Nicol Williamson, ‘the greatest actor since Marlon Brando,’ dies nearly broke in Amsterdam

Nicol Williamson played Merlin the Magician in the 1981 hit film "Excalibur." (Orion Pictures)

AMSTERDAM – Barely three months after Inadmissible Evidence, the John Osborne play that made his name, was revived in London, Nicol Williamson has died, aged 73, in Holland.

The colourful Scot – who was described by Osborne as the greatest actor since Marlon Brando, and, by Samuel Beckett, as “touched by genius” – had not made a film since 1997’s superhero picture Spawn. He had, in recent years, been concentrating on music.

His son, Luke, by his former wife Jill Townsend, tells Mandrake that he died just before Christmas after a two-year fight with oesophageal cancer and was eager that no fuss should be made about his passing. To modern filmgoers, he is probably best known for The Exorcist III and for playing Merlin in Excalibur.

(This story appeared in The Telegraph on Jan. 26, 2012.)

John Boorman, the director, cast him in the latter film opposite his former lover Helen Mirren, to the dismay of both actors. The pair had previously appeared together, disastrously, in Macbeth.

Williamson’s rise and fall had been startling. His performance in Inadmissible Evidence in 1964 won him superb reviews in London, and, later, a Tony award on Broadway. Playing the title role in Hamlet for Tony Richardson, he won an unlikely fan in Harold Wilson. Richard Nixon, as president, invited him to the White House on Wilson’s recommendation.

His son says he preferred the company of musicians in his later years after he moved to Amsterdam to escape media attention in the late Seventies. He says he was hoping to put up his father’s new album – which may be called “Nine Slices” or “Kismet Once Again”, but was undecided – on the website they had set up together. He adds that a cause that was particularly close to his father’s heart was the Regional Youth Shakespeare Company of which he was the patron.

Another cherished project in his later years was narrating an audio version of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Ultimately, acting didn’t seem to mean all that much to Williamson, who died in relative poverty. As he once observed: “Actors act too much.”

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About Died and yet ...

Fascinating people die every day, some well-known, some not so known. People's obituaries are often the only things written about their rich, varied, interesting lives. This blog celebrates the large and small among us, without whom our experiences wouldn't be as meaningful.

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