Uptight, diminutive, mustachioed, often "veddy" (though faux) British and unfailingly urbane: Texas-born John Hillerman created this classic supporting character for 1970s and '80s TV. After making an impression as arrogant 1940s radio show detective Simon Brimmer on the NBC revival of "Ellery Queen" (NBC, 1975-76), he further refined the character as the cold fish boss of Bonnie Franklin during the 1976-77 season of the long-running CBS sitcom "One Day at a Time." Hillerman fared well trading sarcastic quips with Betty White in the short-lived sitcom "The Betty White Show" (CBS, 1977-78). This clever spoof of the TV business revealed his mastery of the deadpan put-down as Hillerman played the estranged ex-husband and director of an Angie Dickinson-like actress in "Undercover Woman," a fictional cop show. He apotheosized the character as the long-suffering major domo Jonathan Higgins in the hugely popular detective comedy-drama "Magnum, P.I." (CBS, 1980-88), which would prove to be his best-known role. The young Hillerman majored in journalism at the University of Texas and did a stint in the Air Force (1953-57)--where he achieved the rank of sergeant--before moving from Texas to NYC to pursue a career in the theater. Hillerman lost his thick Southern drawl with a year of intensive speech training the American Theatre Wing (1958-59). He went on to an active 15-year stage career, eleven largely in New York and four in the Theater Club in Washington D.C. Hillerman racked up over a 100 leading roles on and off-Broadway in such plays as "Our Town," "Death of a Salesman," "The Lion in Winter," "The Little Foxes" and "The Seven Year Itch." One early stage role was playing a spear-carrier in a production of "Othello" where he met Peter Bogdanovich. Years later, the young writer-director would cast Hillerman in the landmark drama "The Last Picture Show," his film acting debut. Hillerman went on to work with Bogdanovich three more times, in screwball comedy "What's Up, Doc?" (1972), Depression-era comedy-drama "Paper Moon" (1973) as twins, a sheriff and a bootlegger; and throwback Cole Porter-inspired musical "At Long Last Love" (1975) as Burt Reynolds' smooth valet. In films, Hillerman proved most convincing as small-time authority figures tinged with corruption. His other significant credits from that era include Clint Eastwood's "High Plains Drifter" (1973) as the bootmaker; Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (1974) as local leader Howard Johnson; Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974) as Yelburton, a shady city official; and Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" (1975) as a feisty hood. Hollywood proved a hospitable home for the actor. Hillerman segued between features and TV before he struck paydirt as Jonathan Higgins, the repressed and paternalistic foil to the boyishly laid-back Tom Selleck. The role brought Hillerman wealth, international fame, a 1986/87 Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series and a Golden Globe that same year. It also provided Hillerman with the means for a comfortable retirement. After the series' end in 1988, Hillerman worked only sporadically, starring in the made for TV movie "Hands of a Murderer" (1990) and joining the cast of the sitcom "The Hogan Family" (NBC/CBS 1986-1991) for its final season before making his final film appearance in "A Very Brady Sequel" (1996). John Hillerman died on November 9, 2017 in Houston at the age of 84.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Had an early stage role as a spear-carrier in "Othello"; met future writer-director Peter Bogdanovich
TV-movie acting debut, "Sweet, Sweet Rachel"
Made feature debut in Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show"; first of four collaborations with the filmmaker
Played pompous radio show detective-cum-amateur criminologist Simon Brimmer in "Too Many Suspects", the TV-movie pilot for the NBC revival of "Ellery Queen"
Played the recurring role of Bonnie Franklin's boss on the popular sitcom "One Day at a Time"
Co-starred as the suave, sarcastic director ex-husband of the star of a TV cop show in the sitcom "The Betty White Show"
Made TV miniseries debut in "Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last"
Joined the cast of the sitcom "Valerie" for the final season; played the grandfather Lloyd Hogan
Portrayed Dr. John Watson (to Edward Woodward's Sherlock Holmes) in the CBS TV-movie "Hands of a Murderer"
Had final screen-acting role in "A Very Brady Sequel"