Napoleon: "Five-foot-one, and conqueror of Italy! Not bad, huh?"
For the record, Sir Ian Holm (September 12, 1931-June 19, 2020) was five-foot-five, but his comical portrayal of the French emperor in the time-travel comedy "Time Bandits" was just one of many, many occasions where he portrayed vivid characters – kings and fools – of hidden depth, mixing character flaws and mystery with a puckish wit. (It's no surprise he played Puck in two film versions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream.") In more than 100 films and dozens of stage appearances, he was a standout in supporting roles, seemingly coming out of nowhere to provide a jolt of humor, fear, or endearing humanity.
Born in a psychiatric hospital (his father was its superintendent), his early years were spent at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, followed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, graduating from spear holders to King Richard III. Despite an often-overwhelming stage fright, Holm turned in star performances in Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" (for which he won a Tony Award), and as "King Lear" (for which he won an Olivier Award). Later theatrical roles included "The Iceman Cometh" (the intensity of which brought about a breakdown and a long absence from the stage), "Uncle Vanya," and "Moonlight."
Though he'd appeared in several films in the 1960s and '70s, including "The Bofurs Gun," "The Fixer," "Mary, Queen of Scots," "Nicholas and Alexandra," "Robin and Marian," and the TV miniseries "Napoleon and Love," Holm became an international presence playing Ash, (spoiler!) an android, in Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979).
That began a string of high-profile films and TV movies, including "Chariots of Fire" (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), "Inside the Third Reich," "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," "Brazil," "Dance With a Stranger," "Another Woman," "Henry V," "Game, Set and Match," Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet," "Naked Lunch," "The Borrowers," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," "Big Night," "Night Falls on Manhattan," "The Fifth Element," "The Sweet Hereafter," "From Hell," "The Day After Tomorrow," "The Aviator," "Lord of War," and the voice of chef Skinner in "Ratatouille."
He played J.M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan," in the BBC's "The Lost Boys," and "Alice in Wonderland" author Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll in "Dreamchild." And he brought wellsprings of humor, warmth and emotional scars to the character of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
In a 2004 Q&A for The Independent, Holm was asked if he regretted not being a "star": "Certainly not. As an actor, I'm very much a company person. And this also goes through my life: I have a dread of responsibility. I like someone else to be in charge."
Top row, from left: "The Lost Boys," "Brazil," "The Sweet Hereafter" (with Sarah Polley). Middle, left: "Alien." Middle, right: "The Fifth Element" (with Milla Jovovich). Bottom row, from left: "Time Bandits," "Henry V" (with Christian Bale, Danny Webb), and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."