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Brian Cox - Biography

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Brian Cox

Personal details

Name: Brian Cox
Born: 1 June 1946 (Age: 69)
Where: Dundee, Scotland
Height: 5' 7"
Awards: 1 BAFTA and 1 Golden Globe nominations

All about this star


Back when he was young and painfully ambitious, Brian Cox was advised that he should forget about fame and concentrate instead on becoming a great actor. If he managed that, he was told, then the fame would inevitably come. Well, he did, and it has.

Two things are amazing about this. First, that his mentor was none other than Fulton McKay, known to most as the militaristic prison guard who so enjoyed bullying Ronnie Barker in Porridge. Second, that it should have taken Cox so long to achieve genuine Hollywood recognition. He'd been renowned in British theatre and on Broadway for decades, he'd been a cult star for his original portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's Manhunter, but it wasn't until his mid-fifties that he really broke through in films. When he did, it was with a phenomenal run of hits - first sleeper hit The Rookie, then The Bourne Identity, The Ring, Adaptation, 25th Hour and then an entry into blockbusters with X-Men 2. And once there, he would stay there. Playing Agamemnon to Brad Pitt's Achilles in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy could hardly damage a fellow's profile, after all.

For Cox, more than most actors, it has been a hard and strange road. He was born Brian Denis Cox in Dundee on the 1st of June, 1946. His family was of Irish extraction, his ancestors having come to Scotland in the mid-1800s to seek employment in the new manufacturing industries and escape the Potato Famine. His father, Charles (known as Chic) was a weaver, his mother Mary was a spinner in the mills. There was no theatrical background here at all, Brian's later calling being a fluke of nature. As he himself told Radio 4: "I just think I sprang from my mother's womb as a performer, even my birth was dramatic. I was a double breach, apparently, and I came out (with) my own umbilical cord around my neck. There was nothing very quiet about it! You know, massive attention seeker from the off".

The youngest of five children, Brian was troubled from the start. He was academically poor - it's been claimed he learned to read by listening to his sister's records and checking the words sung against the lyrics written on the record sleeves - and he was the victim of much bullying. Even now he expresses wonder at children's capacity for cruelty. To escape this punishment, he became the class clown. Indeed, despite the seriousness and intensity of most of his later roles, comedy was his first love, particularly the films of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Cox would later explain that American cinema had the deepest influence on him, not the English variety. This was why his ultimate target was always Hollywood success.

The Cox family was very poor. Brian recalls how every Thursday he'd be sent to the chip shop to collect the batter scrapings for their tea. But it got infinitely worse when, at nine years old, he lost his father to cancer. Devastated, Mary found it very difficult to cope and suffered a breakdown. Brian would once return home from school to find her with her head in the gas oven. Eventually, she would receive electro-shock treatment. She would never be the same again and would die in 1973. With his mother in such a state, Brian was raised by an older sister, and by his aunt. Shifting constantly between the two homes would at least prepare him for the itinerant life of the jobbing actor.

Though he had no one pushing him, still this born performer found his way onto the stage. At 14, he found himself passing the local theatre and decided to wander inside. The scene that greeted him might well have caused him to leave again, sharpish. Inside he found Nicol Williamson engaged in a fist-fight with the stage manager. The pair were knocking seven bells out of one other, yet still referring to each other as "darling". To the young Cox, used to a hard time, this was utterly compelling. He stuck around. The Dundee Repertory Company made him feel more than welcome (a rare experience), allowing him to help out around the place, cleaning up and, just before his 15th birthday even making his stage debut in Dover Road. He loved it, and left school forthwith.

After two years with the Dundee Rep, where he would closely watch the actors around him, picking up their moves and methods, he graduated to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, then turned pro at the tender age of 19. Coming from true working class stock, he wanted to get on with earning a wage. He returned to Scotland, working with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh, then moved on to the Birmingham Repertory Company, with them making his London stage debut in As You Like It in 1967. There'd be some TV work, too, most notably The Year Of The Sex Olympics, an extraordinarily prescient sci-fi piece written by Nigel Kneale, starring Leonard Rossiter and concerning the horrible possibilities of Reality TV.

