Published 29/01/2012 | 05:00
Actor believed by Samuel Beckett to be 'touched by genius' but whose irascible temperament hampered his career
NICOL William-son, the actor, who has died aged 75, was considered "the greatest since Marlon Brando" by John Osborne and reckoned by Samuel Beckett to be "touched by genius"; but his prickly temperament helped derail what might have been one of the great theatrical careers.
Tall, lean, long-faced and hungry looking, with a large, eloquently-furrowed forehead, he had an authority onstage which presaged greatness. Early in his career he was lauded as "the best Hamlet of his generation" and praised for the "terrifying intensity" he brought to the role of Bill Maitland, the disillusioned solicitor in Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence.
Such plaudits suggested that Williamson should have gone on to become one of Britain's most successful actors. That he did not was due more to his personality than to any deficiency of talent.
He had no inhibitions, for example, about voicing any irritations during a performance, on several occasions stopping plays until latecomers had found their seats before restarting. "First night audiences, I hate them," he growled, "with their fur stoles and their boxes of chocolates, coming to the theatre because they think it's how the gentry behave."
His irascibility saw him likened to Richard Burton as someone who "squandered his talents", but Williamson always denied the comparison, claiming that the reason he did not work as consistently as other actors was a result of the intensity with which he approached each project.
"It would just about kill me," he insisted, "to appear in something I didn't like."
But by his own admission he frequently did just that. After he moved to New York in the early Seventies, his career dwindled into an uneven mix of stage and film work. He tried to salvage his career with appearances in film productions such as Excalibur (1981, in which John Boorman, the director, cast him as Merlin opposite his former lover Helen Mirren, to the dismay of both) and The Human Factor (which he described as "just awful").
Williamson returned to the Broadway stage in the early Nineties. But, in what seemed like a joke at his own expense, his first performance in almost a decade was as a ghost in I Hate Hamlet. He had lost none of his contentiousness and almost immediately began to disrupt rehearsals and to complain about the author.
Then, in one performance, animosity between Williamson and his co-star, Evan Handler, erupted on stage when Williamson interrupted the play to give Handler direction on how to play his role. Having urged Handler to "put more life into it", Williamson later improvised a move in their sword fight in which he struck Handler on the back with the flat of his sword. Handler walked offstage and did not return. Williamson, left alone in front of the audience, offered to sing a few numbers. The curtain was brought down, and the play continued with Handler's understudy.
Nicol Williamson was born on September 14 ,1936 in Glasgow, the son of a factory owner. His family later moved south and Williamson was educated at the Central Grammar School, Birmingham. He left school at 16 to begin work in his father's factory and later attended a local drama school. He recalled his time there as "a disaster" and claimed "it was nothing more than a finishing school for the daughters of local businessmen".
After National Service as a gunner in the Airborne Division, he joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre, playing in 33 productions under the artistic director Anthony Page, who recalled Williamson as "being real in the midst of a lot of people who were obviously acting". Page was instrumental in getting Williamson seen at the Royal Court, where he made his London debut in 1961 in That's Us.
Williamson was an immediate success with the critics, although what Page described as "his terrific neurotic energy" made him less popular with fellow actors. After appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night at the Royal Court, he went on to roles in productions as diverse as Woman Beware Woman, Spring's Awakening, The Ginger Man and Waiting For Godot.
National recognition came in 1964, when he played Bill Maitland in Inadmissible Evidence, a role which later marked one of the peaks of his career. Critics were unanimous in their praise of his performance as the "petty, snarling, pleading, despairing failure". But Williamson remained unimpressed by his instant popularity. "Why should I be grateful to audiences for liking me?" he asked. "They should be grateful for a play like this."
He played Maitland for two years before transferring to New York for the Broadway production, for which he won the New York Critics' award in 1966. He remained as combative as ever, punching the producer David Merrick (during an argument about who should direct the play) and knocking him into a nearby dustbin.
In 1969 Williamson was cast as Hamlet in Tony Richardson's Roundhouse production. He insisted he would be "the best Hamlet ever" -- and both public and critics seemed to agree, one reviewer describing Williamson as "a benchmark Hamlet". (Harold Wilson spent much of an official meeting with President Nixon describing his performance.)
Members of the audience who booked seats hoping to see displays of temper were not disappointed. Williamson interrupted one performance in the first act claiming that he was "too emotionally drained to continue". He said he could not go on, and offered to reimburse the audience for their tickets. In the second act, however, he made a remarkable recovery and completed the play.
Williamson had surprised London theatregoers by playing the Dane with a strong Birmingham accent, a move which, although innovative, proved problematical when the production opened in New York. The American audience had trouble understanding Williamson's nasal twang. One critic described him as sounding "like a museum guide crippled with a blocked sinus".
Bad notices did not discourage President Nixon from inviting him to give a one-man show at the White House. Williamson's liberal New York friends were dismayed by his acceptance, but he insisted that the performance was "not a question of political affiliation but an amazing kind of challenge".
He recalled the surprise among guests when he arrived, not in doublet and hose, but in jeans and a T-shirt, to perform a number of country and western ballads interspersed with poems by TS Eliot and EE Cummings.
Although Nicol Williamson was at the peak of his career, he remained "intense and highly strung". He was a regular visitor to his doctor ("I'm always being thrown out because there's nothing wrong with me") and was described by friends as "extremely hyperchondriacal". In spite of his intense concern over his health, Williamson continued to drink heavily and claimed that he smoked 80 cigarettes a day ("I need at least a packet before I can get out of bed").
In the early Seventies, Williamson continued to enjoy considerable success as a member of the RSC. He gave highly-acclaimed performances as Macbeth, Malvolio, Coriolanus and Uncle Vanya, and even released an LP -- a collection of standards such as Misty Roses and Take the Ribbon From Your Hair.
In 1972 he married the actress Jill Townsend.
By the end of the decade, however, his career was on the wane. Jill Townsend divorced him, and the Broadway musical Rex, on which he had pinned his hopes, failed at the box office. In an attempt to restart his career Williamson appeared in a series of feature films, including The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976) and Robin and Marion (1976).
None was well received by the critics, and Williamson admitted that he loathed filming. He returned to the theatre in 1978 in a revival of Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court, but continued to appear in films as a way of financing his theatrical career. He took the role of a spy in The Human Factor (1979), for example, so that he could appear in another production of Inadmissible Evidence the following year.
But by the early Eighties, he was appearing almost exclusively in feature films. He did return to the stage in the United States for leading roles in The Entertainer in 1982 and The Real Thing in 1983, but spent most of his time appearing in second-rate films such as I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982) and Return to Oz (1985).
Williamson lived in New York throughout the Eighties, writing screenplays and performing as a singer in various nightclubs. "I infinitely prefer the company of musicians," he insisted. "I can't bear the way actors only talk about themselves."
His last film was the superhero picture Spawn (1997). Latterly he had been living in Amsterdam and concentrating on music. For the past two years he had been suffering from cancer, and was anxious that no fuss should be made following his death. There were just six mourners at his funeral.
Nicol Williamson, who died on December 16 last, is survived by his son, Luke.