Angry Young Man – Remembering Nicol Williamson (1936 – 2011)

Posted in Remember by - March 23, 2014
Angry Young Man – Remembering Nicol Williamson (1936 – 2011)

Once called the finest actor of his generation, and the best since Brando, the supremely talented Nicol Williamson is a somewhat forgotten face of British cinema. But for a while it seemed that both on stage and screen, he was untouchable. From his iconic Shakespearean roles to some incredible screen performances, Williamson dominated each scene with a magnetism rarely seen.

Born in Scotland on September 14th, 1936, Nicol’s screen career began in 1963 with a few brief TV parts and an uncredited bit in the 1964 Kim Novak remake; ‘Of Human Bondage’. Nicol’s noted stage career took off in 1964 with John Osborne’s ‘Inadmissible Evidence’, where he created the role of Bill Maitland, a solicitor despairing at his own life and existence. A little seen but excellent version of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ was made for TV in 1968, and Nicol was quite astonishing as the simple-minded Lennie, with George Segal as his protector George.

A film version of his acclaimed stage performance ‘Inadmissible Evidence’ was shot in 1968, and he was just as terrific. He was also excellent, though wholly unlikable, in Jack Gold’s ‘The Bofors Gun’, as an Irish soldier and suicidal bully. My favourite performance of Nicol’s was in the 1969 social drama ‘The Reckoning’, which saw Williamson as Michael Marler, a no-nonsense bed-hopping businessman, seeking revenge for his father’s death. He was also good that year in Tony Richardson’s ‘Laughter in the Dark’. Based on the Nabokov novel, it had Nicol as a bored art dealer lusting after Anna Karina’s beautiful but scheming movie usherette.

Staying with Richardson, Williamson made the 1969 movie version of their acclaimed stage production ‘Hamlet’, which had Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. In 1972 Nicol was an archeology professor in the Political drama ‘The Jerusalem File’, with Donald Pleasence and Bruce Davison. Williamson reunited with director Jack Gold, this time to play President Nixon during the Watergate affair, in a ‘Late-Night Drama’ TV episode called ‘I Know What I Mean’. He made an endearing Little John in Richard Lester’s elegiac ‘Robin and Marian’ (’76), and was very good as Sherlock Holmes in Nicholas Meyer’s personal yet engaging drama ‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution’ (’76). A guest spot in a 1978 episode of ‘Columbo’ led to a brief bit in the Peter Falk comedy spoof ‘The Cheap Detective’ (’78). Nicol was then a double-agent in Otto Preminger’s final feature, ‘The Human Factor’ (’79), a somewhat convoluted thriller but with a top-notch cast.

For many, Williamson’s best cinematic portrayal was that of Merlin, in John Boorman’s King Arthur tale ‘Excalibur’ (’81). Despite not getting on with co-star Helen Mirren, (they famously fell out during an earlier production of Macbeth) he was wonderful, and it remains one of cinemas most enjoyable portrayals. From here his career waned somewhat. He was a police commander in the entertaining horror flick ‘Venom’ (’81), slumming it but still giving a solid performance. Nicol was however, excellent as an alcoholic lawyer in the 1982 drama ‘I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can’ with Jill Clayburgh.

Nicol would dress up again, this time in dual roles, for the 1985 fantasy ‘Return to Oz’ (’85). Though it sank at the Box Office it has since gained a minor cult following. He was very good as a melancholic Lord Mountbatten in a 1986 mini-series, then was a philanthropist murdered by Theresa Russell in Bob Rafelson’s fun thriller ‘Black Widow’ (’87). A supporting role followed as Father Morning, aiding George C. Scott’s Lieutenant Kinderman, in the horror sequel ‘The Exorcist III’ (’90), which was better than it’s poor reviews suggested. He was then back on British screens in the BBC’s entertaining black comedy ‘The Hour of the Pig’, and was charming as the voice of Badger, in Terry Jone’s enjoyable 1996 version of ‘Wind in the Willows’. Nicol’s final movie was the woeful horror; ‘Spawn’, once again playing a magician.

Williamson had a son with actress Jill Townsend, whom he was married to from 1971 to 1977. Having lived abroad for many years, Nicol Williamson died on December 16th 2011, in Amsterdam, after a two year battle with oesophageal cancer. He was 75. From Broadway to screen, Nicol Williamson was a hard drinking, no nonsense actor, and a towering talent. Uncompromising and fearless, he was also an accomplished poet, singer and writer, and with so many great movie performances it’s surprising he never received an Oscar nomination. Though true to his character, I doubt he ever gave it a thought.

Favourite Movie: The Reckoning
Favorite Performance: The Reckoning

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