Always the Right Actor: Tom Wilkinson (1948-2023)


Since his passing on December 30th was confirmed by his family, appreciations of Tom Wilkinson have flooded the internet, many of them commenting on his remarkable ability to genre hop. He fit in just about anything from broad comedy to action to serious drama. But he fit not merely because he had an agent who sent him out for a wide variety of projects. He fit because he always knew the assignment. Tom Wilkinson never once looked like he didn’t belong somewhere. He carried himself with such gravity in material like “In the Bedroom” but could also be deceptively light on his feet in something like “The Full Monty.” He had that ability to calibrate what he brought to a project to exactly fit its needs. I’ve never spoken to filmmakers about him specifically, but I imagine Wilkinson being a gift to directors because he never once felt like a square peg in a round hole like so many actors do in the wrong material. There was no wrong material for Tom Wilkinson.

A child of Leeds, Thomas Wilkinson grew up on a farm before briefly moving to British Columbia at the age of 11, returning to the U.K. only five years later. He graduated from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where his love of acting was born, carried to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, one of the most esteemed theater schools in the world.

It wasn’t long before that education paid off, working with the legendary Andrzej Wajda in 1976 before playing Horatio in a West End production of Hamlet in 1980. He was a stage presence for much of the ‘80s, using that acclaim to transition to several British TV appearances. 

He didn’t really become a film presence until relatively late in life, starting with a small role in “In the Name of the Father” in 1993 and then slightly bigger parts in “Sense and Sensibility” and “Ghost and the Darkness.” His breakthrough came in 1997’s “The Full Monty,” for which he won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. He essentially worked non-stop from that point until his death, and that’s when it became clear how versatile he was as a performer. He segued from a Best Picture winner like “Shakespeare in Love” to “Rush Hour” and it didn’t feel awkward at all.

His richest film performances came in the 2000s, producing one of the best resumes from that decade anywhere. He was clearly coveted by filmmakers, working with Christopher Nolan, Todd Field, Woody Allen, Julian Fellowes, Michel Gondry, Guy Ritchie, and so many more. He was essential to the success of “Michael Clayton,” for which he landed an Oscar nomination, and he was a fixture in Prestige TV, appearing in HBO’s “Normal,” “John Adams,” and “Recount.” He also appeared in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Batman Begins,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” and “Valkyrie.” Perhaps his best performance came in 2001’s “In the Bedroom,” finding layers of grief that felt raw and true. He was named Best Actor by the New York Film Critics and nominated for the Oscar.

The 2010s might not have been as insanely rich as that line-up, but he was such an established presence by this point and continued to hop from projects as seemingly different as the TV mini-series “The Kennedys” to “The Green Hornet.” He was memorable in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Belle,” “Selma,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

He ended his career kind of where it began, appearing in a TV reboot of “The Full Monty,” closing the circle on a professional life that anyone thinking about a career in acting could look at as the role model. I’ve often asked young actors in interviews who they look at and think, “That’s the career I want. That’s the path I want to take.” Tom Wilkinson would be a great answer.


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