Nigel Hawthorne wrote of his experience making Demolition Man opposite Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes – and it’d be fair to say he wasn’t a fan.
The late, great Nigel Hawthorne left behind following his death in 2001 a wonderful, cherishable collection of screen credits. What’s more, he wrote about them in his terrific memoir, Straight Face, that he completed shortly before his passing, and was published posthumously. The Madness Of King George and his role as Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister took pride of place in a terrific list of credits.
But one film that Hawthorne wasn’t a fan of was his Hollywood debut.
He devoted in the aforementioned book just three pages to his experience of working on the 1993 science fiction blockbuster Demolition Man, a movie for which I confess to having no little love. It was fair to say that Hawthorne didn’t share my affection for the film. It’s fairly well known that he took the part in the film as a trade-off to try and get a passion project of his off the ground, but what’s less talked about is why he felt he had to do it in the first place.
One of the many roles that Hawthorne originated on the stage was that of Narnia creator C S Lewis in the play Shadowlands. William Nicholson had written the script, about Lewis’ love for an American woman by the name of Joy Davidman. The role was one Hawthorne described as a “quantum leap” for him. In spite of his theatrical background, Hawthorne was regarded in the public eye – and that of many casting directors – as a television comedy actor. Shadowlands couldn’t have been further removed from that.
The stage production was directed by Elijah Mohinsky, with Jane Lapotaire co-starring in the role of Joy. After rehearsals in Plymouth, the play would open to some success. When it transferred to London, the critics “sniffed”, Hawthorne wrote, “though by this time I had given up reading them for years”. It enjoyed a lot more success when it transferred to Broadway, where Hawthorne would be presented with a Best Actor Tony award by Denzel Washington.
Hawthorne went on to take the title role in another successful production straight after, with director Nicholas Hytner offering him the lead in The Madness Of King George III, penned by Alan Bennett. Huge acclaim followed, and talk surfaced about a film version of the production. Hawthorne very much wanted in.
However, alongside his success in the play, a film version of Shadowlands had been brought to the screen, and he’d been overlooked for the lead. In spite of being the actor who took the role on both the London and New York stage, the hard truth he had to face was that he wasn’t a big enough name for the film version (pictured).
Anthony Hopkins – who’d won his Oscar for The Silence Of The Lambs a few years prior would be offered the role, and the film would be a successful one.
Hawthorne didn’t want to be frozen out of a film of The Madness Of King George (as the screen version would be called), and thus knew he had to raise his big screen profile.
The 1990s was an era rich in Hollywood looking for British villains for its movies, and an offer duly came Hawthorne’s way from Lethal Weapon and Die Hard producer Joel Silver.
The film was Demolition Man, with the script described by Hawthorne as “a load of old hokum but quite promising with some witty lines”.
He added that “the futuristic theme was brilliantly realised and the characters quirky and out of the ordinary, so I accepted”. His pay cheque would be a long way short of the film’s lead stars Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, but he reasoned “doing this one might well swing the balance in my favour when the British producers were casting the part of George”.
He did not enjoy his time on the film.
“It was a miserable experience”, he reflected of making Demolition Man. “The egos of the two stars was irrepressible. I’d heard stories of what went on in big studio films, but to see it on a daily basis was something new”.
He noted that neither Stallone nor Snipes was that interested in him or his background, that the pair would “keep everybody waiting on the set as a matter of course”.
Hawthorne saved particular ire for Stallone, recalling that he “liked to parade around, with a large cigar jammed between his lips, cheerfully wisecracking, until dragged forcibly away by the ever-indulgent Joel Silver, who dressed in what appears to be brown silk pyjamas”.
When it came to acting opposite Stallone, Hawthorne struggled until he settled on a method: “I used to keep my eyes on his lips. When they stopped moving, I knew it was my turn to speak”.
Hawthorne wasn’t impressed with Silver either, noting his obsessed with junk food, and how he’d “contrive to have as many as six arguments running at the same time, mobile phone to his ear, forefinger angrily stabbing the air”.
He noted how Lori Petty was cast in the role of Lenina Huxley when Sandra Bullock initially wasn’t available. Of how Petty was then kept on standby for six weeks, following costume fittings and make-up tests, and then she was promptly fired – with a payoff – when Bullock was available again.
The script, that had been part of the reason Hawthorne signed up, “was changing out of recognition”, and he realised that he had no control, no power, and just wanted to go home.
He’d describe himself on the set as “a cipher”.
The sting in the tale was still to come. For after struggling with the experience of making the film, and not particularly enjoying the end result, it turned out he hadn’t needed to do it in the first place.
The author of the play The Madness Of King George III – Alan Bennett – made it clearly known that he wouldn’t allow the film to be made unless it was the stage team of Hawthorne and Hytner bringing it to life. And whilst they had a tiny budget with which to do so, that’s just what they did.
This time, Hawthorne would get the acclaim he deserved too, an Oscar nomination for Best Actor a BAFTA win, and Hytner too picked up a few award nominations along the way. He would describe making the movie as one of the happiest experiences of his life.
And as for Demolition Man? Not until the index does the film get another mention in his memoir…
Further listening: our podcasts on the making of both Demolition Man and The Madness Of King George…
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