“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
…I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”
– Ash, Alien (1979)
While already well credited on stage and in film by the year 1979, the portrayal of Science Officer Ash (Alien‘s android in hiding) cemented English actor Ian Holm as not only an iconic science fiction antagonist for the ages, but also as an impressively skilled and gifted cinematic performer who would become known by audiences for both his versatility and the presence he brought to each production he was cast in.
As part of Ridley Scott’s Alien, Holm helped to craft the look and feel of cinematic science fiction for decades to come. His cold, calculated, and enigmatic portrayal of a synthetic individual enamored with the extra-terrestrial killing machine onboard the crew’s spacecraft not only thrilled audiences with his unpredictable and unsettling nature, but the character of Ash (and Holm’s performance), one would imagine, helped set the course for Scott’s interest in tales of “twitchy” androids explored later in both Blade Runner and his return to the Alien franchise with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant – which feature Ash’s android ancestor, David (played by Michael Fassbender).
Soon after Alien, Holm was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of athletics trainer Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire (1981), the same year he played Napoleon in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). Over the course of his varied career, Holm played a multitude of characters and worked with some of Hollywood’s best directors. While Holm’s films and roles are varied, he consistently returned to the fantasy and science fiction genres, notably appearing in Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) – directed by Kenneth Branagh, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), and David Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999) among others.
In 2001, Holm found himself cast in the film adaptation of the graphic novel, From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. The dark plot of the film followed the infamous Jack the Ripper murders and suggested a potential culprit. Playing Sir William Gull, a retired surgeon teaching at the Royal London Hospital who advises lead actor Johnny Depp as he hunts the Ripper, the role gave Holm a true chance to showcase his actor’s ability to tap the darker side of human nature.
“Ian was such a delightful, generous man. Quiet, but cheeky, with a lovely twinkle in his eye.”
– Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films
On the opposite side of the spectrum, one role that many will remember Holm in for years to come is that of the first Baggins to posses the ring of power in author J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy stories of Middle Earth. Having originally portrayed the younger Frodo Baggins in the 1981 BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Holm eventually got to play the character of Bilbo Baggins onscreen in director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit feature films. While Holm has performed in several iconic roles over the course of his life, his portrayal of Bilbo may end up being one of his most fondly remembered performances. His indelible work will undeniably continue to bond with audiences in the years to come and there’s no debating that, in that performance, something magical is occurring. Holm simply is Bilbo Baggins the same way Alec Guinness simply was Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ian McKellen is unquestionably Gandalf (and Magneto). Holm’s Bilbo is a complex and layered character who helped set the tone for one of the most successful cinematic adaptations of one of the greatest stories ever told.
An actor of the highest caliber, Holm gave each role his all, whether portraying a real-life individual, a tragic Shakespearean figure, or an evil robot. His commitment to the craft of acting and storytelling helped create some of the most powerful, memorable, and foundational genre films in history, and geek culture should be extremely grateful for Holm’s life spent elevating the science fiction and fantasy film genres with his undeniable talent and craft.
“I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.”
– Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King