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Nicol Williamson never achieved the household name status of Brando or Olivier, but by many critics' appraisals, his talents equaled the greats of his own or any generation. A native of Scotland, Williamson established himself as a force of a new generation of British actors in 1964 as the star of West End production of "Inadmissable Evidence," going on to take the show to Broadway, a Tony nomination and the starring role in the 1968 film adaptation. He delivered what many regarded as the definitive "Hamlet" of his time in a U.K. restaging that went on to play Broadway. But his fortunes went offset by a reputation as an enfant terrible, earned in a series of dustups with dramatists and fellow actors. He again wowed live audiences and critics with his turns in "Macbeth," "Uncle Vanya" and "Rex" and shone in films such as "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976) and "The Human Factor" (1979), not to mention his signature turn as Merlin in the 1981 film adaptation of the Arthurian cycle, "Excalibur" (1981). He would find work in major television events, foremost ITV's 1986 Mountbatten biopic, and do two disparate Broadway and West End productions playing legendary, similarly tempestuous John Barrymore....
Nicol Williamson never achieved the household name status of Brando or Olivier, but by many critics' appraisals, his talents equaled the greats of his own or any generation. A native of Scotland, Williamson established himself as a force of a new generation of British actors in 1964 as the star of West End production of "Inadmissable Evidence," going on to take the show to Broadway, a Tony nomination and the starring role in the 1968 film adaptation. He delivered what many regarded as the definitive "Hamlet" of his time in a U.K. restaging that went on to play Broadway. But his fortunes went offset by a reputation as an enfant terrible, earned in a series of dustups with dramatists and fellow actors. He again wowed live audiences and critics with his turns in "Macbeth," "Uncle Vanya" and "Rex" and shone in films such as "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976) and "The Human Factor" (1979), not to mention his signature turn as Merlin in the 1981 film adaptation of the Arthurian cycle, "Excalibur" (1981). He would find work in major television events, foremost ITV's 1986 Mountbatten biopic, and do two disparate Broadway and West End productions playing legendary, similarly tempestuous John Barrymore. Still, dogged by his reputation as "difficult," Williamson became an archetypal example of a talent so raw and untamable as to never truly find its widest audience.
Williamson was born on Sept. 14, 1936 in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, U.K., the son of Mary and Hugh Williamson. His millworker father moved the family to the industrial hub of Birmingham two years later. There, the young boy developed dreams of the stage rarely afforded to working-class people in the U.K. At Birmingham's Central Grammar School, he impressed teachers with his readings of Shakespeare, and he went on to win a spot at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama. He did a brief stint with the amateur wing of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, then a two-year military hitch, before turning professional as a member of the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1960, appearing in 33 productions over a year and a half. One of his directors at Dundee, Anthony Page, would lure Williamson to the Royal Court Theatre in London's West End theater district, to cast him in his production of "Arden of Faversham." In 1962, Williamson showed off his Shakespearean chops in pioneering director Tony Richardson's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A run of West End work followed, in addition to some one-off appearances on U.K. television, until 1964, when Page brought Williamson in to audition for a new play he was directing, written by the U.K.'s edgiest playwright John Osborne.
Page and Osborne cast Williamson, just 26, as the 39-year-old protagonist of Osborne's latest, "Inadmissable Evidence," a dispirited, sadistic lawyer wading through a joyless existence and preying on emotions of his loved ones and coworkers just to feel something. It hit big, and in late 1965, producer David Merrick brought the play to Broadway, where it would bring Williamson a Tony nomination for Best Actor. Williamson's tempestuous nature would also reveal itself when, in a pre-opening dustup, Williamson struck Merrick. He would again set critics' tongues wagging in 1968 as the lead of "The Bofors Gun," playing a depressed, surly soldier on a suicidal spree. The performance would bring him a Best Actor nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Awards. He took a second nomination the next year for reprising his stage role in Page's film adaptation of "Inadmissable Evidence." Williamson starred in another film, the stark drama "The Reckoning" in 1969, but that year would be all about his take on the flagship of Shakespearean canon, "Hamlet." Richardson directed him as the Dane, supported by Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull (who later claimed to she and Williamson had an affair during the run) at the West End's Round House. Williamson drew critical raves and even comparisons to John Gielgud's early-century-definitive portrayal.
