Denys Hawthorne was born in Portadown, County Armagh in 1932; his father had a linen business. He studied law at Queen’s University Belfast, and afterwards joined the Ulster Group Theatre; other actors in the company included Patrick Magee, James Ellis, Stephen Boyd and Colin Blakely. The company produced modern classics, and plays by new Irish writers including Joseph Tomelty and Brian Friel.
He moved to London. He was a success as the Old Man in The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco, at the Royal Court Theatre (1957), and also in 1960 playing Stephen Dedalus in Bloomsday, a dramatization of James Joyce’s Ulysses, at the Unity Theatre. He joined the BBC radio drama repertory company, where during his career he was much in demand. He read poetry on the radio, particularly of Louis MacNeice‘s poetry after his death in 1963. In 1972 he became producer of BBC Northern Ireland radio drama, holding the position for 18 months.
On TV, Hawthorne appeared in Dr. Finlay’s Casebook and 46 episodes of the series Within These Walls (1974–1978). He appeared as Mr Starling, the first-ever headteacher, in Grange Hill (1978), the Doctor Who adventure Terror of the Vervoids (1986), in Capital City (1989–1990), in the BBC drama Dangerfield (1995) and in the Father Ted episode Tentacles of Doom (1996).
In 1981 he appeared in Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and in that year he toured with the Irish Theatre Company’s production of The Scythe and the Sunset by Denis Johnston. He was with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Centre in 1992 and 1993, appearing in Romeo and Juliet and as King Duncan in Macbeth.
In 1970 he married Rita Christina, becoming stepfather to her three children. His career ended after suffering a stroke which affected his memory. He died at his home in Hove, East Sussex in 2009, and was survived by his wife and stepchildren
The Telegraph obituary in 2009:
Character actor in demand on stage, film, television and radio
Denys Hawthorne, who has died aged 77, became an actor almost in spite of himself. By nature a reticent, rather shy man, he blossomed on stage, film, television and radio in a variety of roles, from characters in several different productions of Waiting for Godot to appearances in the films The Russia House (1990) and In the Name of the Father (1993). One of his last film appearances was as Mr Woodhouse opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the acclaimed 1996 movie of Jane Austen’s Emma.
An Ulsterman by birth, Hawthorne had little time for the sectarianism that divided his country and he embraced the whole of Ireland as his cultural home. Consequently, he became an authoritative performer of the work of WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett, as well as his fellow Ulsterman Frank McGuinness.
He was born into a well-to-do Protestant family. Hawthorne’s father was in the linen business in Portadown, County Armagh, and hoped his son would follow him into the family business. Encouraged by his more artistically inclined mother, Denys read law at Queen’s University, Belfast, and then settled on a career in the theatre.
He joined the Ulster Group Theatre (UGT), which nurtured the talents of actors including Patrick Magee, Jimmy Ellis, Stephen Boyd and Colin Blakely, as well as new Irish writers such as Joseph Tomelty and Brian Friel, whose plays were presented alongside modern classics by Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw and Rattigan. At the end of the 1950s, the UGT board pulled a controversial play, Over the Bridge, which dealt with a group of trade union officials challenged by an outbreak of sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, and issued the statement: “It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage.” Hawthorne was among those who resigned.
He came to England and found a natural home in the BBC radio drama repertory, where he was part of the “Ulster mafia” in the 1960s that included Eric Ewens and Louis MacNeice. He was also a regular player at George Devine’s Royal Court in Sloane Square, in London, where he distinguished himself in the theatre of the absurd of Eugène Ionesco, playing the Old Man in The Chairs (1957).
The playwright Harold Pinter was a fan and once remarked: “Ah yes, the beautiful Denys Hawthorne of the beautiful voice.” This “beautiful voice” made him an ideal radio actor and he was much in demand by BBC radio drama throughout his career, notably appearing opposite Magee in Beckett’s Cascando in 1964 and in Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Divine Words with Gerald McSorley and Sorcha Cusack in 1998.
Between 1974 and 1978 he appeared in 46 episodes of the women’s prison soap Within These Walls, as prison physician Dr Peter Mayes, and his extensive appearances in Dr Who in the 1986 Colin Baker episodes entitled Trial of a Time Lord, as well as in the banking series Capital City (1989-90) and the BBC drama Dangerfield (1995), served to make him a well-known face, if not a name, to the television audience.
Hawthorne had no interest in politics; the closest he got to making a political statement was a play he wrote for schools in 1978 entitled Down the Years, which exposed prejudice in the Ulster community in its story of a young married couple who move away from the Protestant environment of their childhood and refuse to let their benign and ageing father move in with them for fear of “contaminating” their newborn child with his old-school views. One of his most rewarding theatrical achievements was playing Stephen Dedalus in Bloomsday, a dramatisation of James Joyce’s Ulysses at the Unity Theatre in London in 1960.
Among his several official recognitions, he was awarded the Society of Authors’ prize for his dramatisation of Jennifer Johnston’s novel How Many Miles to Babylon, and he was a joint recipient in 2002 of an SWPA (Spoken Word Publishers Association) award for his contribution to the recording of Yeats’s poetry for Naxos audiobooks.
Extraordinarily well-read, his greatest joy was to be among friends – actors, writers and poets – and he endeared himself to his fellow actors in particular through a combination of generosity, support and bonhomie. He was a great letter writer, and his correspondence was wise and witty.
In 1960 he met Rita Christina, whom he married in 1970, becoming stepfather to her three children, Desmond, Sean and Aine, all of whom survive him. In his last years, a stroke affected his memory, which brought his acting career to a standstill, although it had the unforeseen effect of allowing him to express his feelings towards his family and friends much more openly.
Denys Vernon Hawthorne, actor, born 9 August 1932; died 16 October 2009