American stage and screen actor William Hootkins (pictured) - who lived and worked for many years in the UK and was last seen on the London stage in Hitchcock Blonde - has passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed earlier this year, he died yesterday (Sunday 23 October 2005) at St Johns Hospital in Santa Monica near his Californian home. He was 58.
Born in Dallas, Texas on 5 July 1948, the ebullient Hootkins – known as Bill or ‘Hoot’ to his friends - made his stage debut in a local school production that co-starred a fellow student who later had success in Hollywood, Tommy Lee Jones. He initially tried to distance himself from drama by studying astrophysics and Chinese linguistics at Princeton University, but soon became involved with Princeton’s Intime Theatre group. On the recommendation of his friend, John Lithgow, he moved to the UK after graduation to study at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) and subsequently made his home in this country.
In a busy career, Hootkins worked regularly on both sides of the Atlantic. His first film role was in 1977, playing Jedi fighter Jek Porkins in George Lucas' Star Wars. Though the part was small, it had a big impact. He joked in a Whatsonstage.com interview two years ago (See 20 Questions, 28 Jul 2003): “In a sense, my career's been downhill ever since. Fans still come to greet me at the stage door with action figures of my character and embarrassing photographs for me to sign.”
But such recognition did have its upside. As he also told Whatsonstage.com: “I still didn't realise what power would come from that job until a year later I received my first fan letter. In it was a drawing of my scene by a little boy, and it was actually a clearer and more understandable version of the scene than George Lucas'! He asked if he could have an autographed photo. When I checked the return address, it was the leukaemia ward of a children's hospital. It's a blessing to me that I have any power to make even the tiniest difference in other people's lives.”
More screen roles followed Star Wars, including two Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Three Men in a Restaurant, The Magnificent Ambersons, This World Then the Fireworks, The Island of Dr Moreau, Town & Country, A River Runs Through It and the upcoming Colour Me Kubrick, starring John Malkovich. On the small screen, Hootkins appeared in a host of popular US and UK programmes, such as Cheers, Poirot, Cagney & Lacey, Taxi, The New Statesman, Tales of the Unexpected and Blackadder.
Amongst his British stage credits were: Dreams in an Empty City and What a Way to Run a Revolution in the West End; Orpheus Descending at the Donmar Warehouse; The Dentist, The Watergate Tapes and Terry Johnson’s Insignificance at the Royal Court.
Hootkins returned to the Court in April 2003 to star in Johnson’s Hitchcock Blonde which transferred that summer to the West End’s Lyric Theatre where he reprised his performance as Alfred Hitchcock alongside other original cast members including Rosamund Pike and David Haig. The Texan actor’s uncanny portrayal of the eccentric British film director earned him a Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he is pictured at our awards launch party in November 2003).
In explaining his commitment to British theatre, Hootkins told Whatsonstage.com: “The arts are not an additional luxury, they are the centre of life - especially at a time when our behaviour towards each other is so worrying and under so much scrutiny. Theatre is the laboratory in which we study ourselves and we definitely need to understand ourselves better.”
He is survived by his wife of three months, Carolyn Robb.
- by Terri Paddock
FROM WRITER-DIRECTOR TERRY JOHNSON:
“I gave a party to thank Bill and everyone concerned with Hitchcock Blonde, and I served a buffet that had spread over a couple of tables. Bill beamed. ‘Ah,’ he said, You are privy to the Epicurean secret of the cold platter...’ (He paused for effect) ‘... rrrelish!’
“Which was something Bill dedicated his life to. He relished many, many things, from Cairo by moonlight to Mandarin offal feasts, from his eleven languages to his collection of dinosaur dung, from his 29 hour CD set of Moby Dick (read entirely by William Hootkins), to a good cigar, loud company, and louder shirts. He relished work, he relished women, and in both spheres, he relished a challenge.
“His performances were memorable. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his infinitely detailed characterisation of Hitchcock (not to mention the joy of watching him trying to seduce Tippi Hedren into spilling the beans). His early demise in the Star Wars trilogy spawned a website (Google ‘Porkins’), dedicated to his character's purportedly deleted scenes, and a rock band in Wales called, imaginatively, Bill Hootkins. Such was his charm, his disgusting abuse of the leading lady in the film Hardware led to a 20-year friendship. Stacey (Travis) was at his bedside with friends and family, having smuggled his small, loyal, and slightly insane dog into the hospital.
“I saw Bill a few months ago, when a cerebral accident had added a random element to his loquacious vocabulary. His sense of irony was undiminished, so he relished this new language too, and imbued it with the same enthusiasms, the same love of the world around him, the same urge to share it. Looking out proudly at his uninhabited view of the less populated side of the Hollywood Hills, he stood, surrounded by a dedicated and witty collection of cactii, on his grassy patio, and gestured around him. He searched for words, then beamed and said, grandiloquently: ‘You, here. Everyone. Anytime.’
“He won't be forgotten, because he was kind of unforgettable. A splendid, hedonistic apostle for one of life's big lessons. That some men live, and other men live. Thanks, Bill. Fair speed.”