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Ian McDiarmid Biography


Home > Actors > M > McDiarmid, Ian > Biography


Birth Name: Ian McDiarmid
Born: 08/11/1944
Birth Place: United Kingdom


Ian McDiarmid was born in the East Scotland town of Carnoustie on the North Shore Coast on April 11, 1947. At the age of five, his father brought him to the nearby seaport town of Dundee to see a performance by the Glaswegian music hall entertainer Tommy Morgan. The combination of stage makeup, bright lights and the audience's adulation triggered in McDiarmid the first stirrings of an inclination towards the life of an actor. To appease the pragmatic nature of his parents, however, McDiarmid entered the esteemed University of St. Andrews, majoring in social sciences with an aim toward becoming a clinical psychologist. When the siren call of the arts pulled him at last from his professional studies, McDiarmid enrolled in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. In 1968, he was awarded the school's coveted Gold Medal for excellence in acting.

After plying his new trade as a professional actor on the boards of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, McDiarmid relocated to London, honing his craft in the plays of William Shakespeare. In 1977, he was voted a Most Promising Performer by the London Circle of Critics, and the following year was invited to join the renowned ensemble of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a valued jobbing actor on London's West End, McDiarmid won the esteem of critics for playing Albert Einstein in a production of Terry Johnson's "Insignificance" and for appearing as Harry Hackamore, a fictive spin on billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, in Sam Shepard's "Seduced." It was this performance that first drew the attention of a casting director for "Return of the Jedi" (1983), the second sequel to George Lucas' sci-fi phenom "Star Wars" (1977).

Though McDiarmid had made his feature film debut as a clergyman in Michael Tuchner's "The Likely Lads" (1976), a feature-length follow-up to an earlier sitcom of the same name, and despite being cast in subsequent roles in Mike Newell's "The Awakening" (1980) and Matthew Robbins' "Dragonslayer" (1981), he had no ambitions or illusions about becoming a movie actor. The role into which the 38-year-old McDiarmid found himself slotted had been so insignificant in the previous "Star Wars" sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) that the character was played by the wife of make-up man Rick Baker, whose voice was dubbed in postproduction by actor Clive Revill. McDiarmid brought to the villainous Emperor Palpatine a true Shakespearean stamp, etching the character as evil incarnate. Finished off at the hands of rogue Jedi knight Darth Vader during a literally electrifying death scene at the conclusion of "Jedi," McDiarmid had no inkling that he would be reprising the role 16 years later. In the interim, he continued to accumulate critical hosannas for his stage work while contributing small roles to such major motion pictures as Michael Apted's "Gorky Park" (1984) and Frank Oz's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988).

In 1990, McDiarmid took control of the Almeida Theater in Islington, London, attracting to the historic venue a remarkable roster of visiting artists from around the world while securing the prestigious London Evening Standard Award. He also appeared in Michael Hoffman's historical drama "Restoration" (1995) and in Independent Television's "Rebecca" (1997), an adaptation of the novel by Daphne Du Maurier previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Kept alive in the hearts of "Star Wars" fans via merchandising that included but was not limited to Emperor Palpatine action figures, McDiarmid was called back to the franchise for the prequel triptych, beginning with "The Phantom Menace" (1999), directed by Lucas. Playing in his fifties a character half a century younger than he had been in "Jedi," McDiarmid was unencumbered by heavy makeup throughout principal photography. Despite being able to show his true face to movie audiences, the actor went unrecognized on the red carpet of the film's London premiere and was heckled by paparazzi who assumed he was not a member of the cast or crew.

That same year, the actor played a provincial physician befuddled by the tactics of Johnny Depp's big city coroner Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" (1999), a pyrotechnic adaptation of the classic story by Washington Irving. McDiarmid would return as the vampiric Palpatine in both "Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Revenge of the Sith" (2005), which allowed him to embellish the character with greater nuance while indulging in a more dynamically physical performance. After wrapping the third prequel, he returned to the stage in a critically acclaimed revival of Brian Friels' "Faith Healer" on London's West End, opposite Ralph Fiennes. The success of the production resulted in McDiarmid making a late-life Broadway debut when he and Fiennes transferred the play to Manhattan's Booth Theater for a successful three-month run. McDiarmid won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

In 2008, while performing in a production of Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" at London's Gielgud Theatre, he suffered a minor heart attack but the consummate professional kept the responding EMS crew waiting until after his curtain call. A rare starring role came when McDiarmid was cast as magistrate and author Sir Henry Fielding in the Channel 4 miniseries "City of Vice" (2008), a historical crime procedural set in Georgian London and concerned with the creation of the Bow Street Runners, the precursor to the city's Metropolitan Police. That same year, McDiarmid adapted Andrew O'Hagan's novel Be Near Me for the stage, playing an avuncular and supportive parish priest in the topical tale of a younger cleric who finds himself slapped with the charge of sexual assault. In the BBC telefilm "Margaret" (2009), McDiarmid played the doting husband of Lindsay Duncan's Margaret Thatcher, having won the rule principally due to his physical resemblance to the real life Denis Thatcher.

By Richard Harland Smith