I know I’m old now, in a sense, because actors who played bit parts in beloved dramas of my younger days are now iconic, their most famous roles etched on the public mind even when their names require a look-up.
The Cute Engineer, who was about seven when the BBC aired its tour de force series based on Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, had heard me rattle on enough about the programs and surprised me by springing for a 35th anniversary edition of the series. Every other episode tossed up a familiar face. I had warned him about Patrick Stewart‘s performance as the corrupt prefect Aelius Sejanus, whose plays for power during the reign of Tiberius ended — at least in Graves’ version — with execution at the order of his competing prefect Macro. I’d forgotten about the actor playing Macro himself; he looked familiar, and the name John Rhys-Davies scrolled by in the credits.
A couple of nights later, as we got toward the end, I recognized Bernard Hill as well. Of all the characters in the filmed Lord of the Rings, King Theoden was to me the most perfectly realized, the man I would have wanted for a king, a father, a general. Hill blew the role out of the ball park and possibly into the next galaxy. It was a bit jolting, I said, to see a much younger Theoden pulling Derek Jacobi’s tremulous Claudius out from behind a curtain and declaring him Emperor of all Rome (here, at about 5:30).
We’re still debating it.