Nighy was born on December 12, 1949 in Caterham, Surrey. His father managed a garage in Croydon and his mother worked as a psychiatric nurse. At school he gained 'O'-levels in English Language and English Literature and enjoyed reading, particularly Ernest Hemingway.
On leaving school he wanted to become a journalist but didn't have the required qualifications. He eventually went on to work as a messenger boy for the Field magazine.
He stayed in Paris for a while because he wanted to write "the great novel," but he only managed to write the title. When he ran out of money, the British consul shipped him home. A girlfriend suggested that he should become an actor, so he trained at Guildford School of Dance and Drama. Since then he has found continuous work as an actor, on stage, screen and radio.
His stage work includes National Theatre roles in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1993, David Hare's Skylight and Blue Orange.
Bill's partner was actress Diana Quick (he asked her to marry him but she said: "don't ask me again," he called her his wife because anything else would have been too difficult). They have a daughter, Mary Nighy, who is studying at university and contemplating an acting career. She has already began to appear on TV dramas and radio programs.