Nicol Williamson, a Scottish-born theater star heralded as one of the finest actors of his generation but whose menacing unpredictability onstage and off diminished his career, has died of esophageal cancer. He was 75.
Williamson died Dec. 16 in Amsterdam. He had lived in the Netherlands for more than two decades, and the news of his death was reportedly delayed at his wish to die anonymously -- an understated ending to a stormy life.
Author Samuel Beckett pronounced him "touched by genius." The British playwright John Osborne, who made Williamson a marquee name in the 1964 drama "Inadmissible Evidence," considered him "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando."
With his nasally twang, receding ginger hair, despairing eyes and hangdog face, Williamson had little of the young Brando's beauty and raw physical power. He compensated with a demeanor that conveyed cunning, an explosive temperament and an aura of sweaty self-loathing.
On-screen, Williamson excelled as a cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976) and the wizard Merlin in "Excalibur" (1981).
Willfully or not, Williamson seemed determined to torpedo his reputation through heavy drinking and erratic, often abusive behavior.
Coming to the defense of a stage director, Williamson threw beer on the notoriously cruel theater impresario David Merrick and then punched him.
Williamson's notoriety for turbulent antics resurfaced while he starred as King Henry VIII in the 1976 Broadway musical "Rex," a show best remembered for Williamson slapping another actor for talking when Williamson was taking his bow during a curtain call.
The two incidents might have been written off had Williamson not whacked the actor Evan Handler with a sword when they were starring on Broadway in Paul Rudnick's 1991 comedy "I Hate Hamlet." Williamson played the ghost of John Barrymore, the highly gifted, randy and alcoholic actor of the early 20th century.
During a sword fight with Handler, Williamson appeared to improvise lines: "Put some life into it! Use your head! Give it more life!" Handler walked offstage, and Williamson broke the awkward silence by turning to the audience and asking, "Well, should I sing?"
In the remaining few months of the show, which received mixed reviews, Williamson continued ad-libbing to the audience. Some nights he denigrated the critics, the same group of writers who had once propelled him to the top of his profession.