Born Peter Nigel Terry in Bristol, England on August 15, 1945, Terry trained as a stage actor with repertory companies including the Oxford Meadow Players and Bristol Old Vic. He then embarked on a prolific stage career with many appearances in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Round House Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre. His film career was less prolific, though important nonetheless for the impact his first two roles had on popular culture. He made his film debut in 1968, with a celebrated performance as Prince John in The Lion In Winter, acting alongside Peter O’Tool and Katharine Hepburn. He then avoided film acting entirely for 13 years, before agreeing to take the role as the once and future king in Excalibur, John Boorman’s epic take on the Arthurian legend.
The roster of the 1981 film included Nicol Williamson as Merlin, Helen Mirren as Morgana and Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby dismissed the movie as “a one-film Ring cycle that seems 10 times as long as the Wagner work…Star Wars without the redeeming humor of its comic-book style and eye-popping special effects.” Audiences were more accepting: the U.S. box office for the $11M Orion film was $35M.
Terry’s other film appearances were more hit-or-miss; they include impressive performances in the title role in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, in War Requiem, and in Blue, but also parts in FearDotCom, and Troy. In all, he appeared in fewer than 20 films over his long career; reportedly possessed of an aggressively artistic temperament, he preferred to remain a theater actor for the majority of his career.
An extremely private person, Terry lived alone until his death.