career-changing revelation. Often, he felt, he'd weakened his work by being too conscious of his movements, too questioning in his method. Seeing Dench just get up and at it, dealing naturally with whatever came her way, inspired him to lose his fear and throw himself into his work with greater abandon.

Nighy's only onscreen appearance of 1994 would be in an episode of Wycliffe, directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who'd helmed The Last Place On Earth nine years before. Here he'd play a novelist living in a big house in Cornwall, successful but terrified as he keeps receiving playing cards through the post. When he receives a torn card, someone dies. Nighy would not return till 1996 when he'd lend his voice to Jonathan Myerson's animated bible stories, Testament, playing Belshazzar, the Babylonian king who woshipped gold, dissed God and got what was coming. Following this would be Indian Summer, a reunion with old Everyman mate Anthony Sher, where Jason Flemyng would play a ballet dancer preparing for his greatest role while under the shadow of AIDS. Nighy's next, True Blue, featuring Tom Hollander and again directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, would concern the Oxford boat race mutiny of 1987.

Onscreen, Nighy was still making no real progress, still merely adding weight in cameo roles. He'd do it again in 1997 in an episode of Kavanagh QC, written by the great Nigel Kneale, playing an attorney gradually undermined as he tries to defend a retired GP accused of carrying out human experiments in Dachau. And he'd do it again in Fairy Tale: A True Story, directed by Charles Sturridge (who'd earlier directed his wife in Brideshead Revisited) and starring Peter O'Toole and Harvey Keitel. Concerning the Cottingley Fairies case, this would see Nighy as E.L Gardner, a speaker on the supernatural who's approached about the amazing photographs and passes them on to O'Toole's Conan Doyle. Also there'd be The VAT Man, where he was a tax fraudster locking horns with a prison officer in an open jail.

Still it was better onstage. 1997 would see him back with David Hare, this time at the Vaudeville for Hare's Skylight. Directed by Richard Eyre, this had Nighy as Tom Sergeant, a widowed restaurateur who bursts back into the life of a former mistress. The play had been a success on opening two years earlier, with Michael Gambon in the lead, but Nighy made the part his own. Rangy and restless, he found more humour in the part than Gambon had (Nighy was notably keen to praise Gambon who, he said, had been especially kind and helpful to him in earlier years). Next would come more Pinter in A Kind Of Alaska at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Karel Reisz who'd made his name with Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and, later, The French Lieutenant's Woman. Inspired by Dr Oliver Sacks' book, Awakenings, this had Penelope Wilton slip into a narcoleptic coma at 16 and reawaken at 45 (Judi Dench had originated the role back in 1982). Nighy would play Dr Hornby, desperately trying to explain matters to an uncomprehending teenager suddenly trapped in a decaying body.

Now, at last, it began to happen. As said, Nighy's screen career had stagnated as no one was prepared to trust him in a really meaty role. Now they, or rather director Brian Gibson, did. The movie was called Still Crazy and concerned keyboardist Stephen Rea's attempt to reform his band, Strange Fruit, glam rockers big in the 1970s, who'd split after a disastrous gig and not spoken since. Written by comedy specialists Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and featuring a classy British cast including Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail, Phil Davis, Frances Barber and Rachael Stirling (in her movie debut), this saw Nighy as Ray Simms, the flamboyant lead singer now living in a Victorian mansion with his Swedish wife. Unable to deal with normal life, terrified of slipping back into drugs and drink, nagged by the missus, habitually making off-the-wall, possibly profound comments, he was a strange, pathetic yet likeable character and Nighy played him to a tee, drawing maximum emotion and comedy from the part. His wedding speech was a killer and the scene where he attempts to walk on ice in platforms an utter classic.

It was a huge role for Nighy, yet it had seemed so unpromising at first. Auditioning in a disused tax office on the outskirts of London, singing Smoke On The Water while dressed in loon pants and out-sized platforms and shoulder-pads, he'd wondered what the hell he was doing. But it worked. Though Still Crazy was not a hit, he was noticed and scored immediate cult status. Strange Fruit were even offered a fortune to tour US colleges.

1999 would see Nighy reunite with Chris Langham, his old pal from the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, starring in an episode of Langham's series People Like Us, playing a photographer completing a studio assignment and discussing his upcoming London exhibition. Then would come another guest spot, this time in Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson's outrageous comedy Guest House Paradiso where the comic couple would run the worst hotel in the world. Nighy and his younger "companion" would witness the chaos in the kitchen with Nighy annoying Mayall by mispronouncing his surname (it's not Twat, it's Thwaite!). Also appearing would be Fenella Fielding, Vincent Cassel, Sophia Myles and Simon Pegg, the last of whom would later habitually use Nighy in his own productions.

