Nicol Williamson: Mercurial and brilliant actor whose career was undermined by his flaws

 

Nicol Williamson was the notorious bad boy of the theatre, his unpredictable behaviour, unreliability and blunt rudeness to those he did not respect – which may well have been the majority of those he met in and out of the theatre world – having to be weighed by the theatres that employed him for his undoubted brilliance as an actor, and a star appeal that never fully flowered because of the reluctance of film producers and theatrical impresarios to engage him. Twin devils seemed to co-exist in his lanky body, one that drove his private life to frequent excess and public exhibitionism, and the other in which a creative genius seemed to be about to explode. He was quintessentially a model for the 19th century decadent romantic, a Byron, a des Esseintes or a Rimbaud. As an actor he could be electric: John Osborne declared him to be "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando".

He was born and brought up in Hamilton outside Glasgow; it is difficult to imagine him as a boy in that quiet little town where the main cultural event of the year is the Salvation Army's Christmas carol concert. He started his career at the Dundee Rep in 1960, stayed there two years, then went to the Arts Theatre in Cambridge and transferred to the Royal Court from there with That's Us, staying on with the English Stage Company in a number of demanding roles. They included Jacobean and period drama and modern plays, the most successful of which was Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, a palpable hit that transferred to the West End and had several later revivals, about a complex London barrister, but he was also well cast as Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man.

One of his greatest performances was as Vladimir in the 1964 revival of Waiting for Godot. Anthony Page, Nicol's preferred director, was in charge, but Beckett turned up at rehearsals and was unhappy about the way the production was progressing, the actor retaining his London barrister's accent for the author's reflective tramp. "Where do you come from? Is that your natural voice?" asked Beckett, and when told that Nicol was Scottish, asked if he could not use his natural non-London intonation. That evening Beckett looked pleased, more so as the days passed, and he commented, "There's a touch of genius there!" The opening night was a triumph, the audience electrified by his trumpeted scream of "I can't go on!" at the climax of the great final monologue.

From then Beckett was Williamson's God. When I invited him in 1965 to take part in a Beckett reading at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on a Sunday night, he insisted on Beckett's personal direction, and we visited him at Ussy on the Sunday before. We had launched the previous day and Nicol's single-minded enthusiasm was such that he cancelled both his Saturday performances of Inadmissible Evidence, then playing at Wyndham's, next door to our restaurant, and sent on his understudy – who also had to play the whole week following, because Williamson, having returned from the rehearsal in France on the Monday, then disappeared for the whole week.

But the day before the Sundayperformance at Stratford, when I had made emergency changes in the programme, he appeared at my flat to rehearse, and took the audience by storm the next day, throwing the other readers into confusion by his innovations. Patrick Magee said that he would never again appear on the same stage as an actor so selfish.

With the RSC he performed Arden of Faversham at the New Arts Theatre and played Sweeney in the TS Eliot memorial production of Sweeney Agonistes. He became a charismatic actor in films as well, but his appearances, especially in commercial productions, became rarer because his temperament and arrogance did not appeal to directors.

His marriage to the actress Jill Townsend was of short duration, and problems rising from his divorce, his messy private life and his mounting debt to the Inland Revenue forced him to move to New York, where he quickly blotted his copybook by knocking down David Merrick, the most powerful man on Broadway at the time. There he repeated some of his British successes and performed in roles that included Hamlet and Macbeth, but always for short runs.

He was cast as the ghost of John Barrymore, appearing to help a young actor play Hamlet, commented voluably to the press on the weakness of the play and others in the cast, and at an early performance actually stabbed the other actor during a fencing episode. He strode to the footlights and announced, "Something's gone wrong. You'd better bring down the curtain." Most thought it was part of the play. The second act started after more than an hour's interval with an understudy, and Williamson playing normally, but the actors had summoned Equity and the play closed a few nights later.

Williamson's career was peppered with such incidents. He had a good natural tenor voice and could mimic any crooner perfectly, and if he heard an accent he could imitate it; years later he could still do Beckett's voice perfectly. He devised a number of one-man shows, songs, patter and extracts from plays and other literature, but, in spite of brilliant moments, they were not successful, and while he could excite an audience, he had little critical judgement in choosing and interpreting a text without outside help.

His films included: Inadmissible Evidence (1967), The Bofors Gun (1968), The Seven Per Cent Solution (1975), The Human Factor (1979), Excalibur (1980) – the film for which he is probably best known, as Merlin – Black Widow (1986) and several others of varying quality, including The Exorcist III. Other plays in which he appeared include The Entertainer (1983), The Lark (1983) and The Real Thing (1985).

In person he was entertaining but often embarrassing company, carrying role-playing to extremes and needing to dominate every assembly at which he was present, especially in his manic moods. When depressive he was pitiable and usually stayed on his own. But whoever saw his Vladimir and heard that despairing scream, embodying the whole anguish of the human condition, which is then followed by a resumption of the human need to regain a vestige of dignity, will never forget it. Metaphorically it also encompassed his life.

Although Williamson's death was only announced yesterday, his son Luke said that he had died on 16 December of oesophageal cancer.

John Calder

Nicol Williamson, actor: born Hamilton, Scotland 14 September 1938; married 1971 Jill Townsend (divorced 1977; one son); died Amsterdam 16 December 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot