Back in 1982, a group of schoolmates at St. Xavier’s Catholic Academy gathered at St. Patrick’s CCD Center for their annual barbecue benefit dinner. To the surprise of the members of the Church, a welcomed visitor pulled up in a chauffeured Cadillac stretch limousine and out stepped a former classmate, now known as John Hillerman.
John Benedict Hillerman – or Jackie Ben – as he was known in Denison during his growing up years, died Thursday in Houston, where he had lived for many years. His sister Jo Ann Tritico of Houston said Friday that he had been suffering from many things and recently she could tell that he was declining. On Thursday, she said, he collapsed at home and died instantly.
John, 84, was born on Dec. 20, 1932, in Denison, a son of Christopher Benedict Hillerman and Lenora Joan Hillerman, the middle child with two sisters. His younger sister, JoAnn, was a classmate of mine. While Hillerman and his sisters attended St. Xavier’s Academy, JoAnn transferred to Denison High School and graduated there in 1953. After graduation from St. Xavier’s John went on to attend the University of Texas for three years where he majored in journalism. His family lived at 409 South Tone Avenue. His dad operated a service station on South Armstrong Avenue, and his mother owned a beauty parlor downtown.
After he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1957 he became interested in acting after working with a theatrical group in Fort Worth during his service time. He moved to New York City to study at the American Theatre Wing and perform in professional theater for 12 years. Here he starred in many leading roles before moving to Hollywood ion 1969. He once said that as soon as he stepped on stage he realized he had been bored stiff all his life – and that this was the future for him. He said it wasn’t quick or easy, however. It took 27 years of character acting in some 30 or more movies, dozens of television and stage roles and a lot of lean years. He was best known for his role as a former British Army Sergeant Major Jonathan Quayle Higgins in “Magnum, P.I.” that ran on television from 1980 to 1988. He considered Higgins, a role he co-starred in with Tom Selleck, as his favorite role. He earned five Golden Globe nominations, a win in 1981 and four Emmy nominations, winning in 1987. He retired from acting in 1999 and moved to Houston.
During his 1982 visit to the town of his birth, John thrilled church members when he stopped by to eat barbecue at the annual fundraiser. One classmate was interviewed as saying it made the afternoon perfect to have no rain for the event and to have a visit from their hometown movie star. It was his first visit back home in 25 years.
He left here to go to Montreal Canada where he was to make a four-hour, two-part movie for NBX “Little Gloria-Happy at Last,” the biography of Gloria Vanderbilt. But while in Denison he spent the afternoon visiting school friends, his uncle, Ray Wenckens, and dozens of others at the barbecue, then he took his uncle for a ride in his auto so they could visit alone for a while.
When Mayor Ben Munson learned of another Hillerman visit to Denison in 1988, he officially proclaimed Tuesday, Dec. 20 that year as John Hillerman Day here “as a symbol of the innate greatness which exists within this community.”
On Friday, fans from over the country were expressing their thoughts about how he had entertained with his British accent and his wit and talent. He is being missed already.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com.