In praise of Living legend Bill Nighy

Having just scored his first Oscar nomination at this year’s Academy Awards, Bill Nighy has been a living legend for decades with an extensive screen career spanning almost half a century. Matt Glasby honours the actor by highlighting five of his most memorable performances.

With his brittle, broadsheet voice, impeccable Saville Row styling and laconic twinkle, actor Bill Nighy is one of the UK’s national treasures. Even to viewers old enough to remember the 1990s, it feels like he’s always been famous, playing repressed or irrepressible Brits without ever giving anything personal away. It’s quite an achievement—especially as most Londoners will have seen him wandering around town looking exactly as “Bill Nighy” as you’d hope.

Having had the pleasure of interviewing him in the most perfect circumstances, a pristinely woody private room in a posh hotel, I can confirm he doesn’t disappoint in person either: unfailingly courteous, dry as a creaking door, and better dressed than James Bond’s dad. When given a cheeky final question—would he marry my friend, who, though 30 years younger, was very keen—he replied, “Of course I will! Get my secretary to take down her details.” Clearly, it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked. Here are a few of the roles that made us fall in love with him.

Still Crazy (1998)

This Full Monty-esque, get-the-band-back-together comedy from Brian Gibson follows the modern-day reunion of 1970s rockers Strange Fruit. Made up of beloved British and Irish actors of a certain age—Billy Connelly, Timothy Spall, Stephen Rea and Jimmy Nail—the group is fronted by the newly sober Ray Simms (Nighy), a former wild child who simply can’t believe he’s 50. 50!

Even among so much crumpled charisma, Nighy is fantastic, helped by decent songs (penned by Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford), magnificent hair and a real sense of the inevitable passing of time. IRL Nighy is such a music lover he guest-hosted Guy Garvey from Elbow’s weekly radio show with predictably smooth results.

Love Actually (2003)

Among the starry ensemble in Richard Curtis’s festive overshare, Nighy plays another ageing rocker: the amusingly self-aware Billy Mack. On radio, he refers to himself as an “old ex-heroin addict searching for a comeback at any price”. Unfortunately for all concerned that price is Christmas Is All Around, “a festering turd of a record” based on Love Is All Around, which topped the UK charts for 15 gruesome weeks thanks to Curtis’s own Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Although the power differentials between the film’s various lovers seem a bit icky now, this was Nighy’s breakout role, and he knows it. “People talk to me about Love Actually every day, and thank the lord they do,” he said. “Half the world has seen that film!”

Shaun of the Dead (2003)

Philip, Nighy’s stick-in-the-mud stepdad, has a wonderful character arc in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s intricately scripted horror comedy. Bitten by a zombie before we even meet him—“I ran it under a cold tap,” he tells lovely wife Barbra (Penelope Wilton)—he’s written off by Shaun (Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost), who fantasise about putting him out of his misery (“Sorry Philip!”) with rather too much relish.

It’s a perfect sketch of the kind of joyless Englishman who can’t understand why the world has changed around him, but there’s a sadness here too. As Philip dies, he tells Shaun, “I always loved you, Shaun, I always thought you had it in you to do well.” Then he turns down the radio.

Pride (2014)

Nighy has often used his position to speak up for equal rights, and he puts his money where his mouth is in Matthew Warchus’s irrepressible social comedy. Based on a true story, the film details the unlikely alliance between London’s lesbian and gay community and the striking Welsh miners, a beacon of hope in divided 1980s Britain.

Among a stellar cast that includes Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine and Andrew Scott, Nighy plays Clifford, a quietly spoken Welshman with his heart in the right place and a few secrets up his sleeve. Nighy said Stephen Beresford’s screenplays was “one of the best scripts I’ve ever read in my life”, and underlined the need to entertain while educating people, calling it, simply, “good manners”.

Living (2022)

Writer Kazuo Ishiguro, that expert chronicler of British repression, wrote an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikuru with Nighy in mind. And no wonder. In a rare starring role, Nighy plays Rodney Williams, a stiff county council functionary, who begins reassessing his careful, commuter-belt existence when he finds out he has terminal cancer.

To begin with, this means getting raucously drunk with writer Mr Sutherland (Tom Burke) and taking a fatherly shine to Miss Harris (Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood). But he soon realises that the true legacy of a life half-lived is nothing, and tries to leave the world a better place than he found it.

Whether conspiring with Miss Harris, or singing a showstopping—not to mention heartbreaking—rendition of The Rowan Tree, Nighy gives a career-best performance in Oliver Hermanus’s moving film, earning him his first Oscar nomination at the age of 73. Something tells us it won’t be his last.