Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson
Nicol Williamson.jpg
Thomas Nicol Williamson [1]

(1936-09-14)14 September 1936
Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland
Died 16 December 2011(2011-12-16) (aged 75)
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Occupation Actor, singer
Years active 1960–1997
( m. 1971; div. 1977)
Children 1

Thomas Nicol Williamson (14 September 1936 – 16 December 2011) was a British actor and singer, once described by playwright John Osborne as "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando". He was also described by Samuel Beckett as "touched by genius" and viewed by many critics as "the Hamlet of his generation" during the late 1960s.

Early life

Williamson was born in 1936[1][2][3][4] (he would later claim 1938 in Who's Who)[1] in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland,[1] the son of a factory owner. When he was 18 months old, his family moved to Birmingham, England. Williamson was sent back to Hamilton to live with his grandparents during World War II due to Birmingham's susceptibility to bombing, but returned when the war ended, and was educated at the Central Grammar School for Boys, Birmingham.[5] He left school at 16 to begin work in his father's factory and later attended the Birmingham School of Speech & Drama. He recalled his time there as "a disaster" and claimed "it was nothing more than a finishing school for the daughters of local businessmen".[2]


Stage and screen

After his national service as a gunner in the Airborne Division, Williamson made his professional debut with the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1960 and the following year appeared with the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. In 1962 he made his London debut as Flute in Tony Richardson's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Court Theatre. His first major success came in 1964 with John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award when it transferred to Broadway the following year. In spring 1981, he and original director Anthony Page revived the play for a six-week engagement at the Roundabout Theatre (23rd Street) in New York, fifteen years after the original Broadway run.[6]

The same year, he appeared as Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court. He starred in the film version in 1968. Williamson's Hamlet for Tony Richardson at the Roundhouse caused a sensation; it was later transferred to New York and made into a film, with a cast including Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull later stated in her autobiography Faithfull that she and Williamson had an affair while filming Hamlet.

His most celebrated film role was as Merlin the magician in the King Arthur epic Excalibur in 1981. Director John Boorman cast him opposite Helen Mirren as Morgana over the protests of both actors; the two had previously appeared together on stage in Macbeth, with disastrous results, and they disliked each other intensely. It was Boorman's hope that the very real animosity that they had towards each other would generate more tension between them on screen.[7] Williamson gained recognition from a much wider fanbase for his performance as Merlin. A review of Excalibur in The Times in 1981 states: "The actors are led by Williamson's witty, perceptive Merlin, missed every time he's off the screen." According to Mirren, she and Williamson, free from the problems with Macbeth, "wound up becoming very good friends" during Excalibur.[8]

Some of his other notable cinematic performances include as a troubled Irish soldier in the 1968 Jack Gold film The Bofors Gun; in 1975 as an intelligence officer in apartheid South Africa in The Wilby Conspiracy (starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine); as Sherlock Holmes in the 1976 Herbert Ross film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution; and as Little John in the 1976 Richard Lester film Robin and Marian. Additionally, he portrayed an MI6 bureaucrat in The Human Factor (1979) (adapted from a novel by Graham Greene), an alcoholic attorney in I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982); a colonel in the Cincinnati Gestapo in the Neil Simon comedy The Cheap Detective; Lord Louis Mountbatten in Lord Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy (1985); the dual roles of Dr. Worley/The Nome King in Return To Oz (1985); Father Morning in The Exorcist III (1990); Badger in the 1996 movie adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows; and as Cogliostro in the 1997 movie adaptation of Todd McFarlane's comic book Spawn.

Williamson made a major contribution to the documentary John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship,[9] recalling episodes from his long professional relationship with Osborne. Recorded excerpts of his award-winning stage performance in Inadmissible Evidence also feature in the video.

Williamson was known for throwing onset tantrums and onstage antics. During the Philadelphia tryout of Inadmissible Evidence, a play in which he delivered a performance that would win him a Tony Award nomination in 1965,[10] he punched the equally mercurial producer David Merrick.[11] In 1968, he apologised to the audience for his performance one night while playing Hamlet and then walked off the stage, announcing he was retiring.[11] In the early 1970s, Williamson left The Dick Cavett Show prior to a scheduled appearance, leaving the host and guest Nora Ephron to fill the remaining time.[12] In 1976, he slapped actor Jim Litten during the curtain call for the Broadway musical Rex.[13][14] In 1991, he hit co-star Evan Handler on the backside with a sword during a Broadway performance of I Hate Hamlet.[10]

Other work

Following a late-night chat show appearance in which he showcased his singing talents, Williamson released an album of songs in 1971 on the CBS label (S 64045). The album contained songs such as "Didn't We", "It's Impossible" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night".

In 1974, Williamson recorded an abridged reading of The Hobbit for Argo Records, authorisation for the abridgement having been provided by J.R.R. Tolkien's publisher. The recording was produced by Harley Usill.[15] According to his official website, Williamson re-edited the original script himself, removing many occurrences of "he said", "she said", and so on, as he felt that an over-reliance on descriptive narrative would not give the desired effect; he performed each character in a distinctive voice.

In 1978, he portrayed a murderous behaviour expert in the Columbo episode "How To Dial A Murder".

Personal life

In 1971, Williamson married actress Jill Townsend, who had played his daughter in the Broadway production of Inadmissible Evidence. They had a son, Luke, but divorced in 1977.[4][16]

Despite concerns over his health in the 1970s, Williamson admitted drinking heavily and claimed to smoke 80 cigarettes a day.[2] In an episode of The David Frost Show in the 1960s, during a discussion about death, which also involved poet John Betjeman, Williamson revealed that he was very much afraid of dying, saying that "I think of death constantly, throughout the day" and that "I don't think there is anything after this, except complete oblivion."


