Benoi Thilakan started his career in acting as a theatre artiste when he ventured into full-time acting in theatre after leaving intermediate college mid-way in the year 1956. During this period he and a few friends formed a drama troupe in Mundakayam, where his father was working as an estate supervisor, and the troupe was called the Mundakayam Nataka Samithy. He worked with Kerala People's Arts Club till 1966, followed by stints in Kalidasa Kala Kendra, Changanacherry Geetha, and P. J. Antony's troupe. He also performed in several radio plays presented by All India Radio.
Thilakan began his career in cinema with a role in P.J.Anthony directed Malayalam movie Periyar (1973). He then worked in Gandharvakshetram and Ulkadal (1979). His first role as a lead character was as Kallu Varkey, a drunkard in Kolangal (1981). Thilakan was awarded his first State Award in 1982 for his role in Yavanika.
In 1988, he received the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Rithubhedam. Again in 1994, and in 1998, he won State awards for Santhanagopalam and Gamanam. He was strongly favoured to get another National Film Award for Best Actor for his performance in the movie Perumthachan. As noted in the rediff interview, the award was steered away from him to Amitabh Bachchan due to strong lobbying, as Amitabh announced his retirement that year. The film Kireedam was a milestone in his career; in this film he portrayed a helpless policeman silently watching the fate of his son, played by Mohanlal, who was made into a rowdy by society. In 1989 he also did Mrugya, in which his role of a Reverend Father Panangodan, was well appreciated by critics and won him many accolades.In the 90's Thilakan was part of many Mohanlal evergreen hit films. In 1987, he played the role of Ananthan Nambiar in the cult-classic comedy movie Nadodikattu. The movie is considered as one of the most popular Malayalam movies of all time. Even after more than 25 years, the movie draws huge audience whenever it is telecast on television channels. Thilakan's dialogues became very popular and is still used as an iconic Malayalam catchphrase. In 1993 he continued his role as the father of Sethu Madhavan (Mohanlal) in the movie Chenkol. Unlike its prequel Kireedam, this movie failed commercially and critically.He played the role of a Retd I.G Mathews a.k.a. Kareembootham in another Mohanlal All time Industry blockbuster Minnaram in 1994. His role as a retired mathematics teacher, father of Aadu Thoma (Mohanlal), in the 1995 blockbuster movie Sphadikam was well appreciated by critics and audiences alike. It became a cult movie. Thilakan was a very versatile and gifted actor not only in the industry but in the entire nation.He was equally versatile in all departments be it donning villain roles, comedy or drama. In 1998 he played the role of Dileep's father in the superhit Meenathil Thalikettu. In his subsequent release he donned the role of a villain in the Kunchako Boban starrer Mayilpeelikavu. In the same year he was also seen in the cult-classic hit Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala. Some of Thilakan's other notable films of the decade include Moonnam Pakkam, Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal, Mookkilla Rajyathu, Randam Bhavam, Kaattu Kuthira and Yavanika.
He has also acted in other South Indian languages, such as Tamil and Telugu (in "Palanati Brahmanaidu").
Thilakan has portrayed a range of characters. The most popular roles have been with Mohanlal when they portrayed a father-son duo. These included Kireedam, Sphadikam, Narasimham, Evidam Swargamanu, Pavithram and Chenkol. He has also played father roles to other popular actors, including with Mammootty in Sangham, The Truth, No. 1 Snehatheeram Banglore North and Pallavur Devanarayanan, with Jayaram in Veendum Chila Veettu Karyangal and Sandesam, with Dileep in Meenathil Thaalikettu, with Kunchacko Boban in Aniyathi Pravu and with Prithviraj in Sathyam. He has also played many negative roles. His roles of underworld don in Randam Bhavam, Karma and Kaalal Pada were memorable. He has played comical roles in films like Nadodikkattu and Pattanapravesham (as a coward underworld don), Mookkilla Rajyathu (as a break-out from a mental hospital), Kuttettan (as a pimp) and Naaduvazhikal (as a good-for-nothing, vain person). He has played lead roles in many movies including Ekantham, Perumthachan, Santhanagopalam, Kaattukuthira, My Dear Muthachan, Mukhamudra (double role), etc.
In 2006, he was seen in the Suresh Gopi-Shaji Kailas blockbuster, Chinthamani Kolacase, where he played the father of the title character chinthamani enacted by bhavana.In 2007, he acted in Ekantham, for which he received a special mention from the jury. In 2009, he was also seen in the epic Mammootty starrer Pazhassi Raja, which became an all-time blockbuster.In the same year he played Mohanlal's father one last time in the superactor's 300th movie Evidam Swargamanu. In 2011, he played a significant role in the Prithviraj blockbuster Indian Rupee directed by Renjith. In 2012, he played the role of Kareem Bhai in Ustad Hotel and as the grandfather of Faizy, acted by Dulquer Salmaan.
