From the stage to film, British actor Tom Wilkinson was a versatile talent who brought to life ruthless villains, historical figures, likable leads, and supportive characters. He passed away on December 30, 2023, at the age of 75. Wilkinson was well-known for keeping a low profile outside the set. He began his professional career as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company before working in British theater and television and ultimately making the leap to Hollywood.
A frequent flier in historical features and period pieces, Wilkinson starred in a number of familiar roles, including Benjamin Franklin in the miniseries John Adams, General Lord Cornwallis in The Patriot, and Mr. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Given his range, Wilkinson avoided typecasting and compartmentalized roles, rather spreading his across multiple genres. In an interview with Variety, co-star George Clooney called him “the epitome of elegance.” Audiences remember him for his performance in these movies.
10 ‘Selma’ (2014)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
In the Oscar-winning historical drama, Wilkinson stars as President Lyndon B. Johnson. Selma follows the story of the 1965 Freedom Marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) from Selma to Montgomery. The film portrays the back-and-forth between Dr. King, Jr. and President Johnson until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed.
While Wilkinson’s portrayal of President Johnson leans heavily into antagonist versus ally, the historical accuracy of the relationship between King and Johnson was heavily criticized. Selma earned much critical acclaim, including a historic Golden Globe nomination for director Ava DuVernay and an Academy Award Best Picture nomination.
A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
- Release Date
- December 25, 2014
- Main Genre
9 ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ (2011)
Directed by John Madden
A star-studded dramedy with some of the finest British talents, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delightful departure into lighthearted storytelling compared to other titles on Wilkinson’s resume. He stars as Sir Graham Dashwood, a high court judge, one of seven British retirees making the drastic change to move to Jaipur, India, to stay in what was advertised as an exotic retirement home. After arriving, Graham admits to Evelyn (Dench) that he’s gay and moved to Jaipur to find his former lover, Manoj (Rajendra Gupta).
The BAFTA-nominated film features the entire cast at their wholesome best as their characters navigate the trials of love, loss, identity, and more. Given the popularity of the first feature, a sequel,The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel premiered a few years later without Wilkinson returning.
8 ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
It takes a certain presence to portray one of DC’s most fearsome mob bosses, a presence Wilkinson had no trouble bringing Carmine Falcone to screen. In the first of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins follows the inception of the caped crusader as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) confronts the powerful leaders of Gotham’s crime ring as they destroy the city. Falcone’s involvement in the city’s corruption leads him to partner with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who ultimately double-crosses him and becomes the central antagonist of the story.
Ruthless, Wilkinson’s performance as Falcone was unflinching, especially during the restaurant conversation in which he taunts Bruce about the death of his parents. Wilkinson was one of the many English actors in the film donning the American accent, one that he performs quite well. He’d lend his voice acting talents to the film’s video game version as well.
After witnessing his parents’ death, Bruce learns the art of fighting to confront injustice. When he returns to Gotham as Batman, he must stop a secret society that intends to destroy the city.
- Release Date
- June 15, 2005
7 ‘Belle’ (2013)
Directed by Amma Asante
Based on a true story, this period piece succeeds in its intentional performances paired alongside the standard beauty and storytelling thematic elements expected of the genre. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial daughter of a Royal Navy Captain, who is raised by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson). Belle features Dido as she becomes a pivotal character in the abolition of slavery in 18th-century England.
While the central focus is on Dido’s journey of identity and place in the two worlds she’s a part of, the adoptive fatherly role of Mansfield feeds into Dido’s arc. Wilkinson’s Lord Mansfield is crucial to the plot and historical context as he is Lord Chief Justice of England, hearing a case that changed the course of history regarding the slave trade in England.
6 ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
While a mere presence for the majority of the film, Wilkinson’s role as the Author is central to the beginning and the ending of the beloved Wes Anderson movie. The Oscar-winning film chronicles the glory years of the titular hotel and its cast of unique patrons, employees, and curious writers. The star-studded cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel includes Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, and many more among Anderson’s list of regulars.
