Obituary: Billie Whitelaw CBE, actress

Billie Whitelaw CBE: Bafta-winning actress gave a chilling performance in The Omen and was Beckett's muse. Picture: Getty
Billie Whitelaw CBE: Bafta-winning actress gave a chilling performance in The Omen and was Beckett's muse. Picture: Getty
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Born: 6 June, 1932, in Coventry. Died: 21 December, 2014, in London, aged 82

Billie Whitelaw was never a huge star in film terms, but she played numerous major roles on stage and screen, including the Satanic governess in The Omen and the Kray family matriarch, and she worked with such distinguished figures as Olivier, Hitchcock and most notably Samuel Beckett.

Nor was she a conventional beauty in film terms – her features were more likely to be described as willowy, hard or even horsey. Certainly she looked like the sort of character to whom one might entrust the jobs of safeguarding the son of Satan and keeping Ronnie and Reggie Kray on, or rather off, the straight and narrow.

Whitelaw was rarely cast as a romantic lead, though the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett regarded her as “the perfect actress”. He wrote plays specifically with her in mind and she actively collaborated with him on some works. As he pushed back the boundaries of what constitutes theatrical drama, she served as his actress, model, subject and muse.

In the play Happy Days she was buried up to her waist in Act One; her neck in Act Two. She was not the first actress to play the role, but Beckett reworked it for her. And in the monologue Not I only her illuminated mouth is seen, high above the stage. “He used me as a piece of plaster he was moulding until he got just the right shape,” she once said.

The daughter of an electrician, she was born in 1932 in Coventry and her real name was indeed Billie Honor Whitelaw – Billie is not a diminitive. She grew up largely in Liverpool and Bradford. Her father died when she was ten and her mother struggled to support the family.

Whitelaw suffered from a childhood stutter and began acting in the hope that it would help. She was getting work on radio before she reached her teens, though she was often physically sick with nerves, a condition that would afflict her throughout her career.

While still at school, she also gained experience as an actress and an assistant stage manager at a local theatre in Bradford. She attended Rada, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and by the mid-1950s was working in theatre, television and film.

She had the recurring role of Mary, the title character’s daughter, in the long-running, old-school police drama series Dixon of Dock Green.

And as early as 1958 she had the starring role in Time Out for Peggy, an ITV sitcom, set in a boarding house. It ran for two series and all episodes have now been lost, although the judgment of guest star Kenneth Williams has been left for posterity. He commented on the show’s “epic banality”.

During the early part of her career Whitelaw enjoyed her greatest successes in the theatre. She worked with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop company and with the National Theatre Company, playing Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier’s Othello in a production that visited the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh in 1965.

Her long association with Beckett began with the National Theatre Company’s 1964 production of Play, in which she appeared as one of three characters in funeral urns. She said it was “torture”, but her relationship with Beckett was to last a quarter of a century.

She retired from theatre when he died in 1989, but visited universities to discuss his work.

Her first husband was the actor Peter Vaughan.

They married in 1952 and divorced in 1966. The following year she married Robert Muller, a writer and drama critic, with whom she had one son.

She also had a relationship with Albert Finney, with whom she appeared in the 1967 film Charlie Bubbles. Finney was a successful writer, Whitelaw his ex-wife and the young Liza Minnelli his secretary. A few years later, Whitelaw worked with Finney again in Stephen Frears’s highly rated homage to film noir, Gumshoe, playing his ex-girlfriend, now married to his brother.

She won a Bafta award for best supporting actress for her performances in Charlie Bubbles and the psychological thriller Twisted Nerve. Alfred Hitchcock saw her in Twisted Nerve and cast her in a supporting role in his second-last film, Frenzy, which was shot in England.

One of her most memorable film roles was undoubtedly that of Mrs Baylock in the original Omen film in 1976. She arrives on the scene somewhat mysteriously to offer her services as nanny to the American ambassador’s son Damien after the previous nanny hangs herself.

She forms a close bond with the child, and with a seemingly stray Rottweiler. She is responsible for the ambassador’s wife’s miscarriage and finishes her off by pushing her out of a window, before tackling the ambassador, played by Gregory Peck.

Whitelaw came along at a time when the British film industry was opening up to actors and actresses from working-class backgrounds from industrial towns and she played a string of strong-willed women throughout her career.

But her performances as Mrs Baylock and in 1990 as Violet Kray in The Krays, with Martin and Gary Kemp, were downright chilling.

Her other films included the 1996 adaptation of Jane Eyre, Quills and the comedy Hot Fuzz. By the mid-1990s she admitted she had lost interest in acting. “It’s not the centre of my life,” she said. “I always thought it was a bit of a flibbertigibbety occupation.”

In 1991 she received a CBE. In 1996 she published a volume of autobiography entitled Billie Whitelaw… Who He? It was largely devoted to her working relationship with Beckett and was light on tittle-tattle. “I certainly wasn’t going to write about the various affairs I’ve had,” she said. ‘”Other people do that better, and it’s none of their business anyway.”

Her husband died in 1998. She is survived by her son Matthew.