Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nicol Willamson 1938-2011

Sad to discover today, via his son's official announcement, that an actor I've long admired passed away over a month ago after complications with esophageal cancer. The first movie I ever saw him in was Excalibur; one of my wife's favorites but a movie I've just never, ever liked (though I do love him as Merlin and consider him to be the only part of it worth watching the film for). Since then, I've loved him in the 1969 version of Hamlet, The Wilby Conspiracy, Robin and Marian, The Exorcist III, Spawn (another movie with badness that doesn't overtake him), The Wind in the Willows, The Hour of the Pig, as the Nome King in Return to Oz, and especially as Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution.

I didn't even realize he hadn't appeared in a film since 1997. I actually saw Spawn in the cinema. Do you remember that Roger Ebert gave that thing 3 1/2 stars?

Anyway, I was a fan. Sorry to hear he's shuffled off this mortal coil to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.


Tallulah Morehead said...

Co-incidentally enough, I have the DVD of Excalibur sitting right here in its Netflix protective slip, waiting for me to watch it, as I only saw it once before, in a theater when it first came out.

You were a fan because you never worked with him. By ALL he was sheer living hell to work with, and often EXTREMELY unprofessional. Oh, and a massive drunk.

Many years ago, Nicol played the ghost of John Barrymore in the original Brodway production of Paul Rudnick's hilarious comedy I Hate Hamlet! In 1995 I, in my other identity of D. McEwan, played this same role onstage, and, first week of rehearsals, I met with Paul Rudnick. He wrote on my script this note: "John Barrymore was a great, alcoholic actor, but it is not necessary to hire an alcoholic to play him." He didn't mean me (the real me) because I don't drink.

Rudnick wsa all-too-willing to tell tales of Williamson's hi-jacking of the production: making un-asked for and unwanted curtain speeches, nasty, spoiled, bullying behavior backstage (He was a born bully), ad-libbing onstage, and going onstage night after night drunk, until EVERYONE working on the show, from his co-star, the wonderful Evan Handler, down to the merest crew member, LOATHED him.

It climaxed the night when, in doing the sword fight which climaxes Act 1 while quite drunk, he accidentally stabbed Evan Handler onstage. Handler then said: "That's it! I quit!" and he walked off the stage and out of the theater and never returned. They were unable to do Act 2, and Handler's understudy did the rest of the run. No one blamed or sued Handler, as all knew he was fully justifed.

(Incidentally, I won two acting awards for my performance in that play, one presented to me by Miss Betty Garrett herself. That's two more acting awards than Williamson got for the part.)

In May of 1994, I was in London. As I strolled through Piccadilly Circus one evening, I passed the Criterion Theatre, where signs proclaimed that it was opening night for a one-man show of Nicol Williamson, again as John Barrymore. (This was a year before I did I Hate Hamlet, so I didn't yet know Rudnick's Nicol horror stories, nor my own forthcoming relationship to Nicol and Barrymore.) I wistfully wished I could see it, and decided to see the next day if I could get tickets, but that night I had tickets for a play a block away, due to start in ten minutes.

The next morning the London papers were full of the tale of what had happened that night on the Criterion stage. Nicol went out on stage and froze. He stood there for five or ten minutes, without moving or speaking, until they closed the curtains and announced refunds for the audience. There was no second "performance."

His voice was pure, delicious honey, a joy to the ear, but I'm 100% positive that Paul Rudnick is FAR from the only theatrical professional today whose reaction to this news is "Good riddance." Why do you think no one would hire him for the last 15 years?

Tallulah Morehead said...

Wait. You "loved" his Hamlet? Okay. That's your right, but here's some of what Pauline Kael wrote about it:

"Nicol Williamson is a surly Hamlet, deliberately, wretchedly unattractive. Wiliamson's acting is all pathos and vituperation, snarls and tantrums, and he stares so much he's in danger of losing his eyeballs. The tension is gone because this Hamlet is not a man who is destroyed by the events we see and by his own divided feelings; he is weak at the outset. The play collapses not only as drama but as poetic drama - Hamlet's speeches as Williamson delivers them lack beauty. This movie, directed by Tony Richardson, isn't a reinterpretation of Hamlet, but an exploitation of what's worst in Nicol Williamson as an actor. ... The film is done almost completely in oppressive close-ups. ... Anthony Hopkins is an appealing though very young Claudius - one rather wishes he were left in peace to rule the country, since Hamlet is obviously unfit."

I'm sorry for his family, but then, I always have been.

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks for the heads-up on that one. I have to admit, Excalibur is one of my all-time favorites, for many reasons (including personal ones-- who I saw it with, in a theater, the first time).

SamuraiFrog said...

Tallulah: I've heard a lot of similar stories about drunken/very high Nicol Williamson, but never those specific incidents. As you say, I never knew him personally so that doesn't really color my opinion of his work. Wow, poor Evan Handler; I almost feel protective of Handler ever since I read his book Time on Fire back in 1997.

I like Pauline Kael about as much as she liked Tony Richardson's Hamlet.

Johnny: I was thinking of doing an 80s Revisited and checking it out again. Becca has it on DVD. I've just never much connected with it, but I have that problem with pretty much anything John Boorman made after the early 70s. I think there's also the fact that I've always been so avidly interested in the Arthurian myth, so that no version's ever really satisfied me completely.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I love Pauline Kael. Mind you, I certainly didn't always agree with her, quite to the contrary, though when we did agree, we really agreed, but her writing was so vibrant, alive, witty, and perceptive, that I enjoyed her even when I violently disagreed with her opinion on a film. A day seldom passes that I don't consult a review of hers.

Then there's her less-well-known generosity. Back in 1984, I went to a book signing she was doing, taking along every book she had in print except her first. She asked why, since I had everything else, I didn't have the first one, and I said I'd never been able to find a copy of it. "Would you like a copy?" she asked.

"Of course," I replied.

"Here, write down your address." said she. I did so.

A month later a package with a "The New Yorker" return address arrived in my mailbox. It contained a signed hardcover copy of her then-out-of-print first book. The package was addressed in her own handwriting, so she hadn't just had an assistant send it for her.

I wrote back, thanking her, and sent her a short story I'd written. (I was writing a lot of short stories back then.) She wrote back with a critique of the story. It stung, as she found it quite flawed, but she was clear and concise about what she thought was wrong with it and how to improve it, and I liked that she showed me the respect to tell me the truth rather than tell me what I wanted to hear. And then there was the small point that she was right. I learned from her, and got better, another step to becoming the published novelist I am today, with TWO more books coming out this year.

She was then the most-highly respected critic, and probably also the highest paid critic, in America, and she'd not only sent me a free copy of her book (Which is really worth something now), but had also given my story a highly valuable critique - for free! I was most moved by her generosity.

I just read the newly-published biography of her last month, and it was a pleasure to be havng her back again, if only in print. No current movie critic does for me what she did. I "make do" with Roger Ebert, but even he admits that he's no Kael, and that she was The Best. (And Ebert's never sent me a free book, though I gave him one of mine for free the first time I met him. Nor did he comment on it, nor, I suspect, read it.)

Poor Evan Handler is right. Terrific actor who's been through hell and back, as you know from reading his book. (I have not read it.) I've even forgiven him for trying to kill Hurley on Lost. After all, the "Dave" that appeared on The Island was actually The Smoke Monster disguised, trying to get Hurley to kill himself, since Smokey couldn't do it himself owing to Mother's Rules.