Come 1971 there was more TV with an adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer which saw Brian appearing alongside Tom Courtenay and Ralph Richardson. And there was a film debut proper in the epic Nicholas And Alexandra, about the fall of Russia's last tsar, with Cox showing briefly as Trotsky. It was a role that echoed his own left-wing leanings but, more importantly, placing him alongside Janet Suzman, Michael Redgrave, Jack Hawkins and Eric Porter, it pointed to Cox's fast-growing reputation as a thespian. Indeed, he was coming to be known as "Scotland's answer to Marlon Brando".

Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, he made very few screen appearances. Instead, he concentrated on his stage career, taking on the likes Peer Gynt, Romeo And Juliet, Othello, When We Dead Awaken, In Celebration (as a miner's son, a role he'd reprise on screen in 1975 with Alan Bates as his angry brother and Lindsay Anderson as director), Hedda Gabler and Cromwell. 1977 saw him as an excellent Brutus in Julius Caesar, 1980 brought the title role in Macbeth. By now he was a renowned lead actor, moving on to Herod, Danton's Death, Misalliance, Three Sisters and The Taming Of The Shrew, for which he was named Best Actor by the British Theatre Association. He'd also played the dangerously obsessive and one-legged Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. During one performance, two schoolboys had taken to shouting "Peggy!" whenever Cox came onstage. Remembering a lecture by Alec Guinness he'd attended at LAMDA where the great man had said of the audience "It is an unruly beast, to be tamed and kept firmly in its place", and knowing that he had a big speech coming up, Cox turned to the kids and bellowed "And you two can leave the theatre for a start!" Immediately, an embarrassed master dragged the cheeky pair out by their rapidly reddening ears.

It should all have been going well. Not only was Cox established as one of the country's finest stage actors, but his home life was secure, too. Wanting stability, he'd married actress Caroline Burt back in 1968 and had two children. These were Alan, born in 1960 and later to star as Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes, and Margaret, born seven years later and going on to earn a PhD in Japanese cinema. But Brian wasn't happy. As said, he was hugely ambitious and not satisfied by his stage success. On TV, he'd had small parts in Laurence Olivier's King Lear and a biopic of Pope John Paul II, with Albert Finney in the title role, but nothing fulfilling was coming his way. Nevertheless, he continued to follow Fulton McKay's advice and worked at his craft. Not that he ever suffered over his research, mind. Cox once famously said "Research is bollocks. Research is an excuse for a lack of talent ... It's all about the imagination - there's the script and you just do it".

1984 saw him starring with Glenda Jackson in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, which won him another British Theatre Association award, and took him to Broadway. Now in America, he felt he should give Hollywood a shot. He'd always felt that theatre was something of a middle class pursuit and that films were more in keeping with his own background.

He didn't get there straight away - first he had to suffer in a Florence Nightingale biopic starring Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith. But luckily, he had been spotted onstage in the US by casting director Bonnie Timmermann. The role she gave him - ahead of Mandy Patinkin, John Lithgow and the early favourite Brian Dennehy - was that of Hannibal Lecter (here spelt Lecktor) in Manhunter, Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris's best-seller Red Dragon.

Ordinarily, playing a serial killer (and a cannibalistic one, to boot) would give an actor a welcome chance to chew the scenery. But Cox, now 40 and hugely experienced in the subtleties of Shakespearian tragedy, went entirely the other way. His Lecter was cold and thoughtful, deliberately hiding his monstrous nature behind a thick layer of banality. When William Petersen's FBI agent Will Graham comes to him for help in snaring the murderous Tooth Fairy, Cox's reaction is appropriately complex. He's curious, even keen to show the superiority of his intellect to that of Graham. But he's also resentful that he's being kept caged, and his pride has been damaged by his being caught by Graham in the first place. And he's sneaky - by God, he's sneaky. When he finally agrees to collaborate, just as Graham is leaving, he slides in a quick and thoroughly off-hand "Would you like to leave me your home phone number, Will?" It's a chilling reminder that he's always, always alert. Even in prison he's still looking to exert control, to inflict pain.

