Nicol Williamson (14 September 1936 – 16 December 2011) was a Scottish-English actor and singer, once described by John Osborne as "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando". He was also described by Samuel Beckett as "touched by genius" and viewed by many critics as "the Hamlet of his generation" during the late 1960s.
Thomas Nicol Williamson
14 September 1936
|Died||16 December 2011 75) (aged|
(m. 1971; div. 1977)
Thomas Nicol Williamson was born in 1936 (he would later claim 1938 in Who's Who) in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the son of a factory owner. When he was aged two his family moved south to England, and Williamson was educated at the Central Grammar School for Boys, Birmingham. He left school at 16 to begin work in his father's factory and later attended the Birmingham School of Speech & Drama. He recalled his time there as "a disaster" and claimed "it was nothing more than a finishing school for the daughters of local businessmen".
Stage and screen
After his national service as a gunner in the Airborne Division, Williamson made his professional debut with the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1960 and the following year appeared with the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. In 1962 he made his London debut as Flute in Tony Richardson's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Court Theatre. His first major success came in 1964 with John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award when it transferred to Broadway the following year. 1964 also saw him appearing as Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court. He starred in the film version in 1968. Williamson's Hamlet for Tony Richardson at the Roundhouse caused a sensation; it was later transferred to New York and made into a film, with a cast including Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull later stated in her autobiography Faithfull that she and Williamson had had an affair while filming Hamlet.
His most celebrated film role was as Merlin the magician in the King Arthur epic Excalibur in 1981. Director John Boorman cast him opposite Helen Mirren as Morgana over the protests of both actors; the two had previously appeared together on stage in Macbeth, with disastrous results, and they disliked each other intensely. It was Boorman's hope that the very real animosity that they had towards each other would generate more tension between them on screen. Williamson gained recognition from a much wider fanbase for his performance as Merlin. A review of Excalibur in The Times in 1981 states: "The actors are led by Williamson's witty, perceptive Merlin, missed every time he's off the screen." According to Mirren, she and Williamson, free from the problems with Macbeth, "wound up becoming very good friends" during Excalibur.
Some of his other notable cinematic performances include as a deeply troubled Irish soldier in the 1968 Jack Gold film The Bofors Gun; in 1975 as an intelligence officer in apartheid South Africa in The Wilby Conspiracy (starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine); as Sherlock Holmes in the 1976 Herbert Ross film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution; and as Little John in the 1976 Richard Lester film Robin and Marian. Additionally, he portrayed an MI6 bureaucrat in The Human Factor (1979) (adapted from a novel by Graham Greene), an alcoholic attorney in I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982); a colonel in the Cincinnati Gestapo in the Neil Simon comedy The Cheap Detective; Lord Louis Mountbatten in Lord Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy (1985); the dual roles of Dr. Worley/The Nome King in Return To Oz (1985); Father Morning in The Exorcist III (1990); Badger in the 1996 movie adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows; and as Cogliostro in the 1997 movie adaptation of Todd McFarlane's comic book Spawn.
Williamson made a major contribution to the documentary John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship, recalling episodes from his long professional relationship with Osborne. Recorded excerpts of his award-winning stage performance in Inadmissible Evidence also feature in the video.
Williamson was known for several tantrums and onstage antics. During the Philadelphia tryout of Inadmissible Evidence, a play in which he delivered a performance that would win him a Tony Award nomination in 1965, he hit the equally mercurial producer David Merrick. In 1968, he apologised to the audience for his performance one night while playing Hamlet and then walked off the stage, announcing he was retiring. In the early 1970s, Williamson left The Dick Cavett Show prior to a scheduled appearance, leaving the host and guest Nora Ephron to fill the remaining time. In 1976, he slapped actor Jim Litten during the curtain call for the Broadway musical Rex. In 1991, he hit co-star Evan Handler on the backside with a sword during a Broadway performance of I Hate Hamlet.
Following a late-night chat show appearance in which he showcased his singing talents, Williamson released an album of songs in 1971 on the CBS label (S 64045). The album contained songs such as "Didn't We", "It's Impossible" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night".
In 1974, Williamson recorded an abridged reading of The Hobbit for Argo Records, authorisation for the abridgement having been provided by Tolkien's publisher. The recording was produced by Harley Usill. According to his official website, Williamson re-edited the original script himself, removing many occurrences of "he said", "she said", and so on, as he felt that an over-reliance on descriptive narrative would not give the desired effect; he performed each character in a distinctive voice.
In 1978, he portrayed a murderous behaviour expert in the Columbo episode "How To Dial A Murder".
In 1971, Williamson married actress Jill Townsend, who had played his daughter in the Broadway production of Inadmissible Evidence. They had a son, Luke, but divorced in 1977.
Despite concerns over his health in the 1970s, Williamson admitted drinking heavily and claimed to smoke 80 cigarettes a day. In an episode of The David Frost Show in the 1960s, during a discussion about death, which also involved poet John Betjeman, Williamson revealed that he was very much afraid of dying, saying that "I think of death constantly, throughout the day" and that "I don't think there is anything after this, except complete oblivion."
