Nicol Williamson


Actor

About

Birth Place
Hamilton, Scotland, GB
Born
September 14, 1936
Died
December 16, 2011
Cause of Death
Esophageal Cancer

Biography

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 To...

Family & Companions

Jill Townsend
Wife
Actor. Married on July 17, 1971; divorced in 1977.

Notes

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

Biography

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. 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 the legendary John Barrymore.

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

Life Events

1960

Theatrical debut with Dundee Repertory Company, Scotland

1961

London debut, "That's Us"

1962

Became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company

1963

Short film acting debut in "The Six-Sided Triangle"

1965

Made Broadway debut in John Osborne's "Inadmissable Evidence"; earned Tony nomination in 1966

1968

Feature film acting debut in "Inadmissable Evidence"; released just days before second feature "The Bofors Gun"

1969

Returned to Broadway as "Hamlet" in production directed by Tony Richardson; critic Martin Gottfried called it "the most unintelligible performance of the role I think I have ever seen"; play translated to film and released the same year

1969

Acted in Richardson's feature "Laughter in the Dark"

1974

Joined all-star cast including Lillian Gish, George C Scott and Julie Christie for Mike Nichols' Broadway production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya"

1975

Directed "Uncle Vanya" for Royal Shakespeare Company

1976

Received enthusiastic notices for his portrayal of a cocaine-snifffing Sherlock Holmes in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution"

1976

Slapped a fellow cast member one night during curtain call while appearing on Broadway as Henry VIII in the short-lived Richard Rodgers musical "Rex"

1976

Played Little John to Sean Connery's Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn's Lady Marian in "Robin and Marian"

1978

Reprised "Inadmissible Evidence" in London and NYC

1981

Portrayed Merlin in John Boorman's "Excalibur"

1982

Directed and starred in "Macbeth" at NYC's Circle in the Square

1985

Played Doctor Worley and the Nome King in Walter Murch's "Return to Oz"

1990

Cast as Father Morning in horror sequel "The Exorcist III"

1991

Portrayed the ghost of John Barrymore in "I Hate Hamlet" on Broadway; swatted his co-star one night during performance on the backside with a sword, producing a three-inch long, black-and-blue mark

1996

Essayed Barrymore again on Broadway, this time in one-man show "Jack - A Night on the Town with John Barrymore"; created show with director Leslie Megahey

1996

Played Badger in Terry Jones' live-action "The Wind in the Willows"

1997

Final film appearance, as Cogliostro in fantasy action feature "Spawn"

2001

Landed starring role in stage production of "King Lear"

Videos

Movie Clip

Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) Toast Of Four Continents Freud (Alan Arkin) brings Watson (Robert Duvall) and just-recovered Holmes (Nicol Williamson) to a Vienna hospital to see patient Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave), whose trouble he quickly deduces, in novelist-screenwriter Nicholas Meyer’s popular riff on Arthur Conan Doyle, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976.
Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) Only The Facts Have Been Made Up Colorful opening credits and the introduction of Mrs Hudson (Alison Leggatt), Watson (Robert Duvall) and Sherlock (Nicol Williamson), from The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976, directed by Herbert Ross, from Nicholas Meyer’s audacious and generally well-received novel and screenplay.
Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) My Evil Genius Emerging from director Herbert Ross’ ethereal cocaine-withdrawal sequence, Holmes (Nicol Williamson) has regained his wits and seems glad that Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) and Watson (Robert Duvall) have perhaps cured his addiction, in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976.
Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) I Never Guess Just-introduced Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) begins to tell the infuriated and cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) why his brother and his friend Watson (Robert Duvall) tricked him into coming to Vienna, in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976.
Robin and Marian (1976)-- (Movie Clip) I Want My Treasure Returning toward England after decades abroad, petulant King Richard (Richard Harris) insists that Robin (Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williamson) loot a barren castle, despite its ornery defender (Esmond Knight) , opening Richard Lester's Robin and Marian, 1976.
Robin and Marian (1976) -- (Movie Clip) I've Come Home to You! Robin Hood (Sean Connery), back in England after 20 years, is surprised to discover that Marian (Audrey Hepburn) is an abbess, and not expecting or awaiting his return, in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian, 1976.
Robin and Marian (1976) -- (Movie Clip) We're Prisoners Nuns slow on the uptake and a lack of fitness impede what might have been a daring escape for Robin (Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williamson) from the unworried Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) in Robin and Marian, 1976.
Robin and Marian (1976) -- (Movie Clip) Still Not Dead? The arrival of his old foe the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) gives Robin Hood (Sean Connery), just returned from 20 years on crusades etc., sudden cause to clobber his old flame, now an abbess, Marian (Audrey Hepburn) in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian, 1976.
Cheap Detective, The (1978) -- (Movie Clip) Nix Place Writer Neil Simon takes his Bogart tribute character Lou Peckinpaugh (Peter Falk) into the Casablanca mode, introducing Scatman Crothers, James Coco, David Ogden Stiers, Nicol Williamson the Nazi, but mostly Eileen Brennan as chanteuse Betty DeBoop, in The Cheap Detective, 1978.
Hamlet (1969) -- (Movie Clip) Frailty Thy Name Is Woman Act one, scene two, in which new king Polonius (Anthony Hopkins) marks his ascent and marriage to widowed queen Gertrude (Judy Parfitt), and addresses her son, his nephew, (Nicol Williamson, title role), who is not yet sure who killed his father, in Tony Richardson's 1969 production of Hamlet.
Hamlet (1969) -- (Movie Clip) There Are More Things In Heaven And Earth Minimal but freaky treatment by director Tony Richardson as the prince, Nicol Williamson (title role), encounters his father's ghost (Williamson's own voice, effected), Gordon Jackson and John Carney his cowering friends Horatio and Marcellus, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, 1969.

Trailer

Family

Hugh Williamson
Father
Norwegian Scot.
Mary Williamson
Mother
Norwegian Scot.

Companions

Jill Townsend
Wife
Actor. Married on July 17, 1971; divorced in 1977.

Bibliography

Notes

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