Williamson took the live production to Broadway. His performance would be heralded as the definitive "Hamlet" by U.K. prime minister Harold Wilson, whose recommendation prompted a command performance in the Nixon White House in 1970. Amid the "Hamlet"-mania, Williamson's volatile persona reared its ugly head again; in just one example, the actor walked off the stage mid-performance in Boston, unhappy with his co-stars' work. Amid the buzz around him - he claimed to prefer singing to acting - he recorded an album in 1971, read Tolkien's The Hobbit for another audio recording, and married American actress Jill Townsend, with whom he starred in the BBC musical adaptation of "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," Bertolt Brecht's American-gangster-themed parable for Hitler's rise. He continued his groundbreaking theatrical performances, setting West End abuzz again in 1974 with a revival "Macbeth" for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as trysting and eventually feuding heatedly off-stage with his Lady Macbeth, Helen Mirren. He stood out in Mike Nichols' Broadway revival of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" in a cast that included Julie Christie, George C. Scott and Lillian Gish, with Williamson earning a Tony nomination and winning a Drama Desk Award for his work in this production. He drew another Drama Desk nomination in 1976 with his portrayal of Henry VIII in the Broadway musical "Rex."
But Williamson's rep and, some wags suggested, his less-than-matinee-idol physiognomy may have proven a drag on his success in essaying into movie stardom. He gave inarguably scene-stealing film performances, but mostly in second- or third-billed supporting roles, including a gleefully villainous nobleman in "Le Moine" (1972), a virulent South African oppressor in the Michael Caine/Sidney Poitier anti-apartheid outing "The Wilby Conspiracy" (1975), Little John to Sean Connery's Robin Hood retread in "Robin and Marian" (1976) and a hammy Cincinnati Nazi in the Neil Simon comedy "The Cheap Detective" (1978). Still, Williamson shone in lead roles when given them, as in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976), a revisionist take on the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre with Williamson as the famed detective foiling professor Moriarty while battling a cocaine addiction; and Otto Preminger's "The Human Factor" (1979), the Graham Greene tale of a British agent burned out by the relentless churn of Cold War machinations. Along the way, he and Townsend's marriage soured and they divorced in 1977. In 1981, he delivered one of his most memorable cinematic performances, joining an estimable cast of U.K. thespians in director John Boorman's moody retelling of the Arthurian legend, "Excalibur." Boorman would make use of Williamson's antipathy with Mirren by casting him as tempestuous, manipulative Merlin and Mirren as his mystical rival Morgana. Williamson restaged "Macbeth" in 1982, directing it himself in a short run on Broadway as well as a film adaptation that aired on the BBC the next year.
Through the 1980s, Williamson's higher-profile work would come in the form of television events, among them HBO's "Sakharov" (1983), supporting Jason Robards as the title character; the CBS miniseries "Christopher Columbus" (1985), which saw him in the role of the Spanish king; and ITV's miniseries about the famed colonial governor of India, "Lord Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy" (PBS, 1986). He returned to the big screen with his portrayal of Father Mourning in the less than stellar sequel, "Exorcist III" (1990). But his work thinned out, and, even upon a celebrated return to Broadway, his infamous temperament shot him in the foot again. In Paul Rudnick's "I Hate Hamlet," he took the apropos role of the ghost of brash thespian sot John Barrymore, who haunts a young actor to convince him to take on the role of "Hamlet." One night during the 1991 run, Williamson, irked by his co-star's performance, whacked him on the backside with a sword, prompting the actor to quit the production. Enamored with the character, Williamson conceived and starred in a one-man show, "Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore," prompting some wags to question who Williamson was going to slap now that he was acting by himself. The show enjoyed extended runs at London's Criterion Theater and L.A.'s Geffen Theater before a short Broadway run in 1996. After a turn as the reformed demon Cogliostro in the 1997 comic-book film adaptation "Spawn," Williamson's film and theatrical work ebbed. Keeping residences in Amsterdam and New York, Williamson worked solely on his music in the early 2000s. The colorful actor passed away of esophageal cancer on Dec. 16, 2011.
By Matthew Grimm
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CAST: (feature film)
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In 1965, during the Philadelphia tryout of John Osborne's "Inadmissible Evidence", he punched David Merrick in the face after the producer fired the play's director, Anthony Page. Legend has it that Williamson then picked up the stunned producer and stuffed him into a garbage can.
"I'm afraid people in America are going to remember me only as the bloke who pinned one on Merrick," he said at the time.
About John Barrrymore: "He did what no other actor, living or dead, has ever done. He was a vaudeville man, a light comedian, a matinee idol [and] a silent star who then became a talking picture star.
"And in the middle of all this, he became the greatest classical actor in America and the Hamlet of his generation. Not bad. Nobody else has ever done that. Olivier didn't come near it." -- Nicol Williamson, LOS ANGELES TIMES, March 12, 1996
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