John Hillerman, a Texas-born actor best remembered as the stuffy English foil Higgins to Tom Selleck’s freewheeling private detective on the hit 1980s television series “Magnum, P.I.,” died Nov. 9 at his home in Houston. He was 84.
A spokeswoman, Lori De Waal, said the cause of death has yet to be determined.
Mr. Hillerman was a theater stalwart and versatile Hollywood character actor before becoming a household name as Jonathan Quayle Higgins III on “Magnum, P.I.,” which aired on CBS from 1980 to 1988.
Higgins, a former British army officer, was the Doberman pinscher-loving caretaker of the sprawling Hawaii property Magnum used as a home base; the ferocious dogs were his “good lads.” The estate, Robin’s Nest, was owned by an unseen author of mystery novels, Robin Masters.
Magnum, a retired Navy officer, used the guesthouse and drove the Ferrari. He sometimes bargained with the officious Higgins to use the expensive amenities, but their bickering formed a playful core of the show. Mr. Hillerman won an Emmy in 1987 for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series.
“I could do Higgins happily for 10 years without getting bored,” he told People magazine in 1983. “I like to play people who are bright and who can turn a good insulting line.”
John Benedict Hillerman was born in the North Texas city of Denison on Dec. 20, 1932, to a gas station owner. He developed an early enthusiasm for the arts, particularly opera, and studied journalism at the University of Texas before joining the Air Force.
He spent much of his free time in Fort Worth-area theater troupes, and after his discharge he attended the American Theatre Wing in New York. He made his Broadway debut in a 1959 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown.” Dozens of supporting roles followed, on- and off-Broadway, and he was affiliated for several years with the Washington Theater Club in the District before his screen debut in 1970.
Mr. Hillerman became friends with Peter Bogdanovich early in his theatrical career, when the two performed as spear carriers in a Central Park production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Bogdanovich cast him in a small role in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), based on Larry McMurtry’s drama of a fading Texas town, and Mr. Hillerman became a member of the director’s stock company, playing a hotel manager in “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), a lawman in “Paper Moon” (1973) and a chauffeur in “At Long Last Love” (1975).
Other appearances included the ice cream parlor owner Howard Johnson in Mel Brooks’s western farce “Blazing Saddles” (1974) and a corrupt public official in Roman Polanski’s detective masterpiece “Chinatown” (1974). Over the next several years, Mr. Hillerman played radio detective Simon Brimmer on the TV series “Ellery Queen,” was Betty White’s estranged husband on “The Betty White Show” and was Mr. Conners on the sitcom “One Day at a Time.”
He retired in 1999. Survivors include a sister.
“In my humble opinion, Higgins is one of the best parts in all television,” Mr. Hillerman told People. “I’m not the kind of actor making lots of money in television while saying, ‘Oh, I wish I were back in the the-a-ter.’ They would have to offer me the whole island of Manhattan to get me to do a play in New York now.”