Onstage, Nighy would now score another hit in Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, first at the Cottesloe, then the Duchess. This would be set in a London mental hospital, where young patient Chewitel Ejiofor claims to be the son of an African dictator, his story becoming ever more plausible. Nighy would star as a senior consultant who uses the lad's condition to support his own theory of "black psychosis", causing arguments with registrar Andrew Lincoln. As Nighy slipped from assured calm to blistering rage, one began to wonder if he was a caring hippie type or really a Machiavellian careerist. It was a killer performance, deserving of the Olivier nomination Nighy received.

Though his stage career saw him achieve ever greater heights, Nighy was having to wait just a little longer for those consistently meaty onscreen roles. 2000 began with The Magic Of Vincent, a compelling comedy short co-starring Miranda Richardson and Emilia Fox where Nighy played a hypochondriac modern artist who, when life mysteriously imitates art, finds himself far beyond normal medical diagnosis. Following this, he'd be hired again by Charles Sturridge to appear in a stylish TV adaptation of Dava Sobel's bestselling Longitude. This would tell parallel stories, with Michael Gambon desperately seeking acceptance for his marine chronometer in the 18th Century, and Jeremy Irons obsessed with restoring the machine several hundred years later. Appearing also alongside Frank Finlay, Stephen Fry and, once again, John Normington, Nighy would be Lord Sandwich, Secretary of State and First Lord of the Admiralty, an early supporter of Gambon.

Nighy would next lend his voice to an animated stop-motion version of The Canterbury Tales by Jonathan Myerson, who'd earlier worked with him on Testament. This was a continuation of the bawdy Chaucer adaptation Myerson and Nighy had begun two years earlier. Next would come a brief spot in Kiss Me Kate, a sit com written by Chris Langham. Here Caroline Quentin would work in a small psychotherapy unit and be fancied by both Langham's depressed fellow therapist and the travel agent downstairs. Nighy would cause heartache as Langham's heart specialist brother, over from Canada and taking Quentin's fancy.

2001 would bring another string of limited but telling roles. In Blow Dry he'd be a flash south London coiffeur, a cheat and all-round swine who taunts a former rival, solid northern counterpart Alan Rickman, into taking him on in a UK hairdressing competition. Extra colour would be added by Josh Hartnett's relationship with Rachael Leigh Cook, and his courageous but supremely dodgy Yorkshire accent. Following this, Nighy would rejoin Tom Hollander in Lawless Heart which began at the funeral of a gay restaurateur and followed the stories of three people close to him - his lover, his brother-in-law and a childhood friend. Nighy would play the brother-in-law, profoundly tempted and tested when he's given the come-on by a French woman at a party. Nighy's indecision was a wonder to behold.

In Lucky Break, written by Stephen Fry and co-starring Nighy's Still Crazy co-star Timothy Spall, inmates in prison staged a musical about Nelson, written by governor Christopher Plummer, as a diversion when they attempted an escape. Nighy would play a white-collar criminal with access to loads of dosh on the outside. Then would come AKA, a real oddity which saw him appear alongside wife Diana Quick for the first time in nearly 20 years. Shot on video and employing a three-part split-screen, this would see Matthew Leitch as a poor London kid who poses as the son of Quick's aristocratic, art dealing uber-bitch, stealing credit cards and enjoying a wild time as a coke-snorting, disco-dancing toy boy to the richer homosexuals of Paris. Nighy, playing a relative of Quick's, would turn up in one pivotal scene, a posh dinner party where Leitch may easily be unmasked.

Nighy would now return to TV in an Inspector Lynley mystery, playing the smug headmaster at an elite boys' school, where cultish kids rule the roost and people are dying. He'd then rejoin the Still Crazy team of Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail and writers Clement and Le Frenais for a revival of the hit series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the lads this time having to dismantle a Middlesbrough bridge and rebuild it in Arizona. Nighy would be Jeffrey Grainger, a disgraced MP who spent time in jail with Nail and has come up with the scheme. Not as together or trustworthy as he seems, he's constantly in fear of a battering from Nail, Nighy making the most of his opportunities to flinch. Following this would come Ready When You Are, Mr McGill, a remake of a comedy first made in 1976 when it was directed by a young Mike Newell. In this 2003 version, Tom Courtenay would play the titular McGill, an extra with a single line whose efforts to be helpful lead to mounting chaos. Nighy would shine as the egotistical director, desperate to please the producers and writer yet constantly undermined by Courtenay.