In February 2010, it was reported that the producer of the movie Christian Brothers excluded Thilakan from the film at the request of the FEFKA, the predominant film technicians association. Thilakan had been earlier signed for a role in the film. The exclusion was reportedly due to Thilakan acting in a film by director Vinayan, who till recently headed the rival association MACTA. On 3 February 2010, Thilakan publicly protested against the unofficial ban enforced on him by FEFKA and blamed FEFKA for engineering the ban. The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) issued a show cause notice to Thilakan for bringing the issue into the public domain. Thilakan accused AMMA, of which he too is a member. On 20 February 2010 the issue gained political colours when CPI's trade union wing, AITUC, came out openly in support of Thilakan, while a senior party leader and Rajya Sabha member K. E. Ismail expressed reservations about his party getting involved in the tangle.
Thilakan was originally cast to play an important role in a UAE-Indian co-production film Dam 999. He was later replaced, following a notice from FEFKA stating that if Thilakan acted in the film, the association would boycott it. Sohan said they were forced to seek for a substitute for Thilakan when it came to the point that shooting might be disrupted. Eventually, Rajit Kapur was cast instead of Thilakan. There were reports that Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) also had intervened in Thilakan's replacement. In a related development, Thilakan and his supporters had a march toward the shooting location of the film at Alappuzha.
Thilakan was the second of the six children of Palapurath T. S. Keshavan (1904-1972) and Devayani (1912-2010). Thilakan was born in Plankamon, Ayroor Panchayat in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. He had his primary education from Asan Pallikoodam, Manikkal and St. Louis Catholic School, Nalamvayal and Sree Narayana College, Kollam Thilakan lived in Plankamon until he started acting in movies with which he moved to Ernakulam. Thilakan was first married to actress Santha with whom he appeared in several productions. Thilakan and Santha had three children Shaji Thilakan, Shammi Thilakan and Shoby Thilakan. Later, he married his co-artist Sarojam with whom he had a son, Shibu Thilakan, and two daughters Dr. Sonia Thilakan and Sophia Ajith.
Thilakan was a staunch atheist throughout his life, and was a supporter of CPI (M). He was a member of many drama troupes which actively promoted Communism in Kerala. When he died, his body was draped with CPI (M) flag.
Thilakan was admitted to a hospital in Thrissur on 1 August 2012 after he collapsed during the shooting of the film Scene Onnu Nammude Veedu. He was then shifted to KIMS Hospital, Trivandrum and was in critical condition after suffering two heart attacks. Besides having cardiac problems, Thilakan was suffering from pneumonia. He was put on a ventilator and died on 24 September 2012. He was cremated with full state honours at Thycaud Shanthikavadam crematorium.2009 - Padma Shri
National Film Awards:1987 - Best Supporting Actor - Rithubhedam
2006 - Special Jury Mention - Eakantham
2012 - Special Jury Mention - Usthad Hotel
Kerala State Film Awards:1981 - Second Best Actor - Yavanika
1985 - Second Best Actor - Yathra
1986 - Second Best Actor - Panchangi
1987 - Second Best Actor - Thaniyavarthanam
1988 - Second Best Actor - Mukhti, Dhwani
1989 - Special Jury Award - Various film
1990 - Best Actor - Perunthachan
1994 - Best Actor - Gamanam, Santhanagopalam
1999 - Second Best Actor - Kaattathoru Pen Poovu
Filmfare Awards South
1991- Best Actor "Purunthachan"
2006- Filmfare Award South for Lifetime Achievement
2011- Best Supporting Actor Male (Indian Rupee)
2010 - Bharath Gopi Award
Uyirin Edai 21 Gram (2011)
Suyetchai MLA (2006)
Nee Venunda Chellam (2006) ... as Viswanathan
Ayudha Poojai (1995) ... as Samiyappan
Karuppu Vellai (1993)
Kilipetchu Ketkava (1993)
Moondrezhuthil En Moochirukkum (1991) ... as Namboodiri
Sathriyan (1990) .... as Arumai Nayagam
Samarasimha Reddy (1999) .... as Balakrishna's father
Sri Mahalakshmi (2007) .... as Sri Mahalakshmi's father
1983 Asthi as the Managing director portrayed onscreen by Vijayan Karote
Sree Ayyappanum Vavarum (Surya TV)
Peythozhiyaathe (Directed by K K Rajeev, aired on Surya TV)