Jack Hawkins [John Edward Hawkins] (1910-1973) b. London, England.
John Edward Hawkins was born on September 14th 1910 in Wood Green, Middlesex, the youngest child to Thomas George Hawkins, a master builder and Phoebe (nee Goodman). He was educated at Wood Green’s Trinity County School, where, aged eight he joined the school choir and by the age of ten, his singing had developed so well that he had joined the local operatic society, making his stage debut in Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan. Having shown early promise as an actor, his parents enrolled him in the stage school, the Italia Conti Academy and it was whilst he was studying there that he made his London stage debut, when aged eleven, he played the Elf King in Where the Rainbow Ends at the Holborn Empire on Boxing Day, December 1923. Interestingly, that production also included the young Noël Coward. And before the age of eighteen, Hawkins made his stage debut on Broadway, on 22nd March 1929, when he appeared as Second Lieutenant Hibbert in R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End.
He made his screen debut – albeit in a minor uncredited part – in the 1930 film Birds of Prey, and the same year appeared in his first proper role, playing Joe Martin opposite Ivor Novello, in The Lodger. He soon played the part of the young lover, Alaric in Autumn Crocus, later marrying his leading lady from that play, Jessica Tandy, though the marriage was short lived, ending in 1940. In 1933, the Evening News drama critic singled Hawkins out for special praise, noting that he was certainly made of the stuff of matinée idols and ventured that he might even go on to be more successful than the contemporary stars, including Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. In the years leading up to the Second World War, he often worked with Gielgud, most notably in the 1940 production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Hawkins excelled in the role of Algernon Moncrieff.
After France capitulated in 1940, Hawkins joined-up, volunteering for service with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was eventually posted to India, attaining the rank of captain and where he was put in charge of troop entertainment. By July 1944, he had risen to the rank of colonel and was commanding the administration of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) for India and Southeast Asia. At one point, after he had decided to end the run of the play Company Love in a Mist he was somewhat surprised to receive a note from the Officer Commanding – South East Asia, General William Slim, asking him to immediately reverse his decision! It was during his time in the sub-continent that he met Doreen Lawrence, a young actress who went out to India to serve with ENSA, under Hawkins. They later married in 1947.
Hawkins was de-mobbed in 1946, and was immediately offered a three year contract with Alexander Korda, who was confident he was going to be a big film star. His first successful film was the multi-award winning The Fallen Idol (1948) directed by Carol Reed, in which he played Detective Ames opposite his old friend Ralph Richardson. The film did exceptionally well and launched Hawkins to a wider audience as the next few years proved Korda to be a shrewd judge. His schedule was certainly hectic as he appeared as R.B. Waring in The Small Black Room, Powell and Pressburger’s war-time thriller, followed by State Secret, Sidney Gilliat‘s 1950 drama. Also that year, he played Tristram Griffin in Henry Hathaway’s historical adventure with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. Years later, when Hawkins was struggling to get back on his feet in films after his operation, Henry Hathaway, who had a reputation for being short-tempered and difficult to work with, went out of his way to help him. Hawkins didn’t realise it, but at the time of filming The Black Rose, Hathaway himself was suffering with cancer and so knew only too well how Hawkins was feeling.
After appearing as the specialist schoolteacher, Serle, in Mandy, Alexander MacKendrick’s touching portrayal of the struggle of a little deaf girl, he played what for many is his defining character, Captain Ericson in Charles Frend‘s 1953 classic, The Cruel Sea. The film is a triumph as an unsentimental depiction of the ugly realities of war at sea, the hardships the crews go through, their highs and lows together, the sense of pride when the job is done. Hawkins is superb as the Captain of the Corvette, Saltash Castle, tasked with protecting the convoys, and gives a vivid portrayal of a man with the heavy responsibility of making life-or-death decisions that affect hundreds of his colleagues. The scene where he orders the depth-charging of the enemy U-Boat, knowing it will kill the British sailors still in the sea after their ship had gone down is starkly harrowing. Hawkins himself commented, “All of us in the film were sure that we were making something quite unusual, and a long way removed from the Errol Flynn-taking-Burma-single-handed syndrome…The Cruel Sea contained no false heroics. That is why we all felt that we were making a genuine example of the way in which a group of men went to war”. Hawkins heads an excellent cast, (the young Donald Sinden is outstanding) and fully deserved his BAFTA nomination for Best Actor. The Oscar-nominated screen-writing is first rate and the cinematography grittily realistic, all ensuring the film serves as a fitting tribute to those that experienced the grim reality of the Battle of the Atlantic.