As 2003 progressed, so Nighy's parts became more prestigious, more striking. In I Capture The Castle, based on Dodie Smith's novel, he was the head of an educated but naive and eccentric family living in a decrepit castle. Nighy's a previously successful writer, now going mad over writer's block and a consequent inability to make money. As his young daughters step into tangled romances, flaky wife Tara Fitzgerald tries to hold it all together, the bunch of them planning to shake Nighy out of his reclusive depression. After this would come Stephen Poliakoff's classy The Lost Prince, concerning Prince John, son of King George V, who suffered learning difficulties and epilepsy and was hidden away at Sandringham. Former Nighy co-stars Tom Hollander and Miranda Richardson would be the reigning monarchs, backed up by Frank Finlay and Michael Gambon, with Nighy playing the king's private secretary, absolutely bound by protocol, as the country is drawn relentlessly into WWI.

Nighy would be fortunate again with his next script. This was Paul Abbott's State Of Play, a political drama where a politician's research assistant's death and the shooting of a drug dealer are gradually linked and a dangerous relationship between government and big business revealed. Nighy would shine as the embattled editor of a newspaper digging into the case, hilariously sarcastic with his staff, brilliantly unhelpful to the police and hurt and touchy when dealing with his cocky journalist son, played by James McAvoy. The performance would win him a BAFTA.

He'd take another BAFTA for his next effort, in Richard Curtis's Love Actually. This tied together a series of separate stories, each dealing with different forms of love, in Curtis's usual easy-going, bitter-sweet style. The cast list was starry, including Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Hugh Grant, who'd last appeared alongside Nighy 18 years before in The Last Place On Earth. Still Nighy would steal the show as Billy Mack, a ravaged former rock star making a cynical attempt on the Christmas Number One spot, yet unable to hide his disdain for his own efforts. It was another winning performance, not as deep, flamboyant or moving as the ex rock star he'd played in Still Crazy but, given the profile of the movie, this would be the one that made him a household name.

Hollywood was now on the cards and Nighy made his blockbuster debut in Underworld, where vampires warred with werewolves and a vampy Kate Beckinsale struggled against a bloody conspiracy while being drawn into a toothy Romeo and Juliet scenario. Nighy would enjoy himself as Viktor, a vampire elder asleep for centuries and gradually achieving human form before menacing everyone. After this he'd reunite with his Van Load buddy Julie Walters in another shot at The Canterbury Tales, this time playing the lecherous husband who provokes Walters' Wife of Bath into an affair. Next he'd rejoin his former partner in psychedelic lunacy, Jim Broadbent, in The Young Visiters, written in 1891 by 9-year-old Daisy Ashford. Here Broadbent would play a bumbling ironmonger who falls for young Lyndsey Marshal then must leave her in the grasping hands of aristo Hugh Laurie as he seeks the education in nobility that will make him worthy of her. This is where Nighy came in, once more stealing the show as the comically haughty head of a high society boot camp.

By now, Simon Pegg, Nighy's co-star in Guest House Paradiso, had made his name and cast Nighy in his debut feature, Shaun Of The Dead. A zombie comedy, this would see Pegg and his mates holed up in their local as the undead wreak havoc outside. Martin Freeman would again be involved, as would Penelope Wilton, earlier Nighy's onstage co-star in A Kind Of Alaska. Nighy would play Wilton's husband, Pegg's stepfather, disapproving of Pegg and thoroughly ignorant when it came to zombie bites ("It's alright, I ran it under the cold tap"). Following this, Nighy would return to period drama in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right, adapted by Andrew Davies, famed for adding sexy bits to the classics. Here Oliver Dimsdale would be madly jealous over gorgeous young wife Laura Fraser, particularly as she spends so much time with Nighy, her charming, rakish godfather who makes a sport of chasing married ladies.

Having appeared in the Moment Theatre's Dumped The Musical on behalf of people with learning disabilities, Nighy would move on to Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, where a balloon accident causes deep psychological trauma among the participants. Daniel Craig's relationship with Samantha Morton begins to crumble as he tortures himself and is then stalked by an unhinged Rhys Ifans, Nighy appearing as a friend of Craig's who attempts to soothe his mind. Also appearing would be Ben Wishaw, who'd earlier featured alongside Nighy in Ready When You Are, Mr McGill.