It was a brilliant display by Cox, one that Anthony Hopkins could match only by employing extra flamboyance. But, weirdly, it didn't launch Brian in America as he'd hoped. For a start, financial problems for producer Dino Di Laurentiis meant the film was never given a full release, and the situation wasn't helped by Cox's shattering marriage (divorce came in 1986, the same year Manhunter came out) and a desire to be with his children. During the remainder of the Eighties he appeared in only a small handful of TV movies, including A Shadow On The Sun, a kind of low-grade Out Of Africa with Stefanie Powers as the famed author and adventuress Beryl Markham.

So, instead of Hollywood fame, he had to make do once more with stage celebrity. This didn't pain him overly as he believed he still needed to hone his craft. And how he honed it. Having earlier won an Olivier award for Rat In The Skull at the Royal Court, 1988 saw him pick up another for his Titus Andronicus at the RSC's Swan Theatre (coincidentally, Hopkins had been playing Titus while Cox played Lecter, now Hopkins would be Lecter while Cox was Titus). Then came King Lear at the National Theatre, directed by Deborah Warner - another triumph for Cox which saw him touring with the production to Bucharest, Tokyo, Cairo and Paris - a journey detailed in his first book, The Lear Diaries. Bright and erudite, Cox would later pen From Salem To Moscow, an account of his time teaching at the Arts Theatre School in Moscow (he'd also teach at Harvard and Cal Arts and release a video course called Acting And Tragedy). He'd furthermore regularly comment on the arts for the New York Times as well as provide articles for Esquire, Vanity Fair and The Tatler.

Still unable to get arrested in Hollywood, Brian had decided to continue his campaign of self-improvement by balancing his theatre career with an attempt to learn the art of screen-acting. To do this, he threw himself into a series of TV roles and low budget movies. Murder By Moonlight was a silly sci-fi effort that saw Brian and fellow stage-star Jane Lapotaire criminally playing second fiddles to Brigitte Nielsen and Julian Sands. Then he played news editor Andrew Neil in Secret Weapon, following the story of renegade Israeli technician Griffin Dunne who's being tailed by beautiful agent Karen Allen.

Then Brian's projects suddenly upped in quality. Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda followed Cox as he conducted an investigation in Northern Ireland, an investigation that gradually revealed corruption reaching from locally sanctioned murder to the highest echelons of the British government. Again Brian was in peak form, his character's reactions echoing the massive complexity of the political situation. Immediately, he moved on to another winner, winning a BAFTA nomination for The Lost Language Of Cranes. This saw him with Eileen Atkins as a middle-aged couple whose family life is turned upside-down when son Angus MacFadyan declares himself to be gay. Again Cox played a character torn by circumstance, as his Owen Benjamin has homosexual secrets of his own.

Now moving into an intensely prolific period that would last for over a decade, Cox appeared in several historical miniseries - Red Fox, The Big Battalions and, as the hero's Irish mentor Major Hogan, two episodes of the Sharpe series. Better was Fay Weldon's sci-fi drama The Cloning Of Joanna May, where he played a madly selfish scientist who, having been divorced from wife Patricia Hodge, makes three copies of her, with the intention of marrying the most acceptable once they reach maturity. After this he starred as the titular colonel in the miniseries Gruschko, took on Disney's dog-sled drama Iron Will and returned to Shakespeare, alongside Gabriel Byrne and Helen Mirren in Prince Of Jutland.

The mid-Nineties saw his second assault on Hollywood, an effort based on two roles that took him right back to his Scottish roots. First came Rob Roy, where he played the arch-snitch Killearn, making personal profit from the confrontation between Tim Roth's hilariously vile aristocrat and Liam Neeson noble Highland hero. And then there was Braveheart. Cox had actually received the scripts for Rob Roy and Braveheart at the same time and decided to go with the former, considering it to be a better piece of work. Then Mel Gibson called to ask which part he wanted to play - he could pick and choose. So he chose to be Argyle Wallace, William's uncle, who protects him when his father is killed. He was supposed to appear throughout the movie, but Brian felt this to be unnecessary so Gibson cut out all but the sequences at the beginning. Even so, Cox still felt Braveheart to be "John Wayne in kilts".

