Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson
Nicol Williamson
Nicol Williamson
Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson was born in Scotland in 1936.   He made his stage debut with Dundee rep in 1960.   He starred in John Osborne’s “Inadmissable Evidence” in 1964 in London in which he won rave reviews.   He went with the play to London where he won a Tony Award for Best Actor.   In 1968 he starred in a filmed version of “Hamlet”.   He made a number of films including “The Bofors Guns”, “The Reckoning” and “Laughter in the Dark”.   In the late seventies he appeared in some Hollywood films e.g. “The Goodbye Girl”.   His last film credit seems to be “Spawn” in 1997.   Nicol Williamson died in December 2011.

“The Independent” obituary:

Nicol Williamson was the notorious bad boy of the theatre, his unpredictable behaviour, unreliability and blunt rudeness to those he did not respect – which may well have been the majority of those he met in and out of the theatre world – having to be weighed by the theatres that employed him for his undoubted brilliance as an actor, and a star appeal that never fully flowered because of the reluctance of film producers and theatrical impresarios to engage him. Twin devils seemed to co-exist in his lanky body, one that drove his private life to frequent excess and public exhibitionism, and the other in which a creative genius seemed to be about to explode. He was quintessentially a model for the 19th century decadent romantic, a Byron, a des Esseintes or a Rimbaud. As an actor he could be electric: John Osborne declared him to be “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando”.

He was born and brought up in Hamilton outside Glasgow; it is difficult to imagine him as a boy in that quiet little town where the main cultural event of the year is the Salvation Army’s Christmas carol concert. He started his career at the Dundee Rep in 1960, stayed there two years, then went to the Arts Theatre in Cambridge and transferred to the Royal Court from there with That’s Us, staying on with the English Stage Company in a number of demanding roles. They included Jacobean and period drama and modern plays, the most successful of which was Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, a palpable hit that transferred to the West End and had several later revivals, about a complex London barrister, but he was also well cast as Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man.

One of his greatest performances was as Vladimir in the 1964 revival of Waiting for Godot. Anthony Page, Nicol’s preferred director, was in charge, but Beckett turned up at rehearsals and was unhappy about the way the production was progressing, the actor retaining his London barrister’s accent for the author’s reflective tramp. “Where do you come from? Is that your natural voice?” asked Beckett, and when told that Nicol was Scottish, asked if he could not use his natural non-London intonation. That evening Beckett looked pleased, more so as the days passed, and he commented, “There’s a touch of genius there!” The opening night was a triumph, the audience electrified by his trumpeted scream of “I can’t go on!” at the climax of the great final monologue.

From then Beckett was Williamson’s God. When I invited him in 1965 to take part in a Beckett reading at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on a Sunday night, he insisted on Beckett’s personal direction, and we visited him at Ussy on the Sunday before. We had launched the previous day and Nicol’s single-minded enthusiasm was such that he cancelled both his Saturday performances of Inadmissible Evidence, then playing at Wyndham’s, next door to our restaurant, and sent on his understudy – who also had to play the whole week following, because Williamson, having returned from the rehearsal in France on the Monday, then disappeared for the whole week.

But the day before the Sundayperformance at Stratford, when I had made emergency changes in the programme, he appeared at my flat to rehearse, and took the audience by storm the next day, throwing the other readers into confusion by his innovations. Patrick Magee said that he would never again appear on the same stage as an actor so selfish.

With the RSC he performed Arden of Faversham at the New Arts Theatre and played Sweeney in the TS Eliot memorial production of Sweeney Agonistes. He became a charismatic actor in films as well, but his appearances, especially in commercial productions, became rarer because his temperament and arrogance did not appeal to directors.

His marriage to the actress Jill Townsend was of short duration, and problems rising from his divorce, his messy private life and his mounting debt to the Inland Revenue forced him to move to New York, where he quickly blotted his copybook by knocking down David Merrick, the most powerful man on Broadway at the time. There he repeated some of his British successes and performed in roles that included Hamlet and Macbeth, but always for short runs.

He was cast as the ghost of John Barrymore, appearing to help a young actor play Hamlet, commented voluably to the press on the weakness of the play and others in the cast, and at an early performance actually stabbed the other actor during a fencing episode. He strode to the footlights and announced, “Something’s gone wrong. You’d better bring down the curtain.” Most thought it was part of the play. The second act started after more than an hour’s interval with an understudy, and Williamson playing normally, but the actors had summoned Equity and the play closed a few nights later.

Williamson’s career was peppered with such incidents. He had a good natural tenor voice and could mimic any crooner perfectly, and if he heard an accent he could imitate it; years later he could still do Beckett’s voice perfectly. He devised a number of one-man shows, songs, patter and extracts from plays and other literature, but, in spite of brilliant moments, they were not successful, and while he could excite an audience, he had little critical judgement in choosing and interpreting a text without outside help.

His films included: Inadmissible Evidence (1967), The Bofors Gun (1968), The Seven Per Cent Solution (1975), The Human Factor (1979), Excalibur (1980) – the film for which he is probably best known, as Merlin – Black Widow (1986) and several others of varying quality, including The Exorcist III. Other plays in which he appeared include The Entertainer (1983), The Lark (1983) and The Real Thing (1985).