Given his past, Nighy was a very reasonable choice to voice Dylan, the hippy rabbit, in a feature-length Magic Roundabout that saw him credited once more with Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone. Next would come the long-anticipated big screen version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, another chance to work alongside Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry and Kelly Macdonald, who'd co-starred in State Of Play. Here Nighy would produce yet another telling cameo as Slartibartfast, the apologetic planet builder charged with recreating Earth, who shows Freeman's Arthur Dent around his fantastical workshop. Following this would come The Girl In The Cafe, again written by Richard Curtis and co-starring Kelly Macdonald. Here Nighy would play a repressed government bureaucrat given tingling new life by his relationship with young Macdonald. Taking her to a G8 summit in Iceland, he wakes up even more when she reveals her righteous views on the responsibility of First World countries to end world poverty, Nighy now having to choose between his soul and his job. Again he was great in the part, particularly when he first meets Macdonald and rediscovers a beaming boyishness. His nomination for a Golden Globe was unexpected but long overdue.

Now in the big league, Nighy would move on to The Constant Gardener, his first Le Carre piece since The Little Drummer Girl, 21 years before. Here Ralph Fiennes would play a junior diplomat who falls for fiery activist Rachel Weisz and is drawn into a web of conspiracy and murder. Nighy would play his boss at the Foreign Office, suave and deeply sinister, as Fiennes seeks to uncover a plot whereby drug companies and gevernments are exploiting HIV Positive Africans. Weisz would win an Oscar for her efforts, and awards would also rain down on Nighy's next project, Gideon's Daughter. A reunion with Stephen Poliakoff, this would see Nighy star as a master spin doctor helping the government deal with the death of Lady Diana and prepare for their millennium blow-out. His constant reworking of the truth, though, has hollowed him out, and he must step away from his work to rekindle his relationship with disappointed daughter Emily Blunt and begin a new one with bereaved shopgirl Miranda Richardson. It was an affecting piece, but even Nighy and Richardson struggled at times with an over-wordiness that rang untrue. Still, Nighy's arrival at the top was rubber-stamped by the award of a Golden Globe.

Having appeared in flashback in a sequel to Underworld, where he's revealed to be the treacherous murderer of Kate Beckinsale's parents, Nighy would now enjoy his biggest hit yet when appearing as the wily and mean Davey Jones in the second Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, Dead Man's Chest. Uniting him once again with Tom Hollander and Keira Knightley, as well as the man who (arguably) made him, Jonathan Pryce, this saw him act under heavy CG effects as he led his revolting crew on a quest for Jack Sparrow's soul, adding much-needed menace to the knockabout action. He'd return to the franchise a year later for At World's End.

Having appeared briefly in Stormbreaker, where he played the MI6 boss who recruits young Alex Rider after his uncle, Ewan McGregor is offed by Russian heavy Damian Lewis, Nighy would add his vocals to another animation, this time Flushed Away, written by his former workmates Clement and La Frenais. Here he'd play a rat henchman of toad overlord Ian McKellen, sent to track down and catch cute rats Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman. More substantial by far would be Notes On A Scandal, a reunion with deep influence Judi Dench and Richard Eyre, who'd directed him in Skylight. Here Cate Blanchett would play an art teacher who begins a foolish affair with a young student, putting her under the power of Dench, a lonely fellow teacher who's obsessed with her. Nighy would add pain and pathos as Blanchett's older husband, a funny free spirit but still crushed by his wife's infidelity.

At the end of 2006, Nighy would make a hugely successful return to the stage when he rejoined another man who (arguably) made him, David Hare, in The Vertical Hour at the Music Box Theatre in New York. Directed by Sam Mendes and co-starring Julianne Moore, this would see Nighy as a reclusive doctor hostile to the Iraq war, but also expounding wittily on fathers and sons, the Sixties, sex and medicine. He really was dominant in the part, New York Times critic Ben Brantley agreeing with many others when noted that Nighy was notably better than both the play and his co-star.

Nighy would next be employed yet again by Simon Pegg, this time in Hot Fuzz, a cop show spoof where Pegg played a hot-shot detective who embarrasses his bosses with his efficiency and is shipped off to a quiet country outback. Nighy would play the chief inspector who does the dirty on him, backed by an officious Martin Freeman. Also onboard would be Jim Broadbent. Then he would return to Pirates Of The Caribbean.

On top of all of this, Bill Nighy has performed in any number of radio shows. He's become the great all-rounder: a star of radio, stage, TV and now the Silver Screen: an award-winner of the highest calibre, loved by the public whether he's playing a good guy, a sarky cynic or a heinous villain. Fame was a long, long time in coming, but the journey has been as rewarding for us as it has for him.

Dominic Wills

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