Arts: Gone to ground: In the Sixties he was a superstar - the Hamlet of his generation, a dark and dangerous presence. But he has not been seen on stage in Britain for 15 years. Whatever happened to Nicol Williamson?

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The Independent Culture
TO HAROLD WILSON, he was probably the Hamlet of the century. To Richard Nixon, he was the first classical actor ever invited to perform at the White House. To John Osborne, he was 'the greatest actor since Brando'. To Time magazine, he was 'royalty', to be mentioned in the same breath as Olivier and Gielgud. In 1965 he won Best Actor awards from both the Evening Standard and the New York Drama Critics; in 1969 he did the same double again, and also won Best Film Actor from the Variety Club of Great Britain. And yet if you say his name today to a well-informed person under 30, they will probably look quite blank.

Nicol Williamson has been in more than 20 films, frequently playing the lead, but when I asked at the video shop if they had anything of his, the man said: 'Is that an actor or a director?' When I rang a leading producer for a comment on him, the receptionist said: 'Sorry, which production is she in?' But people always got his name wrong, even when he was famous. Nigel Wilkinson was a version that particularly irked him. When the invitations for the evening at the White House went out, they still managed to misspell his name.

He has a single entry in the Guinness Dictionary of Theatrical Quotations and it's cunningly ambiguous: 'Actors act too much.' Does he mean that they overact, or that they take on too much work? His life suggests the latter. Nicol Williamson has not appeared on the British stage for 15 years, and has not appeared in an original play here for 20. He is still only in his mid-fifties. So what happened?

NEXT WEEK the National Theatre revives John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, with Trevor Eve playing the seedy, cynical, self-

lacerating solicitor Bill Maitland. This was the part that made Nicol Williamson's name, in September 1964. He had caught the eye in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1962 season at the Arts Theatre, playing three kinds of cheat - a thief, a gambler and a cuckold. The following year he took the lead as the funny, hard- drinking Irishman, Dangerfield, in J P Donleavy's The Ginger Man. When Osborne and his director, Anthony Page, were casting Inadmissible Evidence, they saw a lot of good actors, but they were all 'a disaster'. Williamson walked in and Osborne noted in his diary that this 'pouting, delinquent cherub produced the face to match the torment below the surface. He is much too young (26, to the character's 39), but no matter. He is old within.'

His co-star was Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army). 'Arthur Lowe was such a methodical, punctilious, deft performer,' says John Quentin, who played Jones, the clerk, in the original production. 'And Nicol, with all his nerviness, showed such freedom and generosity with his emotions. He could practically walk through the stage door and on to the stage. I remember in rehearsals Arthur Lowe wanting to know when morning rehearsals would end as he would like to return home for his lunch.'

Williamson was something new. With his nasal, curdled voice, his crinkly, thinning hair, his hang-dog face, rangy body and vulpine manner, he flicked two fingers at the notion of the beautiful actor. He traded in mockery, self- hate and despair. One person who saw the production possibly more times than anyone else was Williamson's dresser, Peter Murphy, now a leading agent. 'The play made an enormous impact for Williamson. It became the play to see in London and on Broadway. It was an incandescent performance.'

Irving Wardle, then the Times theatre critic, wrote of Williamson 'struggling white-faced and sweaty to stammer out his defence'. He was a 'powerhouse of perverse integrity'. Williamson had a robust attitude to critics. When Wardle bumped into Williamson outside the Royal Court one day, Williamson said of his work: 'You may not like it, but you can't fault it.' One person who did fault it was Sir John Gielgud, who remarked absent-mindedly to Osborne: 'That actor - oh dear me - young, Scottish, most unattractive . . . He was in that long, terribly dull, boring play. Oh, dear God, of course, you wrote it.'

Suddenly, Williamson was in the front rank of British actors. The future looked mapped out: leads in new plays, and the big Shakespearean roles stretching out ahead. 'I thought Nicol was going to play every leading role,' John Quentin says. 'I thought I would see him playing Iago and Leontes, and one thought how wonderful he would be as Timon, nobody could be vituperative like Nicol, and Prospero, with his pent-up bitterness and frustration.' And Lear and Shylock. And plays by Webster, Marlowe and more parts in Beckett (he played Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, caught a cold in rehearsals and kept Samuel Beckett waiting for two days).

