Stage and screen British actor Nicol Williamson, who played Hamlet onstage and Merlin on screen, died on Dec. 16 in Amsterdam, where he had been living since 1970. His son announced the death on Jan. 25. Reports vary on Williamson’s age; he was either 73 or 75.
For those familiar only with Williamson’s movie work, he was best remembered for his cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes in Herbert Ross’ The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) and for his campy Merlin in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981).
Based on Nicholas Meyer’s novel, in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) entices Holmes to seek psychiatric help with none other than a pre-Viggo Mortensen Sigmund Freud: Alan Arkin. (Here’s wondering if Shakespeare’s shrink, as found in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, was inspired by the Holmes-Freud relationship in Ross’ movie.) Though made for a modest $4 million (about $16 million today), The Seven-Per-Cent Solution turned out to be a box office disappointment despite the additional presence of Vanessa Redgrave, Samantha Eggar, Laurence Olivier, Jeremy Kemp, Georgia Brown, and singer Régine.
Boorman’s Excalibur was a much bigger hit, grossing $34.96 million (approx. $100 million today) in North America alone. Williamson’s performance as Merlin is one of the film’s highlights, pompously helping out King Arthur (Nigel Terry) while trying to stave off the evil advances of Morgana (Helen Mirren). “I enjoyed playing Merlin,” Williamson would tell the Los Angeles Times. “I tried to make him a cross between my old English master and a space traveler, with a bit of Grand Guignol thrown in.”
Among Williamson’s other (sporadic) film roles were Bob Rafelson’s thriller Black Widow (1987), starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell; Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976), as Little John opposite Sean Connery’s Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn’s Lady Marian; and a filmed version of Tony Richardson’s stage rendition of Hamlet (1969), with Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, Anthony Hopkins as Claudius, and Judy Parfitt as Gertrude.
Richardson had previously directed Williamson as the dissolute lawyer Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, staged at the Royal Court theatre in 1964. According to Michael Coveney in Williamson’s The Guardian obit, Bill Maitland “was his greatest performance, and one from which he never really escaped.” In 1968, Williamson starred in the film version, adapted by Osborne himself and directed by Anthony Page.
Besides his talent, Williamson was also known for his temper and unreliability. He didn’t get on with his I Hate Hamlet co-star on Broadway in 1991, was kept on edge while working with Helen Mirren in Excalibur, and in 1969 he interrupted a stage performance of Hamlet in mid-speech because he felt too exhausted. “I’ll pay for the seats,” Williamson later recalled telling the audience, “but I won’t shortchange you by not giving my best.”
The I Hate Hamlet incident that led co-star Evan Handler to walk out of the show near the end of the first act was less humorous but no less bizarre. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Handler’s unplanned departure came after a dueling scene with Nicol Williamson, the play’s star, who apparently ignored the choreography and struck Mr. Handler on the back with the flat part of his sword. Andrew Mutnick, Mr. Handler’s understudy, finished the performance.
“The unrehearsed exit came after weeks of erratic behavior by Mr. Williamson that has disrupted the Hamlet company both on stage and off. The star has publicly criticized the script of the play, by Paul Rudnick, which is about a sitcom actor, played by Mr. Handler, who is visited by the ghost of John Barrymore, played by Mr. Williamson. He has also criticized the performances of the other actors, and, it has been reported, often left the stage when his character was supposed to be observing the action around him.”
In The Guardian, Coveney referred to Williamson as “the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud” and “arguably the most electrifying actor of his generation” – though “one whose career flickered and faded like a faulty light fitting.” Coveney ends his Nicol Williamson obit/tribute with the following: “No one who saw him on stage will ever forget him, but it is difficult to see his career as anything but unfulfilled.”
See also the Nicol Williamson obit in the Los Angeles Times