Actor

Born: December 20, 1932

Died: November 9, 2017

Loading article content

John Hillerman, who has died aged 84, was an American actor whose diverse and lengthy career in film and television and on the stage was overshadowed by the role he played for nine years in the 1980s, that of stuffy English ex-soldier Jonathan Higgins, foil to Tom Selleck’s title character in the popular TV show Magnum P.I.

The prestige of the part didn’t match some of Hillerman’s other projects, but he and Selleck formed an essential and much-loved double act as uptight, by-the-book fixer Higgins and wise-cracking rogue Magnum, two of a quartet of characters who carried out private investigations while maintaining the Hawaii estate of a reclusive mystery author. During the years1980 to 1988 Hillerman was one of the most recognisable television stars in America, and he was rewarded with a combined total of nine Emmy and Golden Globe nominations (he won one of each).

Although he had only been to England once in his life, the Texan actor called on his years spent studying recordings of Laurence Olivier play Hamlet to produce a convincing turn as the Eton, Sandhurst and Cambridge-educated Higgins, a fictional character decorated multiple times for bravery during the Second World War and other campaigns. “Even the English think I’m English,” Hillerman told the Washington Post. “Higgins wasn’t difficult for me. After all, I’d played a great deal of Noel Coward.” The character was also given a Scottish connection in his backstory, which had it that he was the ‘Baron of Perth’, son of the ‘Duke of Perth’.

Hillerman’s many years on the New York and Washington DC theatre scene were relatively unheralded, although he amassed a great deal of experience during this formative period. When he decided to make the move to Hollywood with only a few hundred dollars to his name, however, his stage connection to one of the rising stars of US cinema stood him in good stead. He had been directed by Peter Bogdanovich in Othello, and – having made his screen debut in a tiny, uncredited part in the In the Heat of the Night sequel They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1971) – Hillerman again worked with the director on his acclaimed early films The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

He also took television roles in Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, The Love Boat and many other series, yet even as Higgins became the defining role which many actors search for, it typecast him out of other work. He played the same part in crossover episodes of the detective shows Murder, She Wrote and Simon & Simon, and when Magnum, P.I. ended, his only other significant roles were as Watson to Edward Woodward’s Sherlock Holmes in Hands of a Murderer and the knowingly retro A Very Brady Sequel).

John Hillerman was born in Denison, Texas in 1932, the middle child and only son of a gas station owner and his wife. He developed a love for opera as a teenager, traveling to Dallas to see the Metropolitan Opera, and he studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, before joining the US Air Force. Working as a maintenance man between 1953 and 1957, his interest in the theatre grew and on his discharge he moved to New York, appearing in over 100 stage productions. He retired from acting in 1999 and died in 2017.

By David Pollock