Tom Hickey obituary: An actor with a vocation for his craft

‘In this country, where most of the population are play-actors ... it’s bound to yield players’

Irish actor Tom Hickey, who died on Saturday night, came to public attention in the definitive RTÉ television drama The Riordans. But he will be remembered in particular for collaborations with theatre director Patrick Mason and late playwright Tom MacIntyre – specifically for their production of The Great Hunger in 1983, one of several standout performances at the Abbey Theatre.

Hickey, born in Kildare in 1944, he was a founder member of the influential Focus theatre in Dublin alongside Deirdre O'Connell, Sabina Higgins (née Coyne), Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy and Richard Callanan. It flourished from 1963-2012, and favoured an acting style based on theatrical theory and techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski, founder of the Moscow Art Theatre.

Speaking about being an actor in 2005, Hickey said: “I always saw it . . . as a vocation. I think it’s very important for any actor to see it that way . . . in this country, where most of the population are play-actors, writers, chancers, there’s a lot of play and it’s bound to yield up – acting schools or not – players.”

That same year he was also appointed to the board of the Abbey Theatre.

At the Abbey many of MacIntyre’s plays received their world premieres at the Peacock Theatre, downstairs at the State venue. Hickey’s 2001 performance in MacIntyre’s The Gallant John-Joe, a solo 80-minute performance, was described in this newspaper as “masterful”.

It asked: “What is it about Tom Hickey that makes him such a unique presence on the Irish stage? There’s his courage, of course. Hickey is one of the few established actors who will go into the uncharted realms beyond embarrassment, glamour and convention. There’s also his physical energy, that extraordinary repertoire of gestures and expressions through which his whole body speaks to an audience.”

What The Gallant John-Joe revealed, it continued, “is the secret of how Hickey manages to be such a coherent actor while remaining so apparently instinctive and individual. He inhabits the words.”

Hickey believed MacIntyre was particularly insightful about human behaviour, noting “he was also an expert at understanding physicality in the role of a character. He wasn’t the easiest man to deal with. But if you made an outrageous suggestion in rehearsals, he’d use it if he could.”

Hickey also performed in works by playwrights Tom Murphy, Frank McGuinness, Bernard Farrell and Marina Carr.

He also performed Beckett, with Michael Harding of this parish recalling the actor's excellent London 2009 performance in Endgame as Nagg, a legless character imprisoned in a dustbin, whose head emerges at regular intervals, to gnaw at a bone, or offer a gesture of affection to his lady companion, who lives in the adjoining bin.

Both met after the performance when Hickey was “distraught. I asked him what the matter was? He revealed that, as he was coming down from his dressing room to go on stage, the lift broke. He was trapped inside. He could hear voices of the other actors on stage and knew his cue was coming in a matter of minutes but he could not break free, until finally a carpenter extracted him. And he was quickly binned and delivered to the stage, just in time for his first line. The play continued seamlessly, without the audience being any the wiser.”

Determined to avoid typecasting during his 14 years with The Riordans up to 1978, Hickey continued to perform in other television and theatre productions. These included works at the Focus Theatre, Project, Peacock and he toured with the Irish Theatre Company.

However, for people of a certain age he will forever be associated with the role of Benjy, son of the Riordan family on a farm set in Kilkenny. The series was hugely popular, with the Limerick Weekly Echo reporting in 1971 that "The Riordans returned to our screen with a bang, and nowhere else was that bang felt greater than in the parish of Caherline. Even the church could not compete, so Father D Keogh PP, Caherline, had to announce that evening devotions in the future will be timed for 7.15pm to avoid clashing with the popular TV programme The Riordans."

Hickey recalled in 2009 how “we started rehearsals for The Riordans on 28th September, 1964. I was a graduate of Deirdre O’Connell’s Stanislavsky Studio and was obsessed with a desire to master the craft of the actor. We recorded 14 episodes, transmitted every week from January 1965. I was deeply disappointed with my performance as Benjy in those early programmes. My inexperience was there for all to see. The embarrassment of it drove me to disguise myself in public.”

He said that "at the start, none of us knew how long the show would go on. Ireland in the '60s was starting to free itself from the shackles of the '40s and '50s, and Telefís Éireann was the only TV station available. The Riordans had a captive audience and became a huge success, not only with the rural population but in towns and cities as well."

But “after 14 years on both fronts and with theatre roles becoming more demanding it became clear to me that I had to leave The Riordans. So with some sadness I left in 1978, a year before its demise.”

Hickey also performed in films including Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto as well as Lenny Abrahamson’s films Garage and What Richard Did.

One of his last appearances was in a performance of Beckett's poems, directed by Alan Gilsenan.

In 2013 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

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