Despite decades on the British dramatic stage and in small, offbeat comedies, Bill Nighy remained one of England’s best kept secrets until scene-stealing supporting roles in a number of mainstream American hits led to his remarkable success after the age of 50. Following his series role on the widely acclaimed British serial “State of Play” (BBC One, 2003), Nighy had his international breakthrough with his casting as the villainous Viktor in the “Underworld” horror-action series and earned critical acclaim for the spark he injected into “Love Actually” (2003) with his role of an aging rock star. His lean, elegant stature immediately found a niche in witty blockbusters like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (2005), while his portrayal of the cephalopod Davy Jones in the second and third installments of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise (2006-07) introduced him to a wider audience. He delivered strong performances in historical dramas as well, namely “The Constant Gardner” (2005) and “Valkyrie” (2008), and displayed his lighter side in whimsical comedies like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012). Staying true to his roots as both a dramatic and comedic performer, Nighy managed to stay relevant to contemporary audiences on both sides of the Atlantic without sacrificing his stature as one of Britain’s finest performers.
William Nighy was born on Dec. 12, 1949 and grew up in Caterham, Surrey, just southwest of London, where his dad managed a garage and his mum worked as a psychiatric nurse. A restless, rock-n-roll-loving youth, he left school early and spent time traveling in France, taking on odd jobs while entertaining the notion of following in the footsteps of one his heroes, Ernest Hemingway, by becoming a writer. While his dreams of penning a great novel did not materialize, he did find a creative outlet in theater, urged to audition for a drama program by a girlfriend he was hoping to impress. He did more than impress her; he was actually accepted into the Guildford School of Drama and spent two years training there. By the mid-1970s, he was working regularly as a player and staffer at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, in addition to traveling with Van Load, a theater group he helped found which toured pubs, parking lots, prisons, and other places where the average public could have the chance to enjoy a live production. Nighy made his way onto the London stage, beginning what would be a long career with the National Theater and breaking into film with bit parts in the spy thriller “Eye of the Needle” (1981) and the family favorite “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1980), among others. Nighy mostly stuck with theater and BBC radio dramas throughout the 1980s, appearing in “King Lear” at the National Theater and voicing radio adaptations of “Lord of the Rings” and the British sitcom, “Yes Minister.”
In 1989, Nighy raised his screen profile with a supporting role in Dwight Little’s adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera” (1989) and one in “Mack the Knife” (1989) co-starring Raul Julia and Richard Harris. He also appeared in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” on the London stage in 1991, but by the following year, it was becoming clear that both the actor’s career and personal life were hampered by Nighy’s excessive drinking and drug habits. He became sober in 1992 and resumed his career with clear eyes and a starring role as an unscrupulous academic in a National Theater production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Nighy’s first major movie role, alongside Robin Williams in Bill Forsyth’s “Being Human” (1993), was only given limited release but the actor enjoyed considerable attention for back-to-back stage runs in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and David Hare’s “Skylight,” which toured the U.K. following a successful run at London’s Vaudeville Theater. The newly sober actor’s career continued to blossom with a role in the children’s fantasy feature “Fairytale: A True Story” (1997), and in the hilarious “Still Crazy” (1998), where he played an aging rocker who reunites with his 1970s rock band to relive the glory days. His work in the latter film was so beloved, he earned theEvening Standard‘s Peter Sellers Award for his comedic performance as the band’s egotistical lead singer.
Nighy continued to endear himself to British comedy fans in Ade Edmondson’s “Guest House Paradiso” (1999), an adaptation of the slapstick BBC series “Bottom.” For his lead role as a psychiatrist in the National Theater production of “Blue/Orange,” Nighy won a nomination from the prestigious Olivier Awards and enjoyed an extended run of the play on the West End. He resumed his film career with another pair of offbeat comedies – Paddy Breathnach’s “Blow Dry” (2001) and Peter Cattaneo’s “Lucky Break” (2002), which earned Nighy a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the London Film Critics Circle for playing one in a troupe of prison inmates who stage a play to cover up an escape attempt. Supporting roles in “The Lawless Heart” (2001), about complicated dalliances in a small English town and the period drama “I Capture the Castle” (2002) still did not quite establish Nighy as a well-known presence on British screens, but he finally enjoyed that position with a recurring role on the British comedy series “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” in 2002. The following year, he exploded into American commercial cinemas playing the nefarious vampire elder Viktor in the horror actioner “Underworld” (2003). He endeared himself to an entirely different demographic in the ensemble romantic comedy “Love Actually” (2003), stealing the show from a hunky young cast with his spot-on performance as another over-the-hill rocker hoping for a comeback.