Instead we get glimpses, guest appearances - in Black Widow (1986) he is one of a series of rich men murdered by Theresa Russell - or bigger parts, quirkily chosen: swirling his cloak through the mists as Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur (1980), tightening his lips in the title role of the CBS series Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy (1984). He is the theatre star who has never had a film hit. A man whose 'electric', 'mesmeric' and 'hurricane' performances live in the memories of London theatregoers of the Sixties and early Seventies. But it's all so long ago. Both Sir Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud performed on the London stage more recently than Williamson. And look at his contemporaries, whom younger audiences have seen: Sir Anthony Hopkins, 55, in Lear at the National; Sir Ian McKellen, 54, in Richard III at the National; and Alan Howard, 55, in Macbeth at the National at the moment. Though there have been plenty of offers, plain Mr Williamson, 54, has never appeared there.

NICOL WILLIAMSON was born in Hamilton, a mining town near Glasgow, in 1938. His family were poor; his father went back to work the day he got married. Later he ran his own business. Williamson went to Central Grammar School, Birmingham, and to the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama. He appeared as an amateur with Birmingham Rep - Albert Finney was in the professional cast - and was fired for missing a performance. (He thought Easter Monday was a holiday.) After two years of military service at Aldershot - he was a gunner in an airborne division - he was hired by the Dundee Repertory Theatre to play a pirate in Sinbad the Sailor. In 17 months he appeared in 33 productions, many of them directed by Anthony Page.

In 1961 Page brought Williamson to the Royal Court for Arden of Faversham and That's Us. Penny Taylor, who worked at the agency Peter Crouch Associates, remembers Williamson turning up at the agency office in Soho Square. 'He was very shy, very shambly. He had a giant grey overcoat on. Peter kept him waiting for an hour. He was very patient.' It wouldn't last. 'Later he did become rather demanding. He got very starry.' In those days she remembers him sharing a flat with John Thaw, and when he moved into 'his first decent flat' she brought him towels and sheets. 'We considered it part of the agency job.' Later Williamson 'got an anti-agent thing' and was represented by his solicitor, Oscar Beuselink, instead. The difficult times were here.

The last time Nicol Williamson appeared on stage he hit a fellow actor. First he shouted 'Put some life into it]' Then he struck his co- star on the backside with a sword. It was headline news; everyone on Broadway murmured, oh dear, Nicol Williamson, so unprofessional.

In the play in question, I Hate Hamlet, he played the ghost of John Barrymore, an American actor of the Twenties, a character who haunts Williamson, and one to which he intends to return. In the New York Times, Frank Rich wrote of his 'riotous incarnation of a legendary actor, lecher and lush. His woozy swoons, bombasted braggadocio and swashbuckling sexual antics are eerily reminiscent of John Barrymore.' Too eerily, in fact.

During the duel scene, Williamson was supposed to be coaching a young actor in how to swash and how to buckle. Williamson ad- libbed his own instructions, telling his co-star to 'Use your head. Give it more life.' Then, when he was meant to nick him with the poisoned sword, he whacked him on the backside instead. The other actor promptly left the stage (and the production). Williamson turned to the audience and asked: 'Well, should I sing?'

He is always wanting to sing. His idea for the curtain call of Hamlet in 1969 was to do a number from Hair. He recorded an album for Columbia in 1971 and has frequently told interviewers that he'd rather be a jazz singer than an actor. A friend who used to go with him to Jimmy Ryan's in Manhattan, said: 'He would always sing for his supper. He's a gravelly, blues shouter really. There's nothing modest about his talents.'

Worse than other labels that get pinned on actors (that they can't act, for instance, or that they drink) is the one about being difficult. It's the hardest to change. When people wonder why Williamson hasn't appeared on the London stage for 15 years, they think of that duel scene on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre, and of all those other green-room stories, and they think, well, he's so unprofessional.

There was the time he walked off stage in the middle of the first night of Hamlet. The time he told late-comers to Inadmissible Evidence that he wasn't going to start a speech until they had sat down. The time in Philadelphia when he punched the Broadway producer David Merrick in the face, for firing the director Anthony Page without consulting him, and sent Merrick reeling into a garbage can. And the time he told some unruly schoolchildren in a matinee of Macbeth at Stratford that he could be earning thousands of pounds elsewhere and if they didn't shut up he would start from the beginning again, and every time he heard any noise after that he would go back to the beginning and start again.

Nicol Williamson compelled attention: from schoolchildren, late-comers and the actors he played opposite. No one has ever needed to hit Williamson on the backside and tell him to put some life in it. He put all his life into it. He told Kenneth Tynan, in a celebrated article included in Profiles, that he acted best when he was contemplating death. 'Not the character's but my own.' When he was acting at Dundee he threw himself into the Tay estuary, stopping only to remove his shoes and socks.

