Hawthorne made his professional stage debut in 1950, playing Archie Fellows in a Cape Town production of The Shop at Sly Corner.
He made his Broadway debut in 1974 in As You Like It. He returned to the New York stage in 1990 in Shadowlands and won the 1991 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.
In a long and varied career, which began with an advert for Mackeson Stout and a bit part in Dad's Army, his most famous roles were as Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary of the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in the television series Yes Minister (and Cabinet Secretary in its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister), for which he won four BAFTA awards during the 1980s, and as King George III in Alan Bennett's stage play The Madness of George III (for which he won a Best Actor Olivier Award) and the film version entitled The Madness of King George, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won the BAFTA Film Award for Best Actor. He won a sixth BAFTA for the 1996 TV mini-series The Fragile Heart
- "Enter Lucia's confidante and companion in piano duets, the fey and bizarrely dressed Georgie Pillson – portrayed with undisguised relish by Nigel Hawthorne, straight off the back of his Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister. Perhaps the intensely private Hawthorne, before he was involuntarily "outed" around the time of the 1995 Oscars, felt liberated in playing a gay man – although with Mapp and Lucia being set in 1930, the question of Georgie's sexuality is never directly addressed."
On hearing of Hawthorne's death, Alan Bennett described him in his diary:
- "Courteous, grand, a man of the world and superb at what he did, with his technique never so obvious as to become familiar as, say, Olivier's did or Alec Guinness's."
He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1987, and was knighted in 1999.
An intensely private person, he was upset at having been involuntarily outed as gay in 1995 in the publicity surrounding the Academy Awards, but he did attend the ceremony with his long-time partner Trevor Bentham, speaking openly about being gay in interviews and his autobiography, Straight Face, which was published posthumously.
He was included in the Pink List 2000. The citation said:
- "Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister made Hawthorne a household name. His portrayal of the archly knowing Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey was a sustained comic triumph. The South African-reared actor later won international acclaim in The Madness of King George."
Partly based on a Wikipedia article.
- http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/participant.jsp?spid=83138&apid=0 "Biography for Nigel Hawthorne" TCM.com (Retrieved: 18 August 2009)
- http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/mapp-and-lucia-how-to-best--the-ultimate-social-snobs-9242221.html Gerard Gilbert, "Mapp and Lucia: How to best the ultimate social snobs", Independent on Sunday, 6 April 2014
- Alan Bennett, Untold Stories (Faber & Faber, London, 2005), at page 302.
- http://www.musicomh.com/comment/straight-face.htm Michael Hubbard; "Straight Face by Nigel Hawthorne" MusicOMH.com (Retrieved: 18 August 2009)