Nighy earned a slew of recognition including a BAFTA Award for Supporting Actor for “Love Actually,” and went on to give delightfully offbeat supporting performances in “very British” comedies “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), starring Simon Pegg as a twenty-something slacker fighting off zombies, and the long awaited adaptation of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (2005), where he portrayed planet designer Slartibartfast. Making an about-face from his string of outrageous comedies, Nighy offered an excellent dramatic performance as a greedy British official in “The Constant Gardener” (2005), director Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of the John le Carré novel about a diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) whose wife (Rachel Wiesz) is murdered after discovering corruption between the pharmaceutical industry and Kenyan government. The film was one of the best reviewed of the year and earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best film. The same year, Nighy earned his own Golden Globe nod for “The Girl in the Café” (HBO, 2005), in which he starred as a shy civil servant who meets a mysterious woman (Kelly MacDonald) and develops a life-changing relationship with her. Nighy revived his evil vampire leader in the bloody, over-the-top sequel “Underworld: Evolution” (2006), then earned his first Golden Globe win for starring as an executive whose personal life is a mess after he loses his wife in the BBC television movie, “Gideon’s Daughter” (2006).
The actor lent his velvety voice to the sewer-set animated film “Flushed Away” (2006) and continued to entertain family audiences as undead pirate Davy Jones in the box office record breaker “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006). The fifty-something actor also made his Broadway debut in David Hare’s “The Vertical Hour,” for which he earned rave reviews, and had a supporting role in the highly acclaimed psychological drama “Notes on a Scandal” (2006) the same year. In the third blockbuster of the series, Nighy appeared as Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” (2007) and followed up with an solemn but sympathetic portrayal of Freidrich Olbricht, a German general who conspired to kill Adolph Hitler, in Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie” (2008). From sharing the spotlight with star Tom Cruise, Nighy took front and center in the sequel “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” (2009), one of the better reviewed films of the series and one that found an enthusiastic reception at the box office.
Despite his success with giant Hollywood films, Nighy remained loyal to British cinema and returned to the U.K. sound stage for “Pirate Radio” (2009), Richard Curtis’ comedic chronicle of the underground radio movement that flourished in the U.K. in the 1960s. He went on to star as a hit man who falls for an intended victim (Emily Blunt) in the comedy “Wild Target” (2009) and also delivered the World War II drama “1939” (2009) and the live action/3-D animation hybrid “G-Force” (2009) the same year. Meanwhile, Nighy was the latest British actor to join the “Harry Potter” series, playing Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic, in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1” (2010). After voicing Rattlesnake Jake in the animated “Rango” (2011) and Grandsanta in “Arthur Christmas” (2011), Nighy returned to his native country to star in “Page Eight” (BBC, 2011), playing a long-time MI5 officer trying to expose the fact that the Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes) covered the torturing of prisoners overseas that ultimately cost British lives. Nighy’s performance was hailed with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a miniseries or TV movie. He went on to play Hephaestus, a Greek god stripped of his powers for siding with Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in “Wrath of the Titans” (2012), and followed that with a turn as a rebel leader in the panned remake of “Total Recall” (2012). Showing his lighter side, Nighy was a retiree who had lost most of his savings and seeks respite alongside a group of fellow pensioners – including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson – at “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012).
In 2013, Nighy appeared in CGI form as a literally gigantic leader in the fantasy film “Jack the Giant Slayer,” featuring fellow U.K. actors Ewan McGregor and Nicholas Hoult. Later in the year, he reunited yet again with “Love Actually” director Richard Curtis as a time-traveling patriarch in the romantic comedy “About Time,” and he worked with another frequent collaborator, Edgar Wright, in a voice role for his apocalyptic comedy “The World’s End.”