Many performances by Nicol Williamson led critics and audiences alike to view him as potentially one of the most brilliant stars of 20th century British theatre. But his wayward behaviour eventually led to a reluctance on the part of theatrical impresarios and film producers to hire him. So, in spite of some electrifying appearances on stage, the promise was never completely fulfilled.
Williamson was born into a poor, working-class family in South Lanarkshire and, determined to become an actor, trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama. He played two seasons’ rep in Dundee and in 1961 joined London’s Royal Court.
After a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he returned to Sloane Square to create the role of the ill-mannered, heavy-drinking, self-hating barrister, Bill Maitland, in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence (1964). It was probably the apogee of Williamson’s career.
Osborne regarded him as the greatest actor since Marlon Brando, and Laurence Olivier was said to view him as his foremost challenger. He revived the play more than once and played Maitland in a cinema adaptation in 1968. For a work that relied so heavily on language, the film was surprisingly successful.
Later in 1964, he played Vladimir in a revival of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court, using Maitland’s accent. Beckett, who attended rehearsals, was unhappy. He asked Williamson if he was using his real voice. When told he was Scottish, Beckett suggested he returned to his natural accent. As the rehearsals continued, Beckett looked more pleased, commenting that Williamson had “a touch of genius” about him.
In 1966, Williamson took Inadmissible Evidence to the US, where he won the best actor award from the New York drama critics. But he cannot have helped his career by hitting David Merrick, the most influential man on Broadway at the time, and tipping him into a dustbin. Such tantrums became part of Williamson’s persona.
A world-class hypochondriac, he nevertheless drank heavily and smoked 80 cigarettes a day, 20 of them before he got up in the morning. He once stabbed a fellow actor while fencing on stage, slapped another during a curtain call, criticised those with whom he was appearing during the course of a play, and halted performances while latecomers found their seats. On the break-up of his marriage to American actress Jill Townsend, he drove his car over a cliff, nearly killing himself.
In 1969, Tony Richardson cast Williamson as Hamlet in a production at the Roundhouse. He insisted he would be the best Hamlet ever, and the accolades he received showed he might well have been right. Surprisingly, accents again became a problem. He played Hamlet with a strong Birmingham twang, something that disturbed audiences when the production was taken to New York. One critic felt he sounded like “a museum guide crippled with a blocked sinus”.
In the 1970s, he continued to enjoy success with the RSC, but increasingly frequent tax demands by the Inland Revenue forced him to move to New York. His career dwindled into a mixture of theatre and film work. In his best known cinema role in the Arthurian epic, Excalibur (1981), he played Merlin.
In 1994, he returned to London to appear in his own one-man play at the Criterion, Jack – A Night on the Town with John Barrymore, a portrait of the American actor. But on the second night, he walked offstage after a few minutes, complaining: “I don’t want to do it anymore.” He returned, but the play was not well patronised and it closed ahead of schedule.
Nicol Williamson, who was born on September 14, 1936 (or 1938 according to some accounts), died of cancer of the oesophagus in Amsterdam on December 16. However, his death was not made public until late-January, as he told his son that he did not want any fuss.
Richard Anthony Baker