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Ian Holm Malleable "Bilbo Baggins" Dies At 88

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Ian Holm, a virtuosic British actor celebrated for his performances in plays by Shakespeare and Harold Pinter and most notably Lord of the Rings as Hobbit Bilbo Baggins has died aged 88. Isabella Riggs, an employee of his agents, Markham, Froggatt & Irwin, confirmed the death, in a hospital. She said the cause was an illness related to Parkinson’s disease.

A character actor who eventually played leading roles, Mr Holm had a kind of magical malleability, with a range that went from the sweet-tempered to the psychotic. In the theatre, he ran the gamut of Shakespeare, from the high-spirited Prince Hal to the tormented King Lear, and he left his imprint on two roles in Mr Pinter’s “The Homecoming”: the sleek, entrepreneurial Lenny and his autocratic father, Max.

In films, Mr Holm incarnated characters of diverse geographic origin and nature, including a tough New York cop in “Night Falls on Manhattan” (1996), a big-city negligence lawyer in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) and a bohemian genius manqué in the title role in Stanley Tucci’s “Joe Gould’s Secret” (2000). Exploring the world of fantasy, he was a malfunctioning robot in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) and the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) and “The Return of the King” (2003), from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Mr Jackson’s subsequent “Hobbit” films. Other notable productions include “Time Bandits” (1981); a thriving competitor of Stanley Tucci’s struggling restaurateur in “Big Night” (1996); the physician to the king in “The Madness of King George” (1994); and the scientist’s elderly father in Mr Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’” (1994). Other films included Terry Gilliam’s dystopian “Brazil” (1985) and Luc Besson’s science-fiction drama “The Fifth Element” (1997).

On television, Mr Holm did “The Browning Version,” “Murder by the Book” (he was Hercule Poirot to Ms Ashcroft’s Agatha Christie), “The Last of the Blonde Bombshells” (with Ms Dench) and “The Borrowers,” a 1992 mini-series in which he appeared with his wife at the time, Penelope Wilton, who later played the widowed Isobel Crawley in “Downton Abbey.” (That marriage ended in divorce in 2001.)

Mr Holm as Frodo Baggins in the 1981 BBC radio version of “The Lord of the Rings.” But later in his career he was much better known for playing another hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, in the highly successful “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movie trilogies. These were roles he was naturally suited to, not just because of his acting skill but also because of his size — at 5 feet 5 inches he had the perfect height for a hobbit.

“I’m completely amazed by the reaction that the films have had,” he told the British newspaper The Independent in 2004. “I get a lot of fan mail addressed to Bilbo and sometimes Sir Bilbo,” he said. “It’s hardly ever addressed to Ian Holm.” He made sure to sign replies with his character’s name, he added.

Explaining his ability to immerse himself in such disparate characters, Mr Holm said simply, “I’m a chameleon.” The transformation was emotional as well as physical, as he discovered new depths of compassion even in the most unlikely characters.

Ian Holm Cuthbert was born on Sept. 12, 1931, in Goodmayes, England, northeast of London, to Jean Wilson (Holm) Cuthbert, a nurse, and Dr James Harvey Cuthbert, a psychiatrist. Because his father was the superintendent of a mental hospital, Mr Holm was fond of saying that he had been born “in a loony bin,” hinting that it qualified him to be an actor.

After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he made his stage debut at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1954 as a spear carrier in “Othello.” He was a member of the Shakespeare company there for two years, then made his London debut in 1956 in “Love Affair.”

He is survived by his fourth wife, Sophie de Stempel; five children; and eight grandchildren, Ms Riggs, of his agency, said.

Mr Holm was knighted in 1998.