Pausing briefly to blow away the critics with a performance of "wild abandon" in The Music Man in Regent's Park, now he took on America in earnest, taking every part that came his way in order to school himself in movie acting. In Chain Reaction he was the enigmatic Lyman Collier, heavily implicated when Keanu Reeves helps discover a pollution-free fuel and is framed for murder. Then he planned an illegal chemical weapons deal, before being thwarted by Steven Seagal in The Glimmer Man. After this came the superior action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight, where he played the devious ex-boss of Geena Davis's amnesiac super-agent, stealing the show with his outrageous monologue about dogs licking themselves. It was a part he played with zero preparation when Dustin Hoffman failed to show up.

As said, The Long Kiss Goodnight was a success and Brian followed it with another, playing the police chief who's none too pleased when Morgan Freeman tries to solve his serial murder case in Kiss The Girls. Then came Desperate Measures, where he was another cop, this time chasing fellow cop Andy Garcia who's trying to keep killer Michael Keaton alive so he can donate bone marrow to his dying son.

Brian would return briefly to Ireland to play Joe Hamill in Jim Sheridan's Oscar-nominated The Boxer. Here he was an IRA boss trying to negotiate peace while being menaced by extremists and having his daughter Emily Watson wooed by returning jailbird Daniel Day-Lewis. Then it was back to the US for Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs, with James Caan as an ageing Phillip Marlowe.

Unbelievably, he still found time for some stage work, taking on Conor McPherson's one-man play St Nicholas in the UK and the US, and taking over from Alan Alda in the New York production of Art. He'd later open the new Royal Court with Dublin Carol.

But his success onscreen was now burgeoning. In Wes Anderson's excellent Rushmore he played the headmaster persecuted and patronised by a super-keen student. This was a piece co-written by Owen Wilson, and Cox would next star alongside Wilson in the foolishly ignored The Minus Man. Here Cox played the unhappy husband of Mercedes Ruehl, their already troubled lives being hopelessly undermined when they take in drifter Wilson, a seemingly sweet lad who turns out to be an alarmingly smart murderer.

1999 would see another progression. First came The Corrupter where he played the ex-cop father of Mark Wahlberg, himself an Internal Affairs operative who's involved in a turf war in Chinatown. Then came Sam Raimi's For Love Of The Game, with Kevin Costner as a pitcher at the end of his career and Cox as the team's ruthless owner who's looking to sell both Costner and the franchise.

If Brian was prolific before, now he went into overdrive. As if making up for lost time, 2000 would see him appear in no less than eight productions. There was the classy TV drama Longitude, Karen Black's The Invention Of Dr Morel, Iain Banks' seedy psycho-thriller Complicity, and sex-war comedy Whipped. Beyond these there was Mad About Mambo, mixing football and religious conflict in Belfast. Then came the miniseries Nuremberg where Cox brought a disturbing humanity to Reichmarshal Hermann Goering (winning an Emmy for his efforts), and then more football with A Shot At Glory where Robert Duvall played the manager of a lowly Scottish team that must win the cup or be moved to Ireland by manipulative owner Michael Keaton. Brian played the tough trainer of Rangers, also in pursuit of cup glory. And finally came Saltwater, another Irish effort that fused three separate stories, one involving a kid who plans a robbery to help Brian, his impoverished, chip shop-owning dad.

That same year he would make his TV directing debut when he helmed an episode of the prison drama Oz. It was a logical progression from his stage career, where he'd directed many times, starting back in 1973 with The Man With The Flower In His Mouth and continuing through I Love My Life, Mrs Warren's Profession, The Philanderer, The Master Builder and Richard III.

