The Telegraph is reporting the death of Nicol Williamson, a revered Scottish actor perhaps best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Merlin in John Boorman’s Excalibur, and best known overseas as a man whose early promise of greatness made his decline into relative obscurity and poverty all the more baffling. Williamson died of esophageal cancer at the age of 73.
In 1964, Williamson became the toast of the London theater world for his performance as a self-loathing solicitor in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, a role that he created and would garner him a Tony when he took it to Broadway, and which he would reprise again in the 1968 film version.
Osborne hailed him as the “greatest actor since Marlon Brando,” while Samuel Beckett reportedly called him “touched by genius,” and the accolades did not stop there. When Williamson starred as Hamlet for Tony Richardson, it again took London by storm. It was soon made into a film (with Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull), while Prime Minister Harold Wilson was such a fan that he raved about Williamson to Richard Nixon, culminating in an invitation for Williamson to perform at the White House.
Williamson’s other successes on the screen included playing a suicidal soldier in The Bofors Gun, stepping in for a fired Richard Burton in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Laughter In The Dark, playing an underhanded major in charge of South African security in the Michael Caine-Sidney Poitier thriller The Wilby Conspiracy (a role Williamson would often single out as one of his favorites), starring as the lead in the British TV series Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy, and playing a colonel in the Cincinnati Gestapo in Neil Simon’s noir spoof The Cheap Detective. He also assayed two of the most famous characters in literature: Little John (opposite Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn) in Richard Lester’s Robin And Marian, and as one of the most unusual versions of Sherlock Holmes ever to hit the big screen, as the cocaine-addicted detective sought treatment from Sigmund Freud in Herbert Ross’ The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
In 1981, John Boorman cast Williamson as the legendary sorcerer Merlin in Excalibur, a choice that spurred objection from both Williamson and his co-star—and ex-lover—Helen Mirren, who had previously shared a horrible turn in Macbeth and were in no hurry to ever work together again. But Boorman believed that the natural contentiousness between the two would elevate the friction between Williamson’s Merlin and Mirren’s Morgan. The witty, withering scenes they share suggest that he was right.
A string of silly, not-so-great roles in the ’80s and ’90s left Williamson feeling less and less affection for his craft—namely his turns as the Nome King in Return To Oz, as Mr. Badger in The Wind In The Willows, as Father Morning in The Exorcist III, and especially the 1997 film adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, in which Williamson played Cagliostro. That proved to be the crappy genre film that broke the acting lion’s back, with Williamson’s son noting to Empire, “By the time he made Spawn, he was done with it.”
In his later years, Williamson preferred to concentrate on making music (his son has hinted that he may put Williamson’s final album online soon), and spoke more fondly of projects such as his narration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit on a 1974 Argo Records release (which would prove to be many a child’s first introduction to the story).
And although Williamson continued to be a patron of the theater, he was matter-of-fact about leaving acting behind even as his finances dwindled, once shrugging, “Actors act too much.” He was similarly dismissive of death, urging as his time drew near that “no fuss should be made” (which is probably why his son only recently confirmed that his father died on December 16). It was a matter-of-fact attitude he’d shared for decades, as evidenced by the below interview with David Frost. In it, Williamson expresses that his only fear regarding death is “the thought that one won’t fulfill in life all the things that you know that you can do and do well, do in a very exciting manner, and enjoy doing them.” Fortunately, Williamson needn’t worry about that.