Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson
Born Thomas Nicol Williamson
(1936-09-14)14 September 1936[1][2]
Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland
Died 16 December 2011(2011-12-16) (aged 75)
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Cause of death Esophageal cancer
Years active 1960–1997
Spouse(s) Jill Townsend (m. 1971–1977; divorced); 1 son

Nicol Williamson (14 September 1936 – 16 December 2011) was a British actor once described by 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

Thomas[1] Nicol Williamson was born in 1936 (he would later claim 1938 in Who's Who)[1] in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, the son of a factory owner. His family later moved south to England, and Williamson was educated at the Central Grammar School for Boys, Birmingham. 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".[3]


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 in 1965. 1964 also saw him appearing as Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court Theatre. In 1968, he starred in the film version. Williamson's Hamlet for Tony Richardson at the Roundhouse caused a sensation and 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 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 as Merlin 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 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, as is evident from their scenes together.[4] Williamson gained recognition from a much wider fanbase for his performance as Merlin. A review of Excalibur in the London Times in 1981 said, "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.[5]

Some of his other notable cinematic performances are as a deeply troubled Irish soldier in the 1968 Jack Gold film The Bofors Gun; Sherlock Holmes in the 1976 Herbert Ross film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution; and Little John in the 1976 Richard Lester film Robin and Marian. Additionally, he portrayed an alcoholic attorney in I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can; a colonel in the Cincinnati Gestapo in Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective; as 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 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,[6] 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 several tantrums and on-stage 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,[7] he hit the equally mercurial producer David Merrick.[8] 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.[8] 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.[9] In 1976, he slapped actor Jim Litten during the curtain call for the Broadway musical Rex.[10][11] In 1991, he hit co-star Evan Handler on the backside with a sword during a Broadway performance of I Hate Hamlet.[7]

Other work

In 1974, Williamson recorded an abridged reading of The Hobbit for Argo Records, with authorisation for abridgement provided by Tolkien's publisher. The recording was produced by Harley Usill.[12] According to his official website, Nicol himself re-edited the original script, 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.

Personal life

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

Despite concerns over his health in the 1970s, Williamson admitted drinking heavily and claimed to smoke 80 cigarettes a day.[3] 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."


On 25 January 2012, Luke Williamson announced on his father's official web site that Nicol Williamson had died on 16 December 2011, aged 75, after a two-year struggle with esophageal cancer.[13] The news was released late as the actor did not want any fuss to be made over his death. According to Luke, Nicol Williamson died peacefully.


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
Le moine 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 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 appearance)


Nicol Williamson was nominated for three BAFTA Awards, a Saturn Award, two Tony Awards,[14] 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. 1 2 3 Coveney, Michael (2015). ‘Williamson, (Thomas) Nicol (1936–2011)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  2. Weber, Bruce (25 January 2012). "Nicol Williamson, a Mercurial Actor, Is Dead at 75". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  3. 1 2 "Nicol Williamson". The Daily Telegraph. London. 25 January 2012.
  4. Comments from the audio commentary of Excalibur on DVD
  5. Alex Simon (2005). The Hollywood Interview Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. Tony Palmer (May 2006). John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship (video documentary). Isolde Films/fivearts.
  7. 1 2 Nicol Williamson biography at Yahoo!
  8. 1 2 Scott, A.O. (7 February 2005). "We're Sorry". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  9. Vamping With Nora New York Times, 29 June 2012
  10. "This Slap Wasn't in the Script". Reading Eagle. AP. 1976-05-13. p. 38. Retrieved 2015-11-10.
  11. Wilson, Earl (1976-05-20). "Kissinger, Cosell: 2 Big Egos on 1 Small Stage". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 19, pt. 1. Retrieved 2015-11-10.
  12. The Hobbit, read by Nicol Williamson. 4 record boxed set, Argo Records, 1974, ZPL 1196/9
  13. Luke Williamson (25 January 2012). "To the fans of Nicol". Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  14. Nicol Williamson Tony Awards Info. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
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