In Memoriam: Bernard Hill

Bernard Hill as King Theoden staring at his sword in 'Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'

Bernard Hill as King Theoden staring at his sword in 'Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'

New Line Cinema

On Sunday, May 5, 2024, the BBC announced that actor Bernard Hill had passed away at the age of 79. Most Americans first saw Hill in the 1997 smash hit Titanic. In it, he played the ill-fated Captain Edward J. Smith, the man who led the ocean liner on her maiden voyage and, at his own insistence, nobly went down with the ship when she sank. Though his story was not the main one, his performance was memorable enough for him to become one of the British Actor "That Guys" of the era, and he found himself cast whenever a "British Man of Gravatas" was required in pop films, like Clint Eastwood's True Crime, or 2002's The Scorpion King, the film that first helped Dwayne Johnson shed his wrestling persona.

But Hill was already nearly three decades deep into his career at that point, having been on the BBC since 1973, and a few of those series had even made it across the pond in the early years of PBS' Masterpiece Theater. Unlike many British actors of his generation, Hill did not come from an acting family, nor was he from the middle to upper-middle classes, where acting was considered a perfectly acceptable career pursuit. Born in Manchester in December 1944 at the end of the Second World War, Hill was raised a strict Catholic from a working-class family of miners, the type of family that suffered abject poverty in the first years after the war, driving the Churchill government to create such nationalized institutions as the NHS. 

A peer of the late Richard Griffiths at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama, he graduated in 1970. His early work was mostly as a regular player in BBC dramas and TV films until he broke out in the 1979 hit The Black Stuff. Even so, it wasn't until Titanic that he first became recognized in America, and a few years later, when he got all the best speeches in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, that he became a household name.

Let's run down some of his best, most memorable roles and where you can watch them.

'I, Claudius'

Robert Graves' I, Claudius (or I·CLAVDIVS if you must) was one of the breakout hits for Masterpiece Theater early on in the anthology series' run. Most people remember the main cast who dominated the series, from Derek Jacobi as the titular narrator, Siân Phillips' murderous Livia, John Hurt's over-the-top Caligula, or Patrick Stewart's pre-balding Sejanus. However, Bernard Hill is part of an array of young cast members in two-or-three-episode-long roles who would go on to be major names in subsequent decades, including David Robb, Kevin McNally, James Faulkner, John Rhys-Davies, and Jim Carter

Hill landed the role of Gratus, a real-life figure in the Roman empire and a major figure who helped Claudius rise to the Imperial Throne. Historians believe he was part of a faction actively looking for Claudius during the aftermath of Caligula's fall, intent on making sure he ascended, though his role was only a minor one in Graves' book, and the series makes it seem more accidental. (Though, as viewed through Claudius' eyes, it probably seemed that way.)

All episodes of I, Claudius are streaming on Acorn TV.

'The Black Stuff'

Hill spent almost a decade playing roles like the one in I, Claudius, paying his dues, as it were, and working his way up the BBC ranks. In 1979, it paid off, as he landed his first leading role in a BBC TV movie, The Black Stuff, part of the ongoing Play for Today anthology series, which had cast Hill in supporting roles several times. Hill played Jimmy "Yosser" Hughes, a Liverpudlian whose wife despises him and (it is suggested) is not the father of any of their children. Having spent time in the Middle East and used those earnings to buy a house he cannot actually afford, Hughes now works as part of a group of tarmac layers who join together on a gamble, only to be swindled out of their life savings. 

The play's dark themes and the ugly side of Thatcher's England portrayed in the film got it held for over a year, finally broadcast in 1980. However, it was such a critical darling that the BBC made the five-part follow-up Boys from the Blackstuff. Set in 1982, Yosser is now unemployed, spending his days on the dole line or the street yelling his catchphrase, "Gizza job" ("Give us a job"), which became the miners' rallying on the strike line that year. The show is rough stuff; there's an episode where U.K. cops force their way into Yosser's house and beat him senseless, his children are taken away from him, and he attempts suicide. Hill is still remembered in the U.K. for that role today.

Both The Black Stuff and Boys from the Blackstuff are streaming on BritBox.


I mean, what does one say about James Cameron's Titanic, the three-and-a-quarter-hour epic romantic disaster film that hasn't been said since it became one of the biggest smash hit movies of the 1990s? Everyone focuses on the story of Rose and Jack and whether or not they would have both fit on the door, but the movie is so much more than that. It's a historical epic and a disaster film, and Hill's role as Edward Smith, who was supposed to be captaining his final voyage before retirement, is perfect as a part of those other halves of the film.

Though there are accounts that claim Smith broke and ran, trying to save himself on a lifeboat that capsized, leaving him to freeze to death in the water, the film is having none of that. Hill gets to go out like a hero, refusing to leave the mighty ship and retreating into the wheelhouse on the bridge as the ship sinks, determined to go down with her, dying when the windows burst from the water pressure while he clings to the ship's wheel. It's a tear-jerker and worth re-watching.

Titanic is streaming on Paramount+.

