For most of us, we first met John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, the jovial Egyptian excavator in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His booming voice and mellifluous rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan songs stole every scene he was in. Several decades later, a new generation would know him as Gimli, the dwarf warrior from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though he often speaks with a British baritone, the prolific actor has most often portrayed characters far from his native country of Wales.
Rhys-Davies is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has had a career appearing in stage, television, and film for five decades. He’s made a career playing sagacious sultans, Eastern European spies, turbaned terrorists, maniacal villains, and courageous heroes. He was well known in the UK for his appearances in such series as Budgie, and the costume drama I, Claudius, but it was his appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark that made him an international star. Grab your fez, and let’s look at the 10 best roles of John Rhys-Davies.
John Rhys-Davies played arguably one of his most widely recognized roles when he was in his ’50s as the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As part of the nine individuals selected by Lord Elrond to take the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it, he offered both his mighty battle ax and his sharp tongue.
At over 6 feet tall, Rhys-Davies was one of the tallest members of the Fellowship but portraying one of the shortest along with the Hobbits. His lovably cantankerous spirit endeared him to fans around the world, especially since it led to the unlikely friendship between Gimli and the Elf Prince Legolas.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of Rhys-Davies’ first films in a Hollywood blockbuster, though he’d already been performing on stage and television throughout the UK in the ’70s and ’80s. He instantly stood out thanks to the jocular hilarity of his character, Sallah, who also reappeared in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Sallah was not only Indy’s contact in Cairo but he was also an old friend. An Egyptian excavator, he had extensive knowledge of antiquities and a huge family including nine children who once protected Indy from Nazi gunmen. He was originally envisioned as 5’2″ and thin, but the jovial, bear-like Rhys-Davies won over Steven Spielberg with his warmth and magnetic gusto.
8 VASCO RODRIGUES
When the popular James Clavell novel Shogun was turned into an NBC mini-series in 1980, John Rhys-Davies was cast as Vasco Rodrigues, a Portuguese ship pilot of the Black Ship who strikes up a begrudging friendship with the series hero, John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain). Blackthorne is the English pilot of the Dutch merchant ship Erasmus, blown by a storm into Japanese waters in the 1600s.
The relationship between Blackthorne and Rodrigues begins warily, as Blackthorne is a Protestant and Rodrigues a Catholic when the Catholic foothold was strong in Japan and Protestants were considered heretics. But they each save each other’s lives and become embroiled in the politics between Rodrigues’ captain and the ruling shogun and his samurai.
The second character to be played by John Rhys-Davies in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Treebeard the Ent, appeared in The Two Towers, protecting the Hobbits Merry and Pippin after they escaped capture from Orcs. One of the oldest living things in Middle-Earth, he resides in Fangorn Forest, at the foot of the Misty Mountains.
Ents were the Shepherds of the Trees, protecting them from being ravaged by other beings in Middle-Earth, such as dwarves and men, for their wood. Treebeard is one of the most well-described and detailed characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, and Rhys-Davies brings the character to life, though Treebeard is digitally animated.
6 NAEVIUS SUTORIUS MACRO
Rhys-Davies was one of many British thespians (Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, and Derek Jacobi to name a few) who found fame after the sprawling epic I, Claudius, a BBC produced serial from 1976. He portrayed real-life Roman Prefect Naevius Sutorius Marco of the Praetorian Guard. He served under both the Roman Emperor Tiberius and Caligula.
He rose to power by being influential under Tiberius, then orchestrating the Emperor’s demise in favor of Caligula’s rise to power. I, Claudius is told from the perspective of Emperor Claudius, who narrates the series as an older man, and includes history of the early Roman Empire.
5 GENERAL LEONID PUSHKIN
Fellow character actors Christopher Lee and Mads Mikkelsen were both actors who appeared in the Star Wars franchise and the James Bond franchise as villains, but John Rhys-Davies has the distinction of appearing in the Indiana Jones films and the James Bond franchise as an ally of 007. He portrayed General Leonid Pushkin in the fifteenth Bond film, The Living Daylights in 1987.
The film was the first to star Timothy Dalton as the famous secret agent, and the last film to be named after one of Ian Fleming’s own stories. Rhys-Davies played the new head of the KGB who Bond first views as a villain and a traitor, before joining forces with to go after the real villain, former head of the KGB.
4 PROFESSOR MAXIMILLIAN ARTURO
From 1995 until 2000, Rhys-Davies appeared as Professor Maximillian Arturo in Sliders, the sci-fi fantasy series about a group of time travelers who used a device to “slide” between parallel universes using an inter-dimensional wormhole. Professor Arturo is the mentor of the main character Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell) who invented the device.
During one of their initial time slides, they lose their coordinates of how to get home and end up remaining in time periods for a few minutes to a few months. While they’re stuck in a time period waiting for the vortex to open, the ragtag crew of sliders becomes enmeshed in local politics and historical events.
3 QUILLIAN GORNT
Appearing in a second James Clavell adaptation, Noble House, Rhys-Davies once again was placed among top-tier British talent in a mini-series that proved just as popular as Shogun. It starred a young Pierce Brosnan as Tai-Pan Ian Dunross, the head of the international trading company Struan’s, and Rhys-Davies as his rival in business, Quillian Gornt.
When Struan’s is facing financial trouble and Dunross has to raise capital, he goes after a wealthy investor. This investor is already in league with Gornt, who wants to ruin Dunross at all costs. The series features cloak-and-dagger intrigue, flashy ’80s fashion, and standout performances from Rhys-Davies and Brosnan.
2 AGENT MICHAEL MALONE
After the success of the 1987 film The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, a series was greenlit in 1993. Tom Amandes took over Costner’s part of Eliot Ness, while John Rhys-Davies assumed the role of Agent Michael Malone, based on Connery’s Jimmy Malone.
Combining the film as well as the 1959 tv show of the same name, this series once again followed Ness, a government investigator, as he formed a special squad of law enforcement officers to put Al Capone (William Forsythe) behind bars.
1 WILSON FISK
Before there was Vincent D’Onofrio’s acclaimed appearance as Wilson Fisk in Netflix‘s Daredevil series, John Rhys-Davies was the first to play the criminal Kingpin in the 1989 classic The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. It was a made-for-tv superhero film based on the hit series which ran from 1978 to 1982.
The film features David Banner (Bill Bixby) teaming up with Daredevil (Rex Smith) to go up against Fisk in court. As the first to portray Fisk in a live-action rendition, John Rhys-Davies brings his usual gravitas and screen presence to the role.