“Learn to labor and to wait,” counseled Longfellow, and he might have been speaking to another long fellow, Hugh Bonneville. The 6-foot-2 actor was well into his 40s when he became, by quirk of fate, Lord Robert Grantham, the center of a Tory fantasy vessel called “Downton Abbey” that sailed across the Atlantic and around the world, claiming in the name of entertainment whatever territories the British Empire had relinquished.
What a lovely home, we post-colonialists thought. What a lovely lord, with his complicated English daughters and uncomplicated American wife. The kind of stalwart, dinner-jacketed gent who, rather than sack his cook for going blind, subsidizes her eye surgery and who only troubles his dining room’s table settings when he has a gastric ulcer to disgorge. Wouldn’t we like him to be the head of our household? Wouldn’t things run a good bit better?
With that, Hugh Bonneville stepped out from the shadows and became the man we needed without knowing we needed him. One might forgive him a victory lap or three, but the bulk of his winning and becomingly modest memoir, “Playing Under the Piano” (the title a reference to his favorite childhood hiding place) is about the struggle that got him there.
To be sure, Bonneville, now 58, grew up in comfort. Born Hugh Williams, he was a “little posh boy” from London who, with no great fuss, matriculated into Cambridge, then the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. But from an early age he was also a big-boned lad in “sturdy fit shorts” whose weight went “up and down like a pair of bellows, usually coming to rest on the inflated side of things.” And he was entering a world where the first response was usually “No.”
During his first summer as a professional actor, Bonneville played the bass drum in “Romeo and Juliet,” the cymbal in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and an officer in Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” “Grand total of lines uttered: five,” he remembers. More lines followed, but sometimes they deserted him onstage. The first time it happened, he writes, “time slowed, the cosmos shifted and the space-time continuum took on an entirely new form; embryos were formed, born, grew up, grew old and died; empires rose and fell, entire civilizations came into being and disintegrated, dinosaurs took over the world again before a comet wiped them out.” At long last came the assistant stage manager, speaking “painfully loudly from the prompt corner.”
Bonneville made his film debut in Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994), where his character, after dying of cholera, had his leg sawed-off and sewn on to Robert De Niro’s Creature. But the actor persevered, “learning by osmosis,” winning bigger roles on the London stage, supporting another Hugh in “Notting Hill” (1999) and gaining real attention as Kate Winslet’s co-star in “Iris” (2001). Even here, his name ran below the title, and the awards rained down on Jim Broadbent, who played the older version of Bonneville’s character.
He labored on nonetheless, making a stab at a U.S. fan base with a misbegotten Jenna Elfman sitcom but reserving his heart for independent films, “delicately put together by a coalition of the willing.” And if true stardom eluded him, he could take pride in being the dependable bloke who stood up with Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Ralph Fiennes and even, for a brief moment there in “Notting Hill,” Julia Roberts.
“Most actors,” he writes, “are wise enough to know that you’re often second, third or even eightieth choice for the role.” Yet when “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes went looking for the ideal Earl, Bonneville seems to have been the first choice. No one was expecting much from another period drama, and the show’s publicists struggled to get advance press. But in the second week, ratings actually climbed — and kept climbing.
“By the time it came to filming season two,” Bonneville writes, “security became an issue, burly blokes in hi-viz vests having to pull paparazzi out of trees when we filmed on private property, or perform vigorous interpretive dances to block their lenses when on public land.”
For Bonneville, the show’s success was an airlift to the Zeitgeist — at one juncture he ferries a note from his 10-year-old son directly to President Barack Obama — but even now he seems reluctant to crawl out from under that piano. “Downton” may have won its cast three Screen Actors Guild awards for ensemble work, but, Bonneville insists, “we all knew that Highclere Castle was really the lead character. And we all knew that Maggie Smith ran a pretty close second.” (His cautious verdict on that particular co-star: “There were good Maggie days and not so good ones.”)
It seems fitting then, in his book’s affecting final pages, the Abbey’s patriarch should step away from his make-believe home and see off his own father (who was, intriguingly, a piano player as well as a urologist; his mother, he learned after her death, was employed by MI6). From his bedside seat in the dementia-care home, Bonneville finds, against odds, a consoling metaphor for the old man’s final moments: “It’s as if he’s in a glider, high up there, silently, elegantly, effortlessly circling, peeking out of cottonwool clouds for a moment before disappearing out of view.”
Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”
Playing Under the Piano
From Downton to Darkest Peru
By Hugh Bonneville
Other Press. 384 pp. $27.99
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