(Author Gabriel Hershman has written "Black Sheep: the Authorized Biography of Nicol Williamson" (The History Press). Williamson, who passed away in 2011 at age 75, was an enormous talent. John Osborne called him "The greatest actor since Brando". However, he had many personal demons that sidetracked what should have been a far more successful career. Hershman explores the peaks and valleys of this temperamental man's dramatic life and career and in this article reminds us of why his talents and work should be rediscovered.)
BY GABRIEL HERSHMAN
Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates, Albert Finney,
Tom Courtenay and … Nicol Williamson. Just a few of the most influential actors
of their generation.
Were you surprised when I mentioned Nicol’s name? He was, at the time of
his death, the least well known of
that generation of actors. And yet, in my opinion, Nicol should have topped that
list. Anybody who saw Nicol in Osborne’s InadmissibleEvidence, sweating, combustible,
driven by almost orgasmic self-loathing – ‘the greatest performance in a modern
play’ in Michael Coveney’s words – knew they were watching an extraordinary
If only we could re-visit Waiting
for Godot, Diary of a Madman, The Ginger Man and, of course, Hamlet – a performance that led Nicol to
the White House to give a one-man show in front of Richard Nixon – then it
would be clear: Nicol was the
foremost actor of his generation.
But … Nicol’s stage triumphs made his screen career
seem desperately unsatisfactory by comparison. Yes, Nicol wanted to be a film
star. An early meltdown at Dundee Rep came when Lindsay Anderson chose not to
cast him as Frank Machin in ThisSportingLife (1963). If he’d got that role – and there’s no reason to
assume Nicol would have made a lesser impact than Richard Harris – then Nicol’s
film career could have been different. Sadly, it was several years before
audiences would see him in a major role, to glimpse that blowtorch talent on
Nicol shone in The
Bofors Gun (1968), playing a deranged, alcoholic squaddie who kills himself
and, in so doing, scuppers the career prospects of a mild-mannered bombardier
who’s desperate for promotion. It was a barnstorming portrayal.Pauline Kael later criticised this and other performances
of Nicol’s as ‘too strong’ – but she was wrong. Take LaughterintheDark
(1969). He was vulnerable and oddly affecting as the businessman blinded by
infatuation (and a car crash) in Tony Richardson’s otherwise ineffective
re-working of Nabokov’s classic.
Nicol was on top form again with one of his serial
collaborators, Jack Gold, in The Reckoning
(1970), a powerful story of class and revenge. It should have been up there
with GetCarter but it was overlooked. The film of Hamlet – although too dark and claustrophobic – at least captured Nicol’s
nasal, deliberately unsexy prince for posterity.
By 1970, despite not having a movie hit, Nicol was a
genuine superstar. He wed gorgeous actress Jill Townsend who would enjoy small-screen
success with Poldark. Yet an essay by
Kenneth Tynan, written at the time of Nicol’s White House triumph, hinted at the
demons that eventually destroyed him. In particular, it seems to me, that Nicol’s
altercations– unlike those of Harris and Reed – were often with influential
people. ‘Victims’ included Broadway producer David Merrick, whom Nicol punched
when the legendary showman demanded cuts to InadmissibleEvidence, Dick Cavett, whose chat
show he once unceremoniously exited, and, later, Evan Handler, who got a beating
during the infamous Broadway performance of I
Perhaps – for all their hellraising and vitriolic
behavior – guys like Reed and Harris knew who to be nice to. Perhaps they were
simply more endearing drunks? Either way, by the early Seventies, Nicol was
losing ground. He stumbled again on film. Who remembers his Red Bull
performance in The Jerusalem File? Or
TheMonk? (Don’t worry, even diehard fans of Seventies movies don’t
know them!!) They have disappeared.
Nicol offered a brilliant interpretation of Arturo Ui
– the Hitler-like gangster in a TV version of Brecht’s classic drama. But it
was soon forgotten. Nicol made a memorable villain (his son, Luke, thought it
was his greatest screen performance) in The
Wilby Conspiracy. But it didn’t do much for his screen career. Playing
Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Per Cent Solution
looked like a breakthrough. Yet some enthusiasts had trouble accepting Nicol as
a drug-addled Holmes.
Williamson starred as Sherlock Holmes opposite Robert Duvall as Watson in the 1976 film "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution".
By then Nicol’s life was increasingly troubled. He
stormed out of Enemy of the People and
times before a scene was shot. He eventually took the lead in TheHumanFactor, Otto Preminger’s
cash-strapped tale of political double dealing. Yet again it was a troubled project. Preminger
seemed to be in the early stage of Alzheimer’s. It needed Hitchcock to bring it
to life. Yet in Nicol’s self-effacing, benevolent lead – a political agnostic
caught between despicable ideologies – there was so much nuance and subtlety.
Stage success continued to come Nicol’s way, in Coriolanus and TwelfthNight, in a Royal
Court revival of InadmissibleEvidence, and, especially, in a Broadway
production of UncleVanya. George C. Scott, his notoriously
fiery co-star, was driven to apoplexy when Nicol won better notices. Yet
genuine film stardom was elusive. Sadly for Nicol, who hated TV, it’s likely
that an episode of Columbo was his
best remembered screen performances of the decade. (Rosebud?!) See, I told
The Eighties finally gave Nicol a palpable hit – as Merlin
in Excalibur. Such was Nicol’s
perceived unreliability, and lack of box office clout, that John Boorman had to
fight to win approval to cast him. Nicol enjoyed the role but, strangely, it
did little for his film career. Instead he played third fiddle to Oliver Reed
and Klaus Kinski (whom he cheerfully described as ‘a cunt’) in the enjoyably
hammy Venom. To be fair, if anyone
caused trouble on that film, it was not Nicol.
After that? Who remembers I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can? Or his portrayal of Mountbatten in
the TV series The Last Viceroy? A late
supporting role (well, he was only 50 but approaching the end of his film career)
in BlackWidow gave a hint of what could have been. He played, with
endearing tenderness, a successful but lonely museum director. If you re-visit
the film, watch Nicol’s performance carefully, the way he fiddles with his watch
when he meets Theresa Russell, his little jig when he shows her his Seattle
dream house. Ah, what a talent Hollywood missed out on in the Eighties!
Nicol continued to shine on stage. But great
theatrical performances exist only in memory. Trevor Nunn, a particularly
insightful contributor to my biography, remarked that ‘the achievements of
those who work in the theatre are no more than writing on the sand. There may
well be a vivid and important message for all to see, for a while, but by and
by the tide comes in, and when it next goes out, that writing has disappeared’.
All too true, sadly. Nicol continued to appear on
stage, memorably in his one-man show Jack:
A Night on the Town with John Barrymore. A contributor to my book, Saskia
Wickham, told me she thought Nicol was “mesmerising and just sublime … a
genius”. This, in the end, is where the appeal of Nicol and – my biography – resides.
Nicol was perhaps a great screen actor lost. But I suspect that history will
regard him as probably the greatest stage actor of his generation nevertheless.