The son of Nicol Williamson announced today that the legendary Scottish actor passed away on December 16, 2011 after a two-year battle with esophageal cancer. He had been living in Amsterdam, and was working on a CD compilation of standards - which, according to his son, will be released posthumously. His official biography lists his last stage performance as JACK: A NIGHT ON THE TOWN WITH JOHN BARRYMORE in 1996; he had not appeared in a film since 1997's SPAWN.
My earliest memory of Williamson is also the most indelible: his Merlin in John Boorman's EXCALIBUR was my introduction to the backwards