‘Excalibur’ Star Nicol Williamson Dies at 75

The English actor was as well-known for his off-stage troublemaking as he was for the parts he played

Stage and film star Nicol Williamson has died after a two-year battle with esophageal cancer. He was 75. 

The unpredictable English actor earned raves for the intensity he brought to his roles, but his erratic behavior scared off many film and theater producers.

He is best known for his wild-eyed portrayal of Merlin in John Boorman's 1981 film "Excalibur." 

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Other roles of note include a Tony-winning role in John Osborne's "Inadmissible Evidence" and a highly acclaimed title role performance in "Hamlet" for director Tony Richardson. 

Williamson also played Sherlock Holmes in Herbert Ross' "The Seven-Percent-Solution" (1976) and Little John in Richard Lester's "Robin and Marian" (1976). 

Williamson came of age in the 1960s, when a group of mostly working class group of English actors like Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney ushered in a new and more rough-hewn style of acting. This style was at odds with the more florid performances of actors such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. 

Indeed Osborne, author of the signature kitchen-sink drama "Look Back in Anger," hailed Williamson as the best of that crop, calling him "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando."

Yet he never achieved the international stardom of Finney, O'Toole, Alan Bates and others. Part of the reason was that his boozing and off-stage carousing often spilled over into his work, leading to on-stage tantrums and blow-ups. 

Among Williamson's more colorful antics: He hit producer David Merrick during a performance of "Inadmissible Evidence"; stormed off the stage and announced his retirement during a performance of "Hamlet"; and he hit his "I Hate Hamlet" co-star Evan Handler with a sword, creating a tabloid frenzy. 

The latter was hilariously documented by Paul Rudnick in a 2007 piece for the New Yorker entitled "I Hit Hamlet." Rudnick said that Williamson was brilliant when sober, but as soon as he began drinking, he threw the entire production into chaos. 

"After the final performance, I had no intention of talking to Nicol," Rudnick writes. "I was still too angry. As I was heading upstairs, to bid farewell to the more lucid actors, the door to Nicol’s dressing room swung open. He stood there, a soused, lunatic, fifty-two-year-old Hamlet. We stared at each other. Nicol finally spoke, and his tone was both kind and accusing. He said, 'You knew this was going to happen.' And then he smiled and shut the door."