Having developed a reputation as a steady onscreen presence in his native England, actor Bernard Hill made a smooth and successful transition to Hollywood movies that culminated in a career-defining performance as Theoden, King of Rohan, in the second and third installments of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Prior to that, Hill earned a deal of celebrity with his noted performance in the acclaimed miniseries, "I, Claudius" (PBS, 1977), before he played the most popular character on the hit British series "Boys from the Blackstuff" (BBC2, 1980-82). Following a small, but career-boosting turn in the Oscar-winning "Gandhi" (1982), Hill amassed a number of films to his credit, including "The Bounty" (1984) and "Drowning by Numbers" (1988). He delivered a quality starring performance in the small drama, "Madagascar Skin" (1995), before appearing in major studio pictures like "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996) and "Titanic" (1997). But it was his role in "The Two Towers" (2002) and "The Return of the King" (2003) that helped the actor gain a strong foothold in the United States. With subsequent roles in big Hollywood movies like "The Scorpion King" (2002) and "Valkyrie" (2008), Hill was well-established as a prominent supporting player capable of turning in quality performances that helped anchor numerous hit movies.
Born on Dec. 17, 1944 in Manchester, England, Hill attended the Xaverian School before moving on to the Manchester School of Theatre, where he studied drama. A late bloomer, Hill began his professional career in the early 1970s with his acting debut in "Hard Labour" (1973), directed by fellow Englishman, Mike Leigh. In this made-for-television movie, Hill played Edward, son of a working-class family who must deal with a haranguing wife (Alison Steadman) that looks down upon his family. After making his stage debut in Willy Russell's "John, Paul, George, Ringo.and Bert" (1974), he made his feature debut in the British-made docudrama "It Could Happen to You" (1975). After a few more small movies, Hill landed an important role in arguably one of the greatest miniseries of all time, "I, Claudius" (PBS, 1977). Based on the novels by Robert Graves, "I, Claudius" followed the surprising rise of the lame and stuttering Claudius (Derek Jacobi) at the height of the Roman Empire. Hill played Gratus, procurator - a sort of consigliere to the Emperor - in Jerusalem during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (George Baker).
A few years later, Hill appeared in Alan Bleasdale's acclaimed television drama series, "Boys from the Blackstuff" (BBC2, 1980-82), a heartwarming, but ultimately tragic look at the lives of ordinary working-class people during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Hill played the show's most indelible character, Yosser Hughes, a man driven to the edge by the loss of his job, his wife and eventually his grip on life. The actor's portrayal earned Hill a nomination for a BAFTA Award, as well as the Press Guild Award for Achievement of the Decade. Hill next appeared as Sergeant Putnam in "Gandhi" (1982), one of Hollywood's greatest epic movies, directed by Richard Attenborough. Though not figuring prominently in the cast, Hill's career undoubtedly benefited from being part of a multi-Oscar winning film. Hill moved on to appear in Roger Donaldson's "The Bounty" (1984), another in a long line of dramatizations of the famed mutiny on the HMS Bounty. Hill starred alongside acting greats, including Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence Olivier and Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson. Following a supporting role in Peter Greenway's ensemble black comedy "Drowning by Numbers" (1988), he received critical acclaim for his performance as J in "Shirley Valentine" (1989), a romantic dramedy about a Liverpool housewife (Pauline Collins) who breaks away from her insufferable husband (Hill) with a fling while on vacation in Greece.
Hill added several more prominent films to his résumé that were made on both sides of the Atlantic, including "Mountains of the Moon" (1990), Bob Rafelson's drama about the adventures of 19th century explorers Sir Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Henning Speke (Iain Glen), and "Skallagrigg" (1994), a bleak drama about the abuse of disabled people in residential homes. In "Madagascar Skin" (1995), Hill played a heterosexual petty thief who meets a shy homosexual man (John Hannah) and eventually develops a relationship that grows from mistrust to friendship and finally attraction. In the mid-1990s, Hill began appearing in America-made films with more regularity. His first major role was as Dr. Hawthorne in "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996), starring Val Kilmer as a bridge-building engineer who must trust a big game hunter (Michael Douglas) to battle a pack of rampaging lions despite their mutual animosity. He next went down with the ship when he played Captain Edward J. Smith on the ill-fated "Titanic" (1997), directed by James Cameron. Being in the biggest grossing film of all time attracted considerable attention to his career despite his small part, as Hill became more sought-after for prominent supporting roles, like playing Philos in "The Scorpion King" (2002), starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson , Michael Clarke Duncan and Kelly Hu.
Hill's Hollywood career took a major leap forward when he tackled the part of Theoden, the 17th King of Rohan in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002). Theoden, once a mighty warrior, suffers under a spell cast on him by Saruman (Christopher Lee), the evil wizard controlled by Sauron, until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes to save him. Hill reprised his role in "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003), the highly-anticipated and multiple Oscar-winning final installment, which was released on the actor's 59th birthday. That same year, he co-starred opposite Robert Downey, Jr. and Halle Berry in the critically-maligned supernatural thriller "Gothika" (2003), while following up with a supporting part as the father of a journeyman professional tennis player (Paul Bettany) in the rather conventional romantic comedy "Wimbledon" (2004). Back in his native Britain, Hill was BAFTA-nominated for his portrayal of British Labour Party politician, David Blunkett, in "A Very Social Secretary" (Channel 4, 2005). After a small part in the British-made historical romp "Joy Division" (2006), Hill starred as the delusional Pharaoh, who declares war upon society's drug addicts and criminals, in the modern-day retelling of the biblical "Exodus" (Channel 4, 2007). Following a small unnamed role as a Nazi general in "Valkyrie" (2008), Hill starred as a deeply religious man in search of his son in the sci-fi dystopian drama, "Franklyn" (2009).
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Stage debut in Willy Russell's "John, Paul, George, Ringo . . . and Bert"
Made film debut with "It Could Happen To You"
Portrayed Gratus in "I, Claudius", the mini-series which followed the history of the Roman Empire
Appeared in Richard Attenborough's Film "Gandhi"
Earned widespread attention in for his portrayal of a road worker in the black comedy "Boys from the Black Stuff"
Played York in the three part mini series "Henry VI"
Appeared in "The Bounty" with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins
Played a computer systems analyst and hero in "Bellman & True"
Portrayed a boorish husband in "Shirley Valentine"
Featured in "Mountains of the Moon"
Appeared in the TV movie "Dirtysomething" with Rachel Weisz
Dazzled as the eccentric Flint in "Madagascar Skin"
Played Dr. David Hawthorne in "The Ghost and the Darkness", with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas
Appeared with Emily Watson in "The Mill on the Floss"
Played Capt. Edward J. Smith in James Cameron's "Titanic", which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
Featured in "True Crime", which starred Clint Eastwood, who also directed
Had role in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Which starred Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer
Played Philos in "The Scorpion King", which starred The Rock
Appeared as Theoden in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
Acted in the Thriller "Gothika", which starred Robert Downey Jr. and Halle Berry
Revised role of Theoden in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
Appeared in the romantic comedy "Wimbledon"
Starred in the musical comedy "The Boys and Girl from County Clare"