Elliott was born in London, England, the son of Nina (née Mitchell) and Myles Laymen Farr Elliott. He attended Malvern College and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
In World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force, training as a sergeant radio operator and gunner and serving with No. 76 Squadron RAF under the command of Leonard Cheshire. On the night of 23/24 September 1942, his Handley Page Halifax bomber took part in an air raid on the U-boat pens at Flensburg, Germany. The aircraft was hit by flak and subsequently ditched in the North Sea near Sylt, Germany. Elliot and two other crew members survived and he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia, during which time he became involved in amateur dramatics.
After making his film debut in Dear Mr. Prohack (1949), he went on to play a wide range of parts, often ineffectual and occasionally seedy characters as the journalist Bayliss in Defence of the Realm, the abortionist in Alfie, and the washed-up film director in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Elliott and Natasha Parry played the main roles in the 1955 television play, The Apollo of Bellac.
Elliott made many television appearances, notably in plays by Dennis Potter, including Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1972), Brimstone and Treacle (1976), and Blade on the Feather (1980). He took over for an ill Michael Aldridge for one season of The Man in Room 17 (1966) and appeared in the series Thriller (1975).
In the 1980s, he won three consecutive British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards – Best Supporting Actor for Trading Places as Dan Aykroyd's kindly butler, A Private Function, and Defence of the Realm – as well as an Academy Award nomination for A Room with a View. He also became familiar to a wider audience as the well-meaning but addlepated Dr. Marcus Brody in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A photograph of his character appears in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and a reference is made to Brody's death. In 1988, Elliott was the Russian mole Povin, around whom the entire plot revolves, in the television miniseries Codename: Kyril.
Having filmed Michael Winner's The Wicked Lady (1983), Elliott was quoted in a BBC Radio interview as saying that he and Marc Sinden "are the only two British actors I am aware of who have ever worked with Winner more than once and it certainly wasn't for love. But curiously, I never, ever saw any of the same crew twice." (Elliott in You Must Be Joking! (1965) and The Wicked Lady and Sinden in The Wicked Lady and Decadence). Elliott had also worked with Sinden's father, Donald Sinden, in the film The Cruel Sea (1953).
He also starred with Katharine Hepburn and Harold Gould in the television film, Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986) and with Nicole Kidman in Bangkok Hilton (1989).
In 1988, Elliott was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to acting. His career included many stage performances, including with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a well acclaimed turn as the twin brothers in Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon. His scene-stealing abilities led Gabriel Byrne, his co-star in Defence of the Realm, to say: "Never act with children, dogs or Denholm Elliott."
Privately bisexual, Elliott was married twice; first to the British actress Virginia McKenna for a few months in 1954 and later, in an open marriage, to actress Susan Robinson, with whom he had two children, a son named Mark and a daughter named Jennifer (1964-2003). In 1995, Paul McMullan of The News of the World published a series of articles claiming that Jennifer was living on the street and working as a prostitute and hooked on heroin, by his own admission using information obtained illegally by bribing police officers. Her death in 2003 was suicide, by hanging.
Elliott was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and died of AIDS-related tuberculosis at his home in Santa Eulària des Riu on Ibiza, Spain, in 1992. Tributes were paid by actors Donald Sinden and Sir Peter Ustinov, playwright Dennis Potter and former wife Virginia McKenna. Sinden said: "He was one of the finest screen actors and a very special actor at that. He was one of the last stars who was a real gentleman. It is a very sad loss." Ustinov said: "He was a wonderful actor and a very good friend on the occasions that life brought us together." Potter commented: "He was a complicated, sensitive and slightly disturbing actor. Not only was he a very accomplished actor, he was a dry, witty and slightly menacing individual. As a man, I always found him very open, very straightforward and very much to the point." McKenna added: "It is absolutely dreadful, but the person I am thinking of at the moment more than anybody is his wife. It must be terrible for her."
His widow set up a charity, the Denholm Elliott Project, in his honour and collaborated on his biography. She also worked closely with the UK Coalition of People Living with HIV and AIDS. She died on 12 April 2007, following a fire in her flat in London.
Burial: Cremated, Ashes scattered. Specifically: Ashes scattered at his home garden in Ibiza
Denholm Elliott: Quest for Love by Susan Elliott & Barry Turner
Paperback: 383 pages
Publisher: Trafalgar Square (March 1996)
Amazon: Denholm Elliott: Quest for Love
This is Susan Elliot's own story of her husband's extraordinary career and of their unusual marriage and family life in London and Ibiza with their children, Jennifer and Mark, until his death, brought on by AIDS, in October 1992.
Denholm's Wife: A True Story by Joyce Keating
Paperback: 234 pages
Publisher: Outskirts Press (April 26, 2012)
Amazon: Denholm's Wife: A True Story
Susan Elliott was the American wife of British actor Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Trading Places, A Room with a View, etc.). This is a true story of the life they shared before each dying tragic deaths - his through AIDS, hers through a fire in their home. Though the pages are laced throughout with stories of Denholm, this is primarily a story of Susan Elliott after Denholm. We learn of her struggle to cope with the changes in her life after he died, her dependence on alcohol and her attempts to keep a "stiff upper lip" throughout extraordinary hardships which would bring the majority of us to our knees. Told in story form and at times with painful candor by Joyce Keating, Susan Elliott's sister and closest friend, this is also a story of the immense strength of love between two sisters and the heartrending attempt of one to keep the other alive. Thankfully, tragedy in this story is well balanced by humor and wit.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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