'I'm a big man,' says Oscar James, now of EastEnders fame, who played opposite him in Coriolanus in 1973, 'But I could feel the power of his words were actually knocking me down. No other actor has ever done that to me. None. To feel the force of his words. I was moved.' His piercing intelligence turned familiar speeches on their head. When he listened, scanning the other characters' faces with his darting eyes, he seemed to suck the speeches out of them. His advice to one actor was: 'You act and I will react.' As another actor says: 'If you give him anything, by God, he'll use it.' And when he leaves the stage, Oscar James says, 'he takes all the energy with him'.

NOTHING MORE than a good rep actor. That was director Tony Richardson's verdict when he advised Anthony Page against casting Williamson in Inadmissible Evidence. Five years later Richardson cast Williamson as Hamlet. The venue was the Round House, a disused railway shed in Camden Town. Anthony Hopkins played Claudius, Marianne Faithfull was Ophelia, Roger Livesey was the Gravedigger and Anjelica Huston was part of the crowd. Williamson, playing both Hamlet and the voice of his father, did eight performances a week, filming the role, in the underground passages and against the brickwalls of the Round House, during the day. It was, says one of the cast, 'grossly punishing'.

The American production opened at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. 'The first night was going very badly,' remembers the stage manager Howard Panter, now a producer. 'The audience was restless. There was a lot of rustling. There was a bit of corpsing on stage and the performance was deteriorating.' So in the first court scene Williamson threw down a goblet and left the stage. The curtain came down. Panter put his head round the curtain to say a few calming words to the Boston audience. 'They were completely amazed.'

Twenty minutes later Williamson returned to the stage. 'Everyone was so shaken,' Panter says, 'that the concentration was very sharp. I didn't think it was a stunt at all. He was deeply depressed.' Ben Aris, who was playing Rosencrantz, says, 'He had the chutzpah to stop mid-stream. When he came back it was a million times better than it was before.' A couple of actors were particularly critical of this unprofessional behaviour. 'But then one was lazy - cruising, really,' says another cast- member, 'and the other was drunk and couldn't remember a word.'

The odd thing is how many people describe Williamson as totally professional. The erratic behaviour, they say, comes from his frustration at knowing how good things can be. The writer- director Leslie Megahey recently directed Williamson in the film Hour of the Pig (to be released in the autumn). It's a medieval mystery story set in France. Williamson plays the bad guy, seigneur of the town of Abbeville, an affable heavy. 'When I cast him, I rang other directors, as you do, to ask about him and I rang Jack Gold.' Gold had directed Williamson in The Bofors Gun, The Reckoning and Macbeth. 'He said you would never meet anyone more committed or more prepared.' Megahey concurs: 'He's there when you want him and he's not there when you don't want him.' Though he adds: 'Like a lot of great actors, he's got a short fuse.'

So why doesn't he act more? He lives in New York and Amsterdam. He doesn't give interviews. His London agent, Dennis Selinger, said that Williamson was busy writing. But he's superstitious about discussing it. 'He's a complete non-careerist,' Magahey says. 'He won't do anything unless, as he says, the part has fire in its belly. I've seen him turn down very bankable parts.' (One wonders how much fire there was in the belly of a film like Exorcist 3.) But there are plenty of parts the National or the RSC could offer.

The reasons given for his absence are many. They include tax and booze and the break-up of his marriage to actress Jill Townsend (they married in 1971 and divorced in 1977). There was always the possibility that he would lose interest or get fed up with collaborating. He told Tynan in 1971 that he was no longer interested in being 'the greatest actor of my generation, and all that jazz'. If anything, he was more interested in all that jazz.

He wanted to be a Hollywood star but two things were against him: his looks and his theatricality. Or three things, if you count Pauline Kael. She wrote in the New Yorker in 1970: 'He is brilliant, he is dazzling - yet he's awful . . . probably the worst major (and greatly gifted) actor on the English-speaking screen today.'

Fifteen years on, though, a return looks likely. His obsession with John Barrymore has led to him writing a one-man show. Discussions are under way with Duncan Weldon, the West End producer noted for his star vehicles, about performing in London later this year. 'I think it might happen,' says Weldon, who was expecting the script earlier this week. Though nothing is agreed 'until I read it and see what it is'. What it is, apparently, is a one-man show that is as much about the process of acting as it is about John Barrymore. It would be a timely return that might take him from one lead to another. He was (in Michael Billington's words) 'the undisputed Hamlet of the Sixties'. Might he become the Prospero or the Lear of the Nineties? As Megahey says, 'We haven't got many giants left.'

'Inadmissible Evidence', Lyttelton (071-928 2252), previews from Fri, opens 17 June.

(Photograph omitted)