In person he was entertaining but often embarrassing company, carrying role-playing to extremes and needing to dominate every assembly at which he was present, especially in his manic moods. When depressive he was pitiable and usually stayed on his own. But whoever saw his Vladimir and heard that despairing scream, embodying the whole anguish of the human condition, which is then followed by a resumption of the human need to regain a vestige of dignity, will never forget it. Metaphorically it also encompassed his life.

Although Williamson’s death was only announced yesterday, his son Luke said that he had died on 16 December of oesophageal cancer.

John Calder

Nicol Williamson, actor: born Hamilton, Scotland 14 September 1938; married 1971 Jill Townsend (divorced 1977; one son); died Amsterdam 16 December 2011.

The “Independent” obituary can also be accessed online here.

Article on Nicol Williamson in “Tina Aumont’s Eyes” website:

Once called the finest actor of his generation, and the best since Brando, the supremely talented Nicol Williamson is a somewhat forgotten face of British cinema. But for a while it seemed that both on stage and screen, he was untouchable. From his iconic Shakespearean roles to some incredible screen performances, Williamson dominated each scene with a magnetism rarely seen.

Born in Scotland on September 14th, 1936, Nicol’s screen career began in 1963 with a few brief TV parts and an uncredited bit in the 1964 Kim Novak remake; ‘Of Human Bondage’. Nicol’s noted stage career took off in 1964 with John Osborne’s ‘Inadmissible Evidence’, where he created the role of Bill Maitland, a solicitor despairing at his own life and existence. A little seen but excellent version of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ was made for TV in 1968, and Nicol was quite astonishing as the simple-minded Lennie, with George Segal as his protector George.

A film version of his acclaimed stage performance ‘Inadmissible Evidence’ was shot in 1968, and he was just as terrific. He was also excellent, though wholly unlikable, in Jack Gold’s ‘The Bofors Gun’, as an Irish soldier and suicidal bully. My favourite performance of Nicol’s was in the 1969 social drama ‘The Reckoning’, which saw Williamson as Michael Marler, a no-nonsense bed-hopping businessman, seeking revenge for his father’s death. He was also good that year in Tony Richardson’s ‘Laughter in the Dark’. Based on the Nabokov novel, it had Nicol as a bored art dealer lusting after Anna Karina’s beautiful but scheming movie usherette.

Staying with Richardson, Williamson made the 1969 movie version of their acclaimed stage production ‘Hamlet’, which had Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. In 1972 Nicol was an archeology professor in the Political drama ‘The Jerusalem File’, with Donald Pleasence and Bruce Davison. Williamson reunited with director Jack Gold, this time to play President Nixon during the Watergate affair, in a ‘Late-Night Drama’ TV episode called ‘I Know What I Mean’. He made an endearing Little John in Richard Lester’s elegiac ‘Robin and Marian’ (’76), and was very good as Sherlock Holmes in Nicholas Meyer’s personal yet engaging drama ‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution’ (’76). A guest spot in a 1978 episode of ‘Columbo’ led to a brief bit in the Peter Falk comedy spoof ‘The Cheap Detective’ (’78). Nicol was then a double-agent in Otto Preminger’s final feature, ‘The Human Factor’ (’79), a somewhat convoluted thriller but with a top-notch cast.

For many, Williamson’s best cinematic portrayal was that of Merlin, in John Boorman’s King Arthur tale ‘Excalibur’ (’81). Despite not getting on with co-star Helen Mirren, (they famously fell out during an earlier production of Macbeth) he was wonderful, and it remains one of cinemas most enjoyable portrayals. From here his career waned somewhat. He was a police commander in the entertaining horror flick ‘Venom’ (’81), slumming it but still giving a solid performance. Nicol was however, excellent as an alcoholic lawyer in the 1982 drama ‘I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can’ with Jill Clayburgh.

Nicol would dress up again, this time in dual roles, for the 1985 fantasy ‘Return to Oz’ (’85). Though it sank at the Box Office it has since gained a minor cult following. He was very good as a melancholic Lord Mountbatten in a 1986 mini-series, then was a philanthropist murdered by Theresa Russell in Bob Rafelson’s fun thriller ‘Black Widow’ (’87). A supporting role followed as Father Morning, aiding George C. Scott’s Lieutenant Kinderman, in the horror sequel ‘The Exorcist III’ (’90), which was better than it’s poor reviews suggested. He was then back on British screens in the BBC’s entertaining black comedy ‘The Hour of the Pig’, and was charming as the voice of Badger, in Terry Jone’s enjoyable 1996 version of ‘Wind in the Willows’. Nicol’s final movie was the woeful horror; ‘Spawn’, once again playing a magician.

Williamson had a son with actress Jill Townsend, whom he was married to from 1971 to 1977. Having lived abroad for many years, Nicol Williamson died on December 16th 2011, in Amsterdam, after a two year battle with oesophageal cancer. He was 75. From Broadway to screen, Nicol Williamson was a hard drinking, no nonsense actor, and a towering talent. Uncompromising and fearless, he was also an accomplished poet, singer and writer, and with so many great movie performances it’s surprising he never received an Oscar nomination. Though true to his character, I doubt he ever gave it a thought.

Favourite Movie: The Reckoning
Favorite Performance: The Reckoning


 Article above can also be accessed online here.

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