In 1954 Hawkins was voted number one box-office draw and mentioned regularly as being among the actors with the most sex-appeal, something, he confessed, “I had not imagined I possessed”.
In 1956, he made The Long Arm, an Ealing Studios film, again with Charles Frend at the helm, about the Metropolitan Police’s attempts to catch a safe breaker. His character, Supt. Tom Halliday is forced to choose work ahead of family (he had promised his son a trip to see the Farnborough Air Show), as he works all hours to catch his man. As usual, Hawkins is totally believable as the workaholic detective and fine supporting roles from John Stratton and Geoffrey Keen make this a most enjoyable crime drama. John Gregson always maintained that he used Hawkins’ portrayal of Halliday as his inspiration for his role in the television police detective series, Gideon’s Way.
Another military-based epic followed, when in 1957, he played Major Warden in David Lean‘s superb, multi -Oscar winning, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Whilst Alec Guinness rightly picked up the Best Actor Awards at both the Oscars and BAFTAs, Hawkins was somewhat unlucky not to win either of the Best Supporting Actor Awards for his portrayal of the determined and indomitable explosives expert, played with the archetypal ‘stiff-upper-lip, jolly good show’ attitude of a British officer, intent on completing his mission at all costs.
Jack Hawkins was then, once again, perfectly cast as Inspector George Gideon, the over-worked police detective in John Ford’s 1958 Gideon’s Day. At the beginning of the film, we see him as a somewhat hesitant and disorganised policeman, struggling (very much as he was in The Long Arm) to keep a balance between his work and family life. By the end of the film, having worked through the incredibly busy ‘day’ of the title, he is the consummate policeman, tough, sensitive and smart. Popular opinion is that Ford made a mistake making this film and that it is far from being one of his best, however T.E.B. Clarke‘s pacy, dramatic and, at times sensitive screenplay, gives the large cast plenty to work with and, with Hawkins at his usual assured and believable best, the film is well worth watching. Later that year, he was awarded the CBE for his services to drama and he followed this with one of his more unusual roles, playing Quintus Arrius in William Wyler’s stunning and hugely successful historical drama, Ben-Hur.
It was around this time in 1959 that Hawkins began to have problems with his throat, on occasion being hardly able to speak at all and during the making of his next and one of his most enjoyable films, The League of Gentlemen, filming had to be put on hold for a period, whilst he underwent cobalt treatment. In hindsight it is clear that he was already suffering the early symptoms of the cancer that was to later rob him of his voice, however, the treatment appeared to be successful and he was able to return to complete the film. League of Gentlemen is a joy of a film, directed in fine ‘Ealing Studio’ style by Basil Dearden from Bryan Forbes‘ excellent screenplay and with very atmospheric black and white cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson. It is one of those films that somehow just wouldn’t have been the same if filmed in colour. It features an all-star ensemble cast, including Richard Attenborough, who, along with Dearden, Hawkins and Forbes had recently set up Allied Film Makers (AFM) to produce and promote British films. In the film, Hawkins is superb as Major Hyde, a disgruntled ex-serviceman who recruits a collection of similar minded men, all of whom have been dishonourably discharged from the Army and plots to get one-over on society by pulling off a daring bank robbery. Hawkins leads the cast in his own inimitable style, pulling all the characters together as the story unfolds. Modern thinking has decided this film is a comedy and although there are without doubt very amusing interludes, it is certainly more of a crime thriller. Hawkins’ scenes where firstly Hyde and Race (the excellent Nigel Patrick) are doing the washing up, complete with pinnies at the kitchen sink and later, when they were creating a diversion whilst their colleagues steal weapons from an Army Camp, Hyde is instructed by Mycroft (the ever-dependable Roger Livesey) to sample the Army Cook’s finest fried egg are both hilarious and certainly add to the enjoyment of the picture.
