Remembering Bill Hootkins

OUR CLASSMATE BILL Hootkins, who died of cancer October 23 at the age of 57, was remembered Sunday night at a two-hour memorial service in Santa Monica attended by fellow actors and friends from London, New York and Hollywood. The stage at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, two blocks from the ocean, was decorated with a display of Bill’s signature Hawaiian shirts and enlarged photographs of him in various theatrical roles, plus one of him smiling and smoking a big cigar.

Martin Sheen recited Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 30,” that many of us had to memorize back in the 7th grade at St. Mark’s (When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought / I summon up a remembrance of things past…) and that Sheen told me later was Bill’s favorite poem. Ron Perlman (Beauty and the Beast) joked about being on location in Australia while making the ill-fated The Island of Dr. Moreau with Bill and Marlon Brando – something to the effect that Bill was the only person in the cast that Brando could talk to (the film also starred Val Kilmer).

Peter Chelsom, the British director of Hear My Song, the 1991 independent feature that offered Bill probably his best big screen role as a gifted imposter impersonating a famous Irish tenor played by Ned Beatty, recalled not only Bill’s considerable talents in that film but his smaller role in the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening disaster Town & Country that Chelsom also directed. Chelsom joked that Warren Beatty was concerned about being upstaged by Bill and requested that they never be in the same frame together.

Dan Berkowitz, who acted with Bill at Princeton, remembered Bill’s first college production, in a play by Moliere, in which he was cast as a guard and was only onstage for 30 seconds. During an early rehearsal, Bill delivered his one line with such flourish and grandeur that the director called a halt and announced they might have to rename the play The Guard and the Others.

Bill was always Big, as were his enthusiasms, which extended beyond his profession to exotic cuisines (after barbecue), ancient languages, photography, astronomy and the study of a Southern California coastal fish called the grunion, famous for its rare late night mass mating ritual on the shores of Malibu.

Some of Bill’s photographs of the silvery grunion have been published in textbooks around the world, said Karen Martin, a professor of biology at nearby Pepperdine University whose classes sometimes met at Bill’s beach house for rib dinners before venturing out in hopes of catching a grunion run.

Bill “Smokey” Miles, a songwriter and Princeton graduate a few years Bill’s junior, remembered being assigned as a freshman to interview Bill, the college thespian, for the Daily Princetonian. When he walked into Bill’s college room, “it was a like a castle, and just lined with books and foreign language dictionaries,” Miles recalled. After interviewing Bill for hours, Miles said, he didn’t want to leave. “I wondered if there was anything more to learn at Princeton, and that I should just hang out in Bill’s room.”

Character actor George Coe told the story of making “some awful film” in Zagreb, Yugoslavia with Bill, and Bill organizing a dinner for the entire cast and crew at the only Chinese restaurant in Zagreb. When Coe arrived and saw everyone seated but Bill, he wondered at his whereabouts and was informed that Bill was in the kitchen overseeing the preparation of the meal, speaking Mandarin Chinese with the cooks.

“I mean,” Coe said, with rekindled astonishment, “here was a guy traveling all over the world impressing the hell out of people while making films nobody was ever going to see.”

A slight exaggeration, but Coe’s remark provided a kind of headline for Bill’s exceptional life and career. Sheen also recalled meeting Bill on the set of a film in Paris in the mid-80s that he refused to name and said he hoped would never be released. He said Bill reminded him physically of one of his brothers and so Sheen dared break the ice by shouting at him, “Hey, fatman, what’s your name?” “William,” came back the response, “What’s yours?”

Indeed one of Bill’s first Hollywood roles was playing the actor Fatty Arbuckle in Ken Russell’s Valentino (with Rudolph Nureyev) back in 1977.

A certain resemblance to Orson Welles was sometimes mentioned, and Bill was good-natured about his girth. A personal trainer Bill hired to work out with him at a gym in Malibu remembered that Bill’s stated goal was “to go from enormous to huge.”

While big-time Hollywood fame eluded him, Bill had quite a career, as anyone can see from perusing a resume that included appearances in more than 100 films and TV shows, not to mention the theater, where in 2003 he won high praise in London’s West End for his portrayal of the late British director Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock Blonde. Some may still remember his winning performance as the homicidal playwright Sidney Bruhl in Deathtrap at the Dallas Theater Center in 1981.

His recently released recording of Melville’s Moby Dick (unabridged, 26 CDs, 25 hours) on Naxos Classic Fiction has drawn top notices in England and the U.S.

Bill, with his gift for mimicry and operatic voice, was certainly good enough to be better known, but success in Hollywood has a lot to do with luck — getting the right part in the right movie at the right time. For example, he narrowly missed being cast in a key role in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 monster hit Jurassic Park. And there were other such close calls.

But the audience at the Edgemar of about 100, including Bill’s widow, Carolyn Robb, fellow St. Mark’s actor Mark Capri, Bill’s sister Susan and classmate Bob Rozelle’s daughter Katy (now working for a talent agency in Los Angeles), saw a highlight reel of Bill’s performances that from the vantage point of Tony Vintcent’s Harlequin Players, where it all began for Bill in 1965, could only have been distantly imagined. There was Bill trading trash talk with Jack Nicholson in Batman, piloting a Jedi space fighter in George Lucas’s Star Wars, playing Winston Churchill on British television, seated next to Denholm Elliott in Raiders of the Lost Ark, facing off with Ned Beatty in Hear My Song, having a breakdown in front of John Malkovich and Judy Davis in a televised version of Clifford Odets’ play Rocket to the Moon. It doesn’t get much better than that.

St. Mark’s School of Texas Alumni Bulletin 2005


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