The impeccably urbane Englishman Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (VC !) — Tom Selleck’s sophisticated majordomo in Magnum, P.I. (1980) — was of French, German and Austrian descent, raised in a small Texas town and educated at a Catholic high school. He majored in journalism from the University of Texas, enlisted in the Air Force and spent the period from 1953 to 1957 stationed at Ft. Worth. There, he unexpectedly landed a choice role in a community theatre production of “Death of a Salesman” and discovered the acting lark to be to his liking. Having a photographic memory benefitted Hillerman greatly in that he learned his lines quickly. He professed to be able to memorise a page of dialogue in the space of a minute. There remained the problem of his accent. Following demobilisation, he travelled to New York where it took him a year to lose his Texan drawl, studying elocution under the tutelage of voice coach Fanny Bradshaw (who encouraged him to listen to recordings of Laurence Olivier reciting “Hamlet”). All the while, Hillerman lived the life of a typical struggling actor, having taken up residence in a lower East Side tenement and living on home-made turkey soup. After fifteen years of stage work and with a meagre $700 to his name, he decided to change his luck and make the journey to Hollywood.
His first major break came along when he was picked for a small part in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971)). From then on he was rarely out of work, though initially tasked with only smallish supporting roles. By the mid-70s, after memorable back-to-back turns in Blazing Saddles (1974) and Chinatown (1974), Hillerman had established his credentials. His first opportunity to shine in a recurring TV role was as pompous radio sleuth Simon Brimmer (“Policemen snoop, without a glimmer. To solve the case, call Simon Brimmer…”) who persistently got it all very wrong in TV’s Ellery Queen (1975). A self-declared Anglophile with a solid acting background in plays by Noël Coward, he fairly jumped at the chance to portray Selleck’s genteel sidekick Higgins in “Magnum” which was to become his personal favourite and career-defining role.
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