William Hobbs, Fight Director on Swashbuckling Classics 'The Duellists' and 'Rob Roy,' Dies at 79

Courtesy of Laurence Hobbs
William Hobbs

He also choreographed action sequences for 'The Three Musketeers,' 'The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes,' 'Smarter Brother' and 'The Avengers.'

William Hobbs, an innovative fight director, fencing master and stuntman who choreographed action sequences for such films as The Three MusketeersThe Duellists and Rob Roy during his long career, has died. He was 79.

Hobbs died July 10 at Hillingdon Hospital in London after suffering from dementia, his son, Laurence Hobbs, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Hobbs masterminded John Steed's (Ralph Fiennes) umbrella combat scenes for the 1998 feature adaptation of The Avengers and worked on other features like The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), Robin and Marian (1976), Flash Gordon (1980), Brazil (1985), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Willow (1988), Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990), Robin Hood (1991), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002).

Hobbs set up his combatants as "fallible human beings," Tony Wolf, a fight director who served as a "cultural fighting styles designer" on The Lord of the Rings movies, wrote in a blog post. "They frequently found themselves scrambling to recover from mistakes, became exhausted or enraged, slipped in the mud, sometimes succeeding (or just surviving) almost in spite of themselves.

"All of this was in profound and refreshing contrast to the more purely heroic action scenes of Hobbs' predecessors in the field, which too often eschewed messy realism and psychological substance for the swashbuckling cliches of textbook 'movie swordsmanship.' Bill Hobbs' fight choreography always sought to surprise his audience and took the less-obvious path."

Wolf, who said it was Hobbs who inspired him to take up a career as a fight director, pointed to the "honor duel" between Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) and Archie Cunningham (Tim Roth) in Michael Caton-Jones' Rob Roy (1995) as Hobbs' most famous work.

A co-founder of the Society of British Fight Directors and a stickler for historical accuracy, Hobbs also appeared onscreen as a stunt performer on a 2011 episode of Game of Thrones, as well as in many other movies and TV shows that he worked on. 

He once said that Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother star Gene Wilder was his most promising actor-pupil.

Hobbs was born in North London on Jan. 29, 1939. His father was a Royal Air Force pilot who was killed during World War II, and his mother was an actress.

Raised in Australia, Hobbs narrowly missed making the fencing team for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne; a year later, he returned to London and enrolled at the Central School for Speech and Drama.

Hobbs trained Peter O'Toole for Hamlet fight scenes at the Old Vic in Bristol, England, spent nine years as fight director at Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company — the famed actor wrote the foreword to Hobbs' 1967 book, Stage Combat: The Action to the Word — and was fencing master at Center for 15 years.

Hobbs had already taught actors how to lunge, parry and riposte on Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974) when he was approached by Ridley Scott to choreograph the fight scenes for the first film Scott ever directed, The Duellists (1977).

"I don't want any of that old tosh, I want it real," Scott told Hobbs, as quoted in Richard Cohen's 2010 book By the Sword: Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai Warriors, Swashbucklers and Olympians.

"From the beginning, I wanted to break away from all of the Hollywood stuff I'd seen," Hobbs says in the book. "What interested me was the story, the drama. I was excited by the people. The pauses that we put into the fights in [The Duellists] were phenomenal, but we wanted to get across the awful feeling that you believe you'll be dead on the floor. In the end, the realism is the fear."

Survivors include his wife, Janet, and sons Laurence and Edwin.