Nicol Williamson, Fiery and Unpredictable British Actor, Dies at 73

Obituaries   Nicol Williamson, Fiery and Unpredictable British Actor, Dies at 73 Nicol Williamson, a British stage and film actor of great range, talent and fire who was as well known for his brash antics offstage as he was for his work as a performer, has died. The cause was esophageal cancer. He was 73.

Nicol Williamson
Nicol Williamson

Mr. Williamson's death was announced by his son Luke nearly six weeks after the actor expired on Dec. 16 in Amsterdam. The Dutch city had been the actor's home for the past two decades.

In the early years of his career, Mr. Williamson was heralded as one of the greatest British talents of his generations, an equal to his contemporary Albert Finney. Playwright John Osborne once described him as "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando." Mr. Williamson won international acclaim playing a self-hating lawyer in Osborne's Inadmissable Evidence. When he performed the role on Broadway in 1966, he won a Tony nomination for his work, as well as a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. He was nominated for another Tony for his Uncle Vanya in 1974. In 1970 he was invited to the White House to present a series of excerpts from Shakespearean dramas. Around the same time, he was the subject of a lengthy Kenneth Tynan profile in the New Yorker.

But Mr. Williamson's volatile personality—fueled by excessive drinking and general discomfort and borderline contempt with the attitudes of the theatrical world—derailed the upward ascent of his career. He became known as a man as capable of theatrics off the stage as on. One legendary story had him punching the powerful producer David Merrick while performing in a Philadelphia tryout of Inadmissible Evidence. When asked why he did it, the actor said the producer had it coming to him.

In the 1976 Broadway production of Rex, he struck an actor during a curtain call because he had spoken to someone next to him during Mr. Williamson's bow.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Williamson played the ghost of another self-destructive actor, John Barrymore, in the Broadway premiere of Paul Rudnick's comedy I Hate Hamlet. The production became notorious for the actor's erratic behavior. He frequently broke character and talked to the audience, often deriding the play and his co-stars. During one performance, in the middle of a sword fight, he swatted fellow actor Evan Handler across the backside with his weapon. Mr. Williamson later said he did it to get Handler to "put some life into it! Use your head! Give it more life!" Handler reacted by storming off the stage, leaving the theatre and never returning. Left onstage alone, the actor turned to the audience and said, "Well, should I sing?"

Perversely, Mr. Williamson's next, and final, appearance on a New York stage was in 1996's Jack: A Night on the Town With John Barrymore, an evening he devised.

Nicol Williamson was born Sept. 24, 1938, in Hamilton, Scotland. He was trained at the RSC and made his professional debut with the Dundee Rep in 1960. He bowed in London the following year in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Tony Richardson. With Inadmissible Evidence in 1964, he became a star. He repeated his performance in a 1968 film. That same year, he performed his Hamlet in London, alongside Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull (with whom he had an affair). He repeated it on Broadway and on film in 1969. The interpretation—directed by Richardson and described as "scruffy, raunchy and crude" by the New York Times—was controversial, with as many supporters as detractors. London, in general, praised the unorthodox approach, while Broadway critics hammered it.

Even this achievement wasn't without a Williamson touch. In the middle of one performance, he apologized to the audience and announced he was retiring.

His films included "The 7 Percent Solution," "Robin and Marian," "The Goodbye Girl," "The Cheap Detective" and "Excalibur."

According to reports, the actor died in relative poverty. If Mr. Williamson was repentant or regretful about the trajectory his career and life had taken, he never let on. "I don't notice competition," he once said. "I'm a center-forward. I don't watch them. Let them watch me."

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