'Great Expectations'

While Hill's Titanic fame was getting him cast in pop films in America, he was always firm in interviews that he was not interested in "going Hollywood" and kept himself grounded by continuing to take roles in BBC miniseries. In 1999, he took the role of Magwitch in Great Expectations, the working-class criminal whom Pip meets and lies for, and then spends the rest of the story believing will be a threat to him if they ever meet again, but actually turns out to be his mysterious benefactor. 

Much like I, Claudius, this was a BBC series that played on Masterpiece Theater, though Hill was now part of the A-list roll call of actors alongside Charlotte Rampling (who plays Miss Havisham) instead of the up-and-comers. Hill would continue to return to the BBC over and over for the rest of his career, no matter how large his fame became. 

Great Expectations is streaming on BritBox.

'The Lord of the Rings' Trilogy

Bernard Hill doesn't show up in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Theoden King until the second film, The Two Towers, when Gandalf takes the crew to see him in Rohan, only to find him withered and old, under the spell of the terrible Grima Wormtongue. Hill's performance when Gandalf helps him throw off the spell -- and toss Wormtongue into the street -- is only the first of many of his killer monologues over the subsequent two films, and I cannot emphasize enough when I say killer monologues. 

Hill gets all the great speeches in the lead-up to The Two Towers' main set piece with the Battle of Helm's Deep, which is arguably the best fantasy battle in the trilogy, if not ever staged on film, and he knocks every one of them out of the park. Though he would probably rather be remembered for "gizza job," the one you'll see Americans play is the "Where is the Horse and Rider?" speech that leads into the Battle of Helm's Deep, and I am not going to argue, I'm just going to post it too.

All three Lord of the Rings films are streaming on Max.

'Wolf Hall'

Hill began retreating from film and TV after the hysterical success of the Lord of the Rings, doing one or two projects a year at most and super selective ones. For example, he narrated the BBC special Wild China ahead of the 2008 Olympics and starred in the World War II thriller Valkyrie, which was it for that year. He did the voice of the Judge in Tim Burton's ParaNorman in 2012 and a single episode of the police procedural Falcón. However, in 2015, he took a major role in a BBC series that caught his interest, playing the Duke of Norfolk in Wolf Hall.

Still considered one of the best series of the last decade to run on the BBC and Masterpiece, the adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel of the same name (and its sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies), Wolf Hall was the last time PBS landed serious Emmy nominations, partly due to the all-star cast that starred in it, including Hill. His scheming Duke of Norfolk was perfectly horrid in all the right ways, and Hill channeled all the social climbing needed to get Anne on the throne. Hill opted not to return for the sequel; his role will be played by Timothy Spall.

Wolf Hall is streaming on Amazon's Masterpiece Prime Video Channel.


Hill mostly retired from acting by 2017, but before he did, one of his last roles was in the first season of a brand new ITV police procedural that starred Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar solving cold cases called Unforgotten. The show's first season was unfortunately a bit uneven and struggled with a case that had originally occurred 40 years ago in 1976, the murder of Jimmy Sullivan. All four suspects were actors who had broken big between the 1960s and 1980s. Hill co-starred with Tom Courtenay (1962's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), Trevor Eve (1979's Shoestring), and Ruth Sheen (1988's High Hopes). 

Hill played Father Robert Greaves, who is one of the main suspects throughout the first season's six episodes. He turns out to have a lot of skeletons he's trying to hide, though none of them are the murder in question. Instead, he's guilty of just about everything else a priest shouldn't do, and yet he seems to feel little remorse for his sins. Hill's performance here plays very much against the noble type he was famous for at this point and is a "can't miss" because of that factor alone.

All seasons of Unforgotten are streaming on PBS Passport for members and Amazon's Masterpiece Prime Video Channel.

'The Responder'

In the last year or so, Hill began to return to acting again, appearing in a minor role in the 2023 film Forever Young and joining the cast of the breakout Martin Freeman police procedural hit series The Responder for Season 2. The Responder, for those who did not see Season 1, features Freeman as DS Chris Carson, who has recently been busted down to the overnight shift. A cop who has gone crooked and is slowly twisting that way more every day, the first season paired him up with a rookie (Adelayo Adedayo) and a case that helps him find his moral center again, even as his marriage crumbles and he begins to lose his relationship with his daughter.

Season 2 cast Hill as Tom Carson, Chris's alcoholic, absent father, who spent most of Chris' childhood hanging out at the pub rather than with his family. Though Tom did not appear in Season 1, Chris carried the shadow of his father everywhere he went, the memories of Tom's abuse in every violent lashing out, his invisible presence in every traumatized reaction. Hill was merely filling in an outline fans had watched for six episodes already. Now, it will be his last role on screen when it posthumously streams in the U.S. later in 2024. (Season 2 premiered two days before Hill's passing on the BBC.)  

The Responder Season 2 is expected to come to BritBox at some point in 2024. Season 1 is streaming there now.

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Police officers investigate the murder of a boy whose diary implicates four couples.
Unforgotten: show-poster2x3


Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. A DC native, Hufflepuff, and Keyboard Khaleesi, she spends all her non-writing time taking pictures of her cats. Regular bylines also found on MSNBC, Paste, Primetimer, and others. 

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