Britain's Nigel Hawthorne, as Literary Lion C.S. Lewis, Emerges as the Bright Star of Broadway's Shadowlands

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

At first, playwright William Nicholson felt uncertain about the casting of Nigel Hawthorne in his new play. True, Hawthorne was a front-parlor name in Britain—in the early 1980s he had played the pompous civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby on the hit BBC comedy series Yes, Minister. But Nicholson's play Shaddowlands, the story of writer C.S. Lewis's late-life discovery and loss of love, called for an actor who could let his heart break in public every night. "Lewis is a role that rips you apart," Nicholson says. "The actor has got to tear himself in pieces on the stage in front of us. I didn't know if Nigel could do it."

That was before he saw the play's first run-through in London in 1989. At the end of the final scene, when Lewis's wife has succumbed to cancer after four years of happy marriage, "Nigel broke down and just went on crying," Nicholson says. "He couldn't stop himself and couldn't finish the play. I was in tears myself. I said to the director, 'If he can keep doing that onstage every night, the play's going to be a sensation.' "

He could, and it is. Shadowlands was the smash of last year's London season and is now leaving Broadway audiences misty-eyed. Critics have singled out Hawthorne's acting as "epic" and "a joy to watch"; he seems certain to get a Tony nomination. But even after playing Lewis eight times a week since November, Hawthorne, 61, shows no signs of tempering his character's agony. "You can't really fake that sort of thing; you have to take the journey the character takes," he says. "Sometimes I cry in the wings afterwards, and people come up and wrap their arms around me. It's always very hard to smile during curtain call."

Such emotional honesty, onstage or off, hasn't always come easily to Hawthorne. Shy as a lad, he took up acting "as a way of not having to be me." But, lacking confidence in his own skills, he tended to simply impersonate other acting greats. "It wasn't until I started to mature that I realized that by impersonating I was only scratching the surface," he says. "The person who was important was me."

His upbringing had led him to doubt that. The second of four children born to a Coventry, England, physician and his wife, Hawthorne was raised in a strict, conservative household. "My father didn't want children to speak unless spoken to," he says. "At dinner he just wanted to get on with his food and his paper." The family moved to Cape Town when Hawthorne was 4, and though their seaside home was an idyllic spot, Nigel and his brothers kept to themselves. "We were very self-conscious kids, not comfortable in other people's company," he says. "We didn't have many friends."

It was at the University of Cape Town, where he studied literature, that Hawthorne discovered the escape that acting could provide. "It was something I could bury myself in and forget I was ordinary," he says. He left school before graduating, joined a local theater company and at 22, with $24 in his pocket, sailed for England. "I was a beach boy with a tan and a South African accent," he says. "I must have been out of my mind." His father, who had wanted him to be a doctor, certainly thought so. "His wrath remained with me for the rest of his life," Hawthorne says. "It was quite sad, because when I turned successful, he was already dead."

Success did not come quickly. Hawthorne supported himself playing bit parts until the mid-1960s, when he landed a role in the touring company of the popular Oh! What a Lovely War. By 1980, when Yes, Minister came along, he had established a solid reputation as a witty, comic character actor.

Then came the chance to play Lewis. The author of the classic children's series The Chronicles of Narnia and of numerous books about Christianity had never been a favorite of Hawthorne, who found his writing "pedestrian and a bit contrived." Yet Lewis's life bore some similarity to his own. An Oxford don who died in 1963, Lewis avoided intimate involvements and did not marry until he was 58, after Joy Davidman, a 41-year-old American poet, entered his life. Hawthorne too has steered clear of lasting intimacy, though he says he has had "plenty of opportunities" to marry. He has no plans to follow Lewis into matrimony, but playing the part, he says, has changed him. "It's been great because men, particularly English men, bottle their emotions up. The part has made me softer, I think, and more aware of mortality. I can't spend a single day now not making the most of things."

On his free days, Hawthorne, long involved in charitable activities in England, heads south to pitch in at Philadelphia Kids, an organization that aids brain-damaged children. "It's probably the most worthwhile thing I can think of," he says. Committed to Shadowlands through April, he's anxious to return to the 16th-century Hertfordshire farmhouse he shares with his cat and three dogs. "I miss my home dreadfully," he says.

He is also looking forward to the possible roles his triumph as Lewis should bring him. "I've recently been offered the part of Malvolio [a supercilious steward] in Twelfth Night," he says. "But now that there's the new, softer me, I want to do something softer." He pauses, then laughs. "I hope not as soft as Shadow-lands, though," he says. "I don't know if I could go through that again."

—Kim Hubbard, Toby Kahn in New York City

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