John Hillerman obituary

Michael Carlson
John Hillerman, left, with Tom Selleck in Magnum PI in 1980. Photograph: Snap Stills/Rex/Shutterstock

The actor John Hillerman, who has died aged 84, was best known for his role in the television series Magnum PI, playing Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, the English caretaker of the Hawaiian complex in which Tom Selleck’s eponymous private investigator was based. It was the culmination of a series of supporting parts in TV series in which he played characters who displayed officious arrogance or a stuffed shirt’s cold superciliousness. He was a conniving radio detective competing with Jim Hutton in the title role of Ellery Queen (1975-76), Bonnie Franklin’s cold boss in One Day at a Time (1976-80) and Betty White’s ex-husband, “old pickle puss”, who winds up directing her in a TV series in The Betty White Show (1977-78).

But his eight seasons on Magnum from 1980-88 allowed Hillerman to stretch beyond sitcom. He studied recordings of Laurence Olivier doing Hamlet to put on his English accent, and approached the part by considering Higgins “the only sane character where everyone else is stark raving mad”. Playing against Selleck’s laid-back performance, the formula worked. Hillerman was nominated five times for a Golden Globe award as best supporting actor, winning in 1982, and four times for an Emmy in the same category, winning in 1987.

Having come to acting relatively late, Hillerman’s career took a long time to take off. He was born in Denison, Texas, where his father, Christopher, ran a petrol station and his mother, Leona, was a housewife. As a teenager John would drive himself 75 miles to Dallas to see opera, but after high school spent three years at the University of Texas studying journalism, before joining the US air force.

He began acting in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman while stationed in Fort Worth, and after his discharge in 1957 moved to New York to study at the American Theatre Wing. He played on stage, mostly in supporting parts, for 12 years, but was unable to make a steady living in the theatre, and so moved to Hollywood in 1969.

He got his first, uncredited, film role the next year in They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, the sequel to In the Heat of the Night, as much for his southern accent as anything. His first credit was in Michael Winner’s western Lawman (1971), with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Then he got lucky when the director Peter Bogdanovich, with whom he had been a struggling actor in New York, cast him as an English teacher in The Last Picture Show (1971). He would appear in three more films with Bogdanovich, including a dual role, as twins – a sheriff and a bootlegger – in Paper Moon (1973).

The sharp-eyed may have noticed Hillerman in acute character parts in a number of mid-1970s classics, most notably two 1974 films, Chinatown, where he is the water inspector Russell Yelburton, and Blazing Saddles, as Howard Johnson, but also in High Plains Drifter (1973), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Lucky Lady (1975). Then the television success of Ellery Queen propelled him not only into successive series, but frequent guest appearances and television films. By then he was looking for more serious parts; in 1977 he supported Alan Alda as Caryl Chessman in a TV movie, Kill Me If You Can.

Magnum made him rich and famous, and after the show ended, Hillerman wanted more serious work, but found himself being offered mostly sitcoms. However, in 1990 he played Dr Watson to Edward Woodward’s Sherlock Holmes in the Yorkshire TV/CBS co-production Hands of a Murderer. He joined the final series of Valerie Harper’s sitcom, retitled The Hogan Family, as the paterfamilias.

He played a character called Edgar Greenstreet in an episode of Murder, She Wrote in 1992, and a former spy turned bar owner in cold war West Berlin in the obscure 1993 series Berlin Break. His character was called Mac; also in the cast was Jeff MacKay, who had played Magnum’s friend Mac in that series. His final appearance was A Very Brady Sequel (1996), a Brady Bunch reunion.

In 1999 Hillerman left Hollywood for Texas. He had noted that his English fans were often disappointed to learn Higgins was actually “‘a Texas hick”.

He is survived by his sister, Jo Ann.

• John Hillerman, actor, born 20 December 1932; died 9 November 2017

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