On 25 January 2012, Luke Williamson announced on his father's official web site that Nicol Williamson had died on 16 December 2011, aged 75, after a two-year struggle with esophageal cancer. The news was intentionally released late, as the actor did not want any fuss to be made over his death. According to Luke, Nicol Williamson died peacefully.
|1956||The Iron Petticoat||Man lighting Major Lockwood's distorted cigarette||Uncredited|
|1963||The Six-Sided Triangle||The Lover||Short film|
|ITV Play of the Week||Count Pierre Besukhov||TV series, episode "War and Peace"|
|Z-Cars||Jack Clark||TV series, episode "By the Book"|
|Teletale||Dr. Murke||TV series, episode "Dr. Murke's Collection of Silences"|
|1965||Six||TV series, episode "The Day of Ragnarok"|
|The Wednesday Play||Robin Fletcher||TV series, episode "Horror of Darkness"|
|1968||Of Mice and Men||Lennie||TV film (Video)|
|The Bofors Gun||O'Rourke||Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role|
|Inadmissible Evidence||Bill Maitland||Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role|
|1969||The Reckoning||Michael Marler|
|Laughter in the Dark||Sir Edward More||Won — Prize San Sebastián for Best Actor|
|1971||Thirty-Minute Theatre||Jim Fitch||TV series, episode "Terrible Jim Fitch"|
|1972||The Jerusalem File||Professor Lang|
|The Monk||The Duke of Talamur|
|The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui||Arturo Ui||TV film|
Nominated — British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
|1974||Late Night Drama||President Nixon||TV series, episode "I Know What I Meant"|
|1975||The Wilby Conspiracy||Major Horn|
|1976||Robin and Marian||Little John|
|The Seven-Per-Cent Solution||Sherlock Holmes|
|1977||The Goodbye Girl||Oliver Fry||(uncredited Hollywood producer/director)|
|1978||Columbo||Dr. Eric Mason||TV series, episode "How to Dial a Murder"|
|The Cheap Detective||Colonel Schlissel|
|The Word||Maertin de Vroome||TV mini-series|
|1979||The Human Factor||Maurice Castle|
|1981||Excalibur||Merlin||Nominated — Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor|
|Venom||Commander William Bulloch|
|1982||I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can||Derek Bauer|
|1983||Macbeth||Macbeth||BBC Television Shakespeare; videotaped TV drama|
|1985||Christopher Columbus||King Ferdinand||TV mini-series|
|Return to Oz||Dr. Worley/Nome King|
|1986||Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy||Lord Louis Mountbatten||TV serial|
|1987||Black Widow||William McCrory|
|Passion Flower||Albert Coskin||TV film|
|1990||The Exorcist III||Father Morning|
|Chillers||TV series, episode "A Curious Suicide"|
|1993||The Hour of the Pig||Seigneur Jehan d'Auferre|
|1996||The Wind in the Willows||Mr. Badger|
|1997||Spawn||Cogliostro||(final film role)|
Nicol Williamson was nominated for three BAFTA Awards, a Saturn Award, two Tony Awards, and won the Silver Shell for the Best Actor from the San Sebastián International Film Festival in 1969 for his performance in Laughter in the Dark.
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|1969||The Bofors Gun||Best Actor in a Leading Role||Nominated|
|1970||Inadmissible Evidence||Best Actor in a Leading Role||Nominated|
|1973||The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui||Television Award for Best Actor||Nominated|
Drama Desk Awards
|Year||Nominee / work||Award||Result|
|1974||Uncle Vanya||Outstanding Performance||Won|
|1976||Rex||Outstanding Actor in a Musical||Nominated|
- Coveney, Michael (2015). ‘Williamson, (Thomas) Nicol (1936–2011)’ Archived 26 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Weber, Bruce (25 January 2012). "Nicol Williamson, a Mercurial Actor, Is Dead at 75". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2015.
- "Nicol Williamson". nndb.com. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- "Nicol Williamson". The Daily Telegraph. London. 25 January 2012.
- Comments from the audio commentary of Excalibur on DVD
- Mirren, Helen (24 January 2005). "Helen Mirren: Screen Queen" (Interview). Interviewed by Alex Simon. The Hollywood Interview. blogspot.com.
- Tony Palmer (May 2006). John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship (video documentary). Isolde Films/fivearts.
- "Nicol Williamson biography". movies.yahoo.com. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- Scott, A.O. (7 February 2005). "We're Sorry". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
- Cavett, Dick (29 June 2012). "Vamping With Nora". The New York Times (blog).
- "This Slap Wasn't in the Script". Reading Eagle. Associated Press. 13 May 1976. p. 38. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
- Wilson, Earl (20 May 1976). "Kissinger, Cosell: 2 Big Egos on 1 Small Stage". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 19, pt. 1. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
- The Hobbit, read by Nicol Williamson. 4-record boxed set, Argo Records, 1974, ZPL 1196/9
- Williamson, Luke (25 January 2012). "To the fans of Nicol". nicolwilliamson.com. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
- Nicol Williamson Tony Awards Info. BroadwayWorld.com. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
- Official website
- Nicol Williamson on IMDb
- Nicol Williamson at the Internet Broadway Database
- Nicol Williamson at Rotten Tomatoes
- Nicol Williamson at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Obituary, The Independent, 26 January 2012
- Obituary, The Guardian, 26 January 2012
- Obituary, Financial Times, 27 January 2012
- Reading Samuel Beckett
- Reading JRR Tolkien ("Riddles in the Dark")