Still burning to work, Cox continued to flit between big budgets and interesting indie fare. 2001 saw him as the boss of practical joke-obsessed state policemen in Super Troopers, and in the 14th Century morality play The Reckoning. Strictly Sinatra had him as a Glasgow gangster who draws club singer Ian Hart further into a life of crime, while The Affair Of The Necklace had him as a shrewd minister of Marie Antoinette, contemplating the downfall of the Bourbon dynasty while the queen is being ripped off by Hilary Swank. Best of the year, though, was LIE (standing for Long Island Expressway). This was a really risky part where Cox played Big John Harrigan, an all-round macho pillar of the community who's also a pederast, beginning a relationship with a 15-year-old housebreaker. The boy offers him sex but Harrigan's desires are far more complex than that, and Cox does a fantastic job in showing this, never allowing the audience to fully understand and therefore be able to judge the man. For it, he was recognised as Best Actor by the Boston Society of Film Critics. Cox revealed that, when a kid himself, he had known a similar man named John. Young Brian would spend time sat in the corner of John's shop, knowing that John had unusual feelings for him, but also understanding that he was protected by some kind of emotional or social "wall".

If anything, 2002 was his best year yet. First came the low-budget Bug, concerning the chain of events set in motion by a kid crushing an insect. Cox played the germ-phobic owner of a take away restaurant who at one point orders a chef to wash some pig's blood off the sidewalk with a hilariously peremptory "Clean up that death!" Next came a surprise hit with his second baseball effort, The Rookie, where he was the overbearing father of a baseball prodigy. The kid grows up to be Dennis Quaid, a teacher who manages to break into the major leagues at the age of 35. It was notable that, such is Cox's gravitas, he was able to play the father of an actor only eight years his junior. When this was mentioned to Brian himself, he laughed and added that when he played King Lear his daughter had been 12 years his senior.

The Rookie launched Brian on a screaming series of hits, unrivalled by anyone in 2002. First he was the sinister spymaster trying to eliminate Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity (after The Long Kiss Goodnight, this was the second time he'd played the boss of an amnesiac secret agent). Then came The Ring where he was a weird and hostile recluse who might know the truth behind Naomi Watts' killer video. After this he played a smug screenwriting guru helping Nicolas Cage in Spike Jonze's Oscar-nominated Adaptation. And finally there was Spike Lee's 25th Hour where Cox was a bar owner who puts up bail for his son Ed Norton (who'd played Will Graham in the recent remake of Manhunter), allowing him to re-evaluate his life before going down for seven years. What a run. 25th Hour and Adaptation were both big cult hits, while The Rookie, The Bourne Identity and The Ring respectively took $75 million, $121 million and $129 million at the US box-office. Brian had the talent and experience - now he had the figures to match. Oh, and he'd won another honour when he was Emmy-nominated for his performance as Daphne Moon's father in Frasier.

Where to go now but into the realm of the blockbuster? Director Bryan Singer had seen Cox's amazing performance in LIE and now cast him in X-Men 2 as General William Stryker. Having sired a mutant child, tried but failed to cure it and watched his wife commit suicide as a result, Stryker it is who devises the "containment" policy designed to wipe out all mutants, thereby driving the heroes of X-Men 1 into cahoots with their arch-enemy Magneto. It was an excellent super-hero story with Brian in the prime role. He was made, and quickly moved onto Sin, a revenge drama with Ving Rhames and Gary Oldman, and then the mythological epic Troy, playing Agamemnon, head of the Greek forces, with Brendan Gleeson (co-star of most of Brian's Irish movies) as Menelaus and Sean Bean (his old Sharpe co-star) as Odysseus.

Life for Brian Cox was set fair. Now living with Nicole Ansari, a German actress some 20 years his junior, he fathered another boy in 2002, the same year he was awarded the CBE. It was unlike him to accept the award. After all, he was a keen opponent of the English feudal system and had been quoted as saying he'd like separate English and Scottish states. But, he said, he had learned to be "gracious".

In fact, he's learned to be many things. By an extraordinary effort of application he's become a star of stage, TV and cinema. And he's bound to get even bigger. After all, despite his outrageous success, most people are only now coming to remember his name.

Dominic Wills


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