Wilkinson is featured primarily at the beginning and end of the film, coinciding with Law’s Young Writer. The Author is distinguished at the beginning as the man who wrote the book “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” with his narrations blending with Law’s throughout. This was Wilkinson’s first and only appearance in Anderson’s films.
5 ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
Directed by Michael Gondry
A top-rated movie and one of the best Indie movies of the 2000s, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a love story about time and memory. After a painful breakup, Joel (Jim Carrey) seeks out Dr. Mierzwiak (Wilkinson), who has created a treatment that erases all memories of an ex during a few hours-long procedure. Joel seeks to erase his memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet), but as he begins the procedure and enters a dream-like state, he changes his mind.
Dr. Mierzwiak is essential to the storyline because, without his program, the movie would be just another break-up story. His technology and treatment, paired with Joel’s and Clementine’s relationship, is thought-provoking for audiences, a premise that earned the film the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
When their relationship turns sour, a couple undergoes a medical procedure to have each other erased from their memories for ever.
- Release Date
- March 19, 2004
- Main Genre
4 ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998)
Directed by John Madden
The seven-time Oscar-winning feature brought together comedy, romance, and history all to tell a story about exactly what the title suggests: William Shakespeare in love. Joseph Fiennes stars as the famous playwright before his success and acclaim with a terrible case of writer’s block and a failing theater to show for it. When he meets Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and she’s set to marry another, he finds inspiration in his own love story.
Wilkinson stars as Hugh Fennyman, a fictional character who is the self-proclaimed “money” of the Henslowe’s (Geoffrey Rush) theater. A unique and entertaining arc against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s romance, Fennyman starts out as just the financial means to an end – which motivates Shakespeare to write – but ultimately walks away with an appreciation for the passion of the theater. Shakespeare in Love remains a well-rounded feature beloved by audiences.
3 ‘The Full Monty’ (1997)
Directed by Peter Cattaneo
The Full Monty remains one of Wilkinson’s most beloved roles, the feature receiving so much popularity it earned a TV series to which he returned almost three decades later. The comedy explores the woes of six unemployed Sheffield steelworkers trying to make ends meet. They inevitably create a male strip-tease act where they promise to go fully nude—”the full monty.” Wilkinson is Gerald, the former steel foreman who joins the show.
He’d win his first and only BAFTA for the role, contributing to the film’s three wins out of 12 nominations. The Fully Monty additionally earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The feature is a staple in British cinema as it became one of the highest-grossing British films of all time, a true underdog story with a recipe that proved successful.
2 ‘Michael Clayton’ (2007)
Directed by Tony Gilroy
This role would earn Wilkinson his second career Oscar nomination, but first for Best Supporting Actor. Michael Clayton‘s titular character is played by George Clooney, a “fixer” at a corporate law firm who faces the biggest test of his career and morals when he’s called to clean up the mess of attorney Arther Edens (Wilkinson), who has a breakdown when realizing the corporation they represent is guilty of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit.
Wilkinson is brilliant from the opening moments when he masterfully delivers a carefully crafted monologue against a backdrop of emptiness that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The role earned him critical claim with multiple nominations across the awards circuit, continuing to prove his place as a dramatic Hollywood actor.
- Release Date
- July 12, 2007
- Tony Gilroy
- Main Genre
1 ‘In the Bedroom’ (2001)
Directed by Todd Field
The film that earned him his first Oscar nomination, In the Bedroom, launched Wilkinson’s success in American cinema as he portrayed Matt Fowler, a Maine doctor whose marriage to music teacher Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is far from idyllic. The couple process in their own ways their son Frank’s (Nick Stahl) affair with a local woman. With masterful performances by Spacek and Wilkinson, In the Bedroom, as praised by Roger Ebert, explores less about what has happened and more about the why.
The narrative centers around two people in a marriage fueled by emotions caused by words left unsaid and wounds not healed. In perhaps his most thought-provoking performance, Wilkinson, through Matt, explores grief and silence and the anguish in between. Earning five Oscar nominations, the directional debut of Todd Field, didn’t take home a golden statue.