On this day in history : 14th September 1910 – The birth of actor Jack Hawkins – who appeared in films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu and The Bridge on the River Kwai…. He was voted No 1 star of the British Box Office in 1954….

Jack Hawkins – Image credit : Allan Warren – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

Hawkins was one of Britain’s best known and popular film actors of the 1950s…. He was born in Wood Green (now Haringey) London and at around the age of 10 he joined the local operatic society…. He made his stage debut in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience with the society…. Encouraged by his parents he then enrolled in the Italia Conti Academy…. His London stage debut came at the age of 11, as the Elf King in the pantomime Where the Rainbow Ends, alongside a young Noel Coward….

During the 1930s Hawkins built on his stage career, having made his Broadway debut at 18 in Journey’s End…. He had also begun to venture into film, making a number of quota quickies; at the time there was a requirement for British cinemas to show a percentage of British films in an aim to revive a flagging British film industry…. In 1932 Hawkins was to marry actress Jessica Tandy, they had a daughter in 1934 but divorced in 1940….

World War 2 saw Hawkins join the Royal Welch Fusiliers as an officer – he was to become Colonel in the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA)…. Then after being demobilised in 1946 he resumed his acting career, meeting actress Doreen Lawrence, whom he married in 1947…. They were to have three children, two sons and a daughter….

True stardom arrived for Hawkins in the 1950s – after the release in quick succession of three successful films:- Angels One Five (1951), The Planter’s Wife (1952) and The Malayan Emergency (1952)…. In these films Hawkins played strong authoritative characters who at the same time showed a sympathetic side…. These characters were different to the ones he usually portrayed – but the roles suited him…. His next film, The Cruel Sea (1953), in which he played a naval officer, was the most successful film of that year….

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He received his first offer from Hollywood in 1955, as the part of a Pharaoh in Land of the Pharaohs…. He then returned to the UK, made a few minor films – and then landed one of the main parts in The Bridge on the River Kwai, alongside Alec Guinness and William Holden in 1957…. He was awarded a CBE for his services to drama in 1958 and continued on to star in successful films such as Ben-Hur in 1959 and League of Gentlemen, 1960….

Ben-Hur trailer – Public domain

Hawkins was a star at the top of his game – but he had a vice…. He was an extremely heavy smoker, going through three packs a day…. In the late 1950s he began to experience problems with his voice…. This was unknown to the public at the time – but explains why he took more or less any work that came his way…. For a star of his calibre he took on some surprisingly minor roles – his concern being that if his voice went, then so did his income…. He reduced the amount of cigarettes he was smoking, from 60 to 5 a day and took voice coaching lessons….

He still managed to land some good roles in big films such as Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, in which he played General Allenby…. Then Zulu, in 1964, he was cast in the supporting role, as a priest who was none too brave – his days of the macho lead were over….

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In December 1965 Hawkins was diagnosed with throat cancer and in January 1966 his larynx was removed…. Amazingly his acting career continued, his voice being dubbed – although the dialogue was kept to a minimum…. Stubbornly he continued to smoke….

In May 1973 he underwent experimental surgery for an artificial voicebox…. However the following month he began haemorrhaging and was admitted to hospital…. A second haemorrhage occurred and Hawkins died on the 18th of July 1973….

A memorial service was held on the 14th of September 1973 on what would have been his 63rd birthday, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London…. The address was read by Kenneth More and the lesson by Richard Attenborough….

Jack Hawkins – Image credit : Allan Warren – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

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