From ‘Michael Clayton’ to ‘The Full Monty’: The best Tom Wilkinson movies and TV shows SuperNayr

Perennially familiar, constantly compelling, and a consistent presence come award season, Tom Wilkinson passed away on Dec. 30, 2023, leaving behind nearly half a century of iconic performances.

The actor’s death has fans looking back on an incredible body of work. Here’s a brief retrospective of some of his most memorable roles.

The Full Monty

Nobody knows what works in show business. On paper, a story about a group of unemployed middle-aged ex-blue collar workers taking their clothes off in public doesn’t seem like a franchise launchpad, but darned if The Full Monty didn’t go on to become a hit musical, a stage play, a television series, and one of the British Film Institute’s best movies of the 20th century.

Playing Gerald, an out-of-work factory foreman with slick dance moves, Wilkinson was recognized with a Best Actor in a Supporting Role BAFTA, in addition to a SAG award for the film’s ensemble cast. Wilkinson even reprised the role in 2023 for the film’s FX/Hulu follow-up miniseries.

Selma

Following in the footsteps of so many great historical dramas, Selma went with a British actor to breathe life into one of America’s presidents. The film put Wilkinson in the part of Lyndon B. Johnson, presenting him as an unsympathetic barrier to Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade. The history is pretty backward, but the message is clear, and Wilkinson’s performance is, as always, spot on.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In 2004, Tom Wilkinson played the pioneering doctor behind Lacuna, an NYC medical office specializing in burning the memories out of people’s skulls in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you don’t remember that Wilkinson was in the film, it’s probably nothing to worry about. 

The Kennedys

It’s hard to think of a darker, more complex historical figure from the last century than Joe Kennedy, Sr., patriarch of the Kennedy family and stalwart proponent of surreptitious lobotomies. Those are the shoes that Tom Wilkinson stepped into for The Kennedys, the prestige biopic miniseries chronicling the lives of one of America’s most recognizable families. Wilkinson plays the part with drive and obsession, making the character all the more haunting, elevating the sometimes-stilted dialogue in ways that most actors would struggle to accomplish.

Shakespeare in Love

One speed that Tom Wilkinson could always be counted on to hit hard: The barely-keeping-it-together, angry money man. It’s a part he brought to life in The Ghost in the Darkness, appearing in just a couple of scenes while permanently changing the way people think “I don’t want to hear about this anymore” when their coworkers start talking about their babies. 

And he did it again a few years later in Shakespeare in Love, playing theater financier Fennyman. Pushing the business part of art in an unblinking performance that involves more torture than you’d expect, Elizabethan ruffs notwithstanding. For any of the film’s other shortcomings, Fennyman gives audiences a character who really knows how to deal with theater people: By threatening to burn them.

Michael Clayton

It was 2007, and Hollywood was still blindly flailing at the Next Big Thing. One big swing came with Michael Clayton, the aesthetic and dramatic middle ground between Thank You for Smoking and The Bourne Identity. 

It wasn’t the biggest hit, and we’re not still enjoying the Michael Clayton Cinematic Universe some 17 years later, but it’s a solid thriller with a lot of tension. In it, Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, a high-profile attorney in a spiral thanks to a severe, public manic episode. It’s a characteristically powerful performance and one that saw Wilkinson nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Batman Begins

It’s hard to overstate how much Batman Begins changed the way that Hollywood approached superhero movies. Relative to almost everything else that had come out up to that point, it was camp-free, unwinking, and treated its main character – again, comparatively – like a real human being. 

Part of that meant pitting him against other real human beings – not monsters or mad scientists, but ambitious men, driven by something closer to pragmatism than mustache-twirling villainy. Wilkinson portrayed Carmine Falcone, an organized crime boss who finds himself on the wrong end of a Batman-induced, spotlight-heavy citizen’s arrest. He’s a creep. He’s intimidating. He also gets gassed by one of those mustache-twirling mad scientists once the movie’s second half kicks off. Progress takes time. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Slowly released around the world from 2011 to 2013, receiving wave after wave of positive reviews and a box office reception beyond anyone’s expectations, and representing the closest thing that audiences will ever experience to an Avengers-style team-up of elderly British actors, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is charming. It’s the story of a group of retired people, all hoping to find a new start by picking up and moving to a badly misrepresented retirement community in India. 

Starring alongside Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Dev Patel, Wilkinson plays a former judge, returning to the town where he was raised after being away from the place for decades. Without giving anything away, his story is heartbreaking, and his performance is layered. Like we said, it’s a very sweet film.

John Adams

As the golden age of television pushed forward, HBO found itself in unprecedented territory, suddenly getting away with putting out prestige miniseries on subjects that seemed unfilmable a few years prior. They pushed boundaries. They challenged preconceptions. They dared to ask “How dumb can we make our lead actors’ wigs before it gets distracting?”

And while they wouldn’t find a concrete answer to that question until 2023 with the release of House of the Dragon, they inched closer to it with John Adams, the historical drama documenting the American Revolution and the lives of the founding fathers. It was a difficult task — Hamilton was still a far-off dream, so they had to do the whole thing without rapping. Still, a stellar cast, including Wilkinson as an almost dangerously crotchety Benjamin Franklin, helped to carry the series to over a dozen Emmys, a handful of Golden Globes, and a pair of Screen Actors Guild awards.

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