Remembering Nicol Williamson

An actor may be judged by the roles he has exceled at and in this regard Nicol Williamson (1936-2011) very early ascended to the status of legend. He was Hamlet in Tony Richardson’s critically acclaimed West End and Broadway productions as well as the ensuing film (1968-69). He did MacBeth with Royal Shakespeare in 1974, revisiting the role on Broadway in 1982 and TV version in 1983. He was in Waiting for Godot opposite Jack MacGowran in 1964 (this was back when the casting had to be approved by Beckett himself and he approved of Williamson highly). Film fans know him as Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution (1976), Merlin in Excalibur (1981), and Little John in Robin and Marian (1976). There’s much more, and we’ll tell a lot of it but we felt it important to push some good stuff to the front, for, despite being considered by many to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, the mighty tide he rolled in seemed to leave him high and dry, stranded. Once considered the successor to Richard Burton, one will seldom find him mentioned alongside lists of rough contemporaries like Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, or Ian Holm.

We’ll return to why that may be, but first we rewind. Williamson was the son of a Birmingham factory owner. After a little bit of theatrical training and some military service, he launched his professional career in Dundee Scotland in 1960. Two years later Richardson cast him as Flute in a West End production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a relationship which six years later would lead to the aforementioned Hamlet and the 1969 film Laughter in the Dark. In between (1964-65) he’d starred in Godot as well as the London and New York productions of John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, winning a Tony for his efforts.

Williamson’s lighter side was revealed when he went in as a replacement for Walter Matthau in the original production of Plaza Suite (1969-70). He would work again with Neil Simon in The Goodbye Girl (1977) and The Cheap Detective (1978). He was the title character in a TV production of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1972), and was in Mike Nichols’ all-star 1973 Broadway production of Uncle Vanya with George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Lillian Gish, Barnard Hughes, Elizabeth Wilson, and a pre-Maude Conrad Bain. He also recorded a 1971 album of covers of pop songs and a 1974 audio version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit.

Later Williamson played King Ferdinand in the tv mini series Christopher Columbus (1985) and the title character in Masterpiece Theatre’s Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986). He was the Nome King in Disney’s 1985 Return to Oz. But great screen roles of the sort he should have gotten began to elude him and he wound up in things like Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987), the terrible Exorcist III (1990), and DC Comics’ Spawn (1997). A true saving grace at the end of his career was that he got to play John Barrymore on Broadway in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet (1991) and Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore (1996), and audiences loved it.

From 1971 to 1977 Williamson was married to actress Jill Townsend, best known from the TV shows Cimarron Strip and Poldark. They had been involved since 1965, but were frequently separated due to Williamson’s famously fiery temper. And here is where the other shoe drops. Williamson developed a notorious reputation for striking colleagues onstage and off, cancelling performances and engagements (sometimes walking out in the middle of a show), and drunkenness. None of these foibles are exactly unheard of in show business, but in Williamson’s case, taken together and combined with a moody outspokenness, it seemed to make him a bit of a pariah. By the mid ’90s his constitution had also been bad for a couple of decades as a result of his unhealthy habits. Some of his colleagues, like George C. Scott and Richard Burton magically seemed to be able to work through those things. Williamson apparently could not. His death by throat cancer in 2011 caused little stir. The loss to the public had already occurred, many years earlier.