Nicol Williamson blazed a trail on the English stage from the 1960s and was one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation. The often irascible John Osborne considered Williamson “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando” and Samuel Beckett thought he was “touched by genius”. Yet after a brilliant beginning Williamson’s career tapered out and he has been seldom seen on the stage in the past 25 years.
He had an erratic and somewhat turbulent personality and was recognised as not an easy colleague. Williamson and Helen Mirren were cast as the Macbeths in a Royal Shakespeare production that had many stormy scenes off stage.
Williamson in his youth delivered outstanding performances and created, in a virtuoso performance, the role of Bill Maitland in Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court in 1964. Williamson brought danger to an evening.
Nothing typifies the life of Williamson more than the manner of his death – a month ago in Amsterdam. None of the theatre community in London or New York knew of his death until his son mentioned it on Twitter this week.
Williamson’s father worked in an aluminium plant in Hamilton and Williamson always maintained he learnt much about music and words from his mother, Mary, “who had a wonderful singing voice”. His parents moved to Birmingham when he was five and he attended school and drama college in the city.
His first professional job was back in Scotland at the Dundee Repertory where he spent two seasons. His first taste of the stage was appearing in the Dundee Rep’s 1959 pantomime Sinbad the Sailor. In the next 18 months, Williamson was seldom off its stage and appeared in more than 20 productions, usually playing the juvenile lead in the classics and modern plays such as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire.
He was offered a contract at London’s Royal Court and was seen there in a number of challenging roles. But Williamson‘s break came when he was cast in the lead role in Osborne‘s new play Inadmissible Evidence. The morose, shady solicitor was given a sultry edge by Williamson. One critic wrote: “This splendid actor is at the top of his form in this immensely testing part.”
The director Eleanor Fazan was a member of the original cast and the subsequent film. “Nicol was a troubled soul,” she said yesterday. “He would throw himself into a role and commit himself totally. Everything – on stage and personally – for Nicol was about absolute intensity.
“He was such a commanding presence on stage and during Inadmissible Evidence we became great friends. We used to have supper in an Indian restaurant. Nicol always ordered the very best wine. That, I am afraid, was the problem: he drank too much.”
In the early 1960s, he was hailed as the most exciting actor of the decade and his next foray on stage was another triumph. He did Waiting for Godot, directed by Anthony Page with Beckett at rehearsals. His final monologue electrified the house and Williamson was considered the next Olivier.
His career followed an impressive path with successes on Broadway and an impressive Hamlet, directed by Tony Richardson. The prime minister, Harold Wilson, enthused to US President Richard Nixon about Williamson’s performance and Williamson was invited to perform at the White House.
After Hamlet and Uncle Vanya in New York he returned, in 1973, to the Royal Shakespeare Company and won much praise for a season that included Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Coriolanus. Williamson then did a revival at the Royal Court of Inadmissible Evidence and once again set the theatre alight.
But his reputation for unreliability was well known and audiences were often incensed when Williamson just left the stage. Colleagues often refused to work with him; the catalogue of his bad behaviour is legion.
They included slapping a colleague during a curtain call, not being at rehearsals, criticising another during the performance and berating an audience from the stage. “But, I am afraid,” Fazan considered, “it was his internal demons manifesting themselves in his troubled mind.”
Williamson made the movie of Inadmissible Evidence and was a memorable Little John (he was well over 6ft) in Robin and Marion, with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. He starred opposite Mirren in Excalibur (not an easy assignment) and was Badger in The Wind in the Willows. In 1986 he was Lord Mountbatten in the TV biopic The Last Viceroy.
Williamson was a recluse for many years. After the glittering early years he could not maintain the discipline or professional momentum to become a major star.
Perhaps he did not enjoy acting – he once observed. “Actors act too much.”
He married the actress Jill Townsend in 1971 but the marriage ended in 1977. He is survived by their son.