Hawkins then made a venture into television when he appeared as Ben Manfred in the series The Four Just Men, an unusual series in as much that it used a different lead actor for each episode, followed by the films, La Fayette (1961) and Five Finger Exercise (1962). Interestingly, in 1961, he turned down the offer of the part of Melville Farr in Victim, Basil Dearden‘s ground-breaking film examining the persecution and blackmail of homosexuals. He refused because he thought the part might compromise his masculine screen image, although Dirk Bogarde, who eventually played the gay barrister, rather unfairly suggested that Hawkins was more afraid the role would “prejudice his chances of a knighthood.”.
Then in 1962, he played General Allenby in David Lean‘s Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of T.E. Lawrence. Hawkins portrayal of the General was very much one of the classic British army figure, in the mould of his Bridge on the River Kwai performance. In stark contrast, was his appearance in Cy Endfield’s impressive Zulu in 1964. In this he played Otto Witt, a pacifist missionary with a drink problem, continually imploring Stanley Baker‘s men to lay down their arms or die. Hawkins always insisted he hated this character and his acting in this film and it is particularly sad to hear his wonderful voice clearly suffering the effects of the throat cancer which had by this time plagued him for more than three years. It was whilst working on his next film, Guns at Batasi in1964 that his voice again began to fail and in December of that year he was diagnosed with throat cancer. The disease had taken such hold that the only possible option was a total larengectomy, or the complete removal of his voice box. In 1966, Hawkins underwent the operation and although it tragically cost him his voice, publicity releases were distributed to say that Hawkins was having training to help him talk again with the aid of an artificial device. Unfortunately, this never happened and when in future Hawkins appeared in films, right up until his death, all of his dialogue was dubbed in post-production, mainly by Robert Rietti, although Charles Grey too was used.
Determined to proceed as normally as possible and with the sympathetic support of all he worked with, Hawkins continued to appear in films and on television over the next eight years. On tv, he played the part of Justin Post in the series Dr Kildare (the last part where he used his own voice) and on the big-screen he appeared in Poppy’s Are Also Flowers, Shalako, Catherine The Great and Oh! What A Lovely War. Further roles in Monte Carlo or Bust! as the unscrupulous Count Levinovitch, Waterloo and When Eight Bells Toll followed, but by the time he made Kidnapped in 1971, it was very painfully obvious that his health was suffering badly. In his last major part, that of Solomon Psaltery in the 1973 comedy-horror Theatre of Blood, he was very cleverly cast in a substantial role that required no dialogue whatsoever. It is so well conceived that the viewer never realises this.
In April 1973, he underwent an operation to have an artificial voice-box fitted and although the operation itself was successful, he continued to suffer from complications until three months later, on 18th July, he suffered a massive haemorrhage and died in hospital in London. He was 62 years old. In his will published two months after his death, he left just £13,019, but the net amount was shown as nil as a result of outstanding taxes and it was clear that he was greatly affected by the reduction in his income following his surgery in 1966. The family home at 34 Ennismore Gardens, South Kensington was left to his wife and his three children, daughter Caroline and sons Nick and Andrew were provided for through a trust fund.
At his memorial service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London on 14th September, (it would have been his sixty-third birthday), his old friends Kenneth More and Richard Attenborough paid their tributes by reading the address and lesson respectively.
Compiled by Clive Saunders.