Williamson died on 16 December 2011, aged 75, two years after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.[4] In accord with Williamson's wish the news of his death was released a month later, as he did not want a fuss made over his death.[16]


Year Film Role Notes
1956 The Iron Petticoat Man lighting Major Lockwood's distorted cigarette Uncredited
1963 The Six-Sided Triangle The Lover Short film
ITV Play of the Week Count Pierre Besukhov TV series, episode "War and Peace"
Z-Cars Jack Clark TV series, episode "By the Book"
Teletale Dr. Murke TV series, episode "Dr. Murke's Collection of Silences"
1965 Six TV series, episode "The Day of Ragnarok"
The Wednesday Play Robin Fletcher TV series, episode "Horror of Darkness"
1968 Of Mice and Men Lennie TV film (Video)
The Bofors Gun O'Rourke Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Inadmissible Evidence Bill Maitland Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1969 The Reckoning Michael Marler
Laughter in the Dark Sir Edward More Won — Prize San Sebastián for Best Actor
Hamlet Prince Hamlet
1971 Thirty-Minute Theatre Jim Fitch TV series, episode "Terrible Jim Fitch"
1972 The Jerusalem File Professor Lang
The Monk The Duke of Talamur
The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Arturo Ui TV film
Nominated — British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
1974 Late Night Drama President Nixon TV series, episode "I Know What I Meant"
1975 The Wilby Conspiracy Major Horn
1976 Robin and Marian Little John
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution Sherlock Holmes
1977 The Goodbye Girl Oliver Fry (uncredited Hollywood producer/director)
1978 Columbo Dr. Eric Mason TV series, episode "How to Dial a Murder"
The Cheap Detective Colonel Schlissel
The Word Maertin de Vroome TV mini-series
1979 The Human Factor Maurice Castle
1981 Excalibur Merlin Nominated — Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor
Venom Commander William Bulloch
1982 I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can Derek Bauer
1983 Macbeth Macbeth BBC Television Shakespeare; videotaped TV drama
1984 Sakharov Malyarov TV film
1985 Christopher Columbus King Ferdinand TV mini-series
Return to Oz Dr. Worley/Nome King
1986 Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten TV serial
1987 Black Widow William McCrory
Passion Flower Albert Coskin TV film
1990 The Exorcist III Father Morning
Chillers TV series, episode "A Curious Suicide"
1993 The Hour of the Pig Seigneur Jehan d'Auferre
1996 The Wind in the Willows Mr. Badger
1997 Spawn Cogliostro (final film role)


Nicol Williamson was nominated for three BAFTA Awards, a Saturn Award, two Tony Awards,[17] and won the Silver Shell for the Best Actor from the San Sebastián International Film Festival in 1969 for his performance in Laughter in the Dark.

BAFTA Awards

Year Nominee / work Award Result
1969 The Bofors Gun Best Actor in a Leading Role Nominated
1970 Inadmissible Evidence Best Actor in a Leading Role Nominated
1973 The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Television Award for Best Actor Nominated

Drama Desk Awards

Year Nominee / work Award Result
1969 Hamlet Outstanding Performance Won
1974 Uncle Vanya Outstanding Performance Won
1976 Rex Outstanding Actor in a Musical Nominated

Saturn Awards

Year Nominee / work Award Result
1982 Excalibur Best Supporting Actor Nominated

Tony Awards

Year Nominee / work Award Result
1966 Inadmissible Evidence Best Actor in a Play Nominated
1974 Uncle Vanya Best Actor in a Play Nominated


  1. ^ a b c d "Williamson, (Thomas) Nicol (1936–2011)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/104622. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c "Nicol Williamson". The Daily Telegraph. London. 25 January 2012.
  3. ^ "Nicol Williamson". The Herald (26 January 2012). Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  4. ^ a b c Weber, Bruce (25 January 2012). "Nicol Williamson, a Mercurial Actor, Is Dead at 75". Retrieved 28 January 2020 – via
  5. ^ Hershman, Gabriel (2018). Black Sheep: The Authorised Biography of Nicol Williamson. The History Press.
  6. ^ "Inadmissible Evidence." Internet Off-Broadway Database, 2021,
  7. ^ John Boorman's comments from the audio commentary of Excalibur on DVD
  8. ^ Mirren, Helen (24 January 2005). "Helen Mirren: Screen Queen" (Interview). Interviewed by Alex Simon. The Hollywood Interview.
  9. ^ Tony Palmer (May 2006). John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship (video documentary). Isolde Films/fivearts.
  10. ^ a b "Nicol Williamson biography". Archived from the original on 28 June 2011. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
  11. ^ a b "Nicol Williamson". AllMovie. Retrieved 20 May 2020.
  12. ^ Cavett, Dick (29 June 2012). "Vamping With Nora". The New York Times (blog).
  13. ^ "This Slap Wasn't in the Script". Reading Eagle. Associated Press. 13 May 1976. p. 38. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
  14. ^ Wilson, Earl (20 May 1976). "Kissinger, Cosell: 2 Big Egos on 1 Small Stage". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 19, pt. 1. Archived from the original on 20 May 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
  15. ^ The Hobbit, read by Nicol Williamson. 4-record boxed set, Argo Records, 1974, ZPL 1196/9
  16. ^ a b "Excalibur actor Williamson dies". 25 January 2012. Retrieved 28 January 2020 – via
  17. ^ Nicol Williamson Tony Awards Info. Retrieved 15 December 2011.

Further reading

  • Dowsing, Martin. Beware of the Actor! The Rise and Fall of Nicol Williamson. Createspace / Testudines, 2017. ISBN 9781978036253
  • Hershman, Gabriel. Black Sheep – The Authorised Biography of Nicol Williamson. The History Press, 2018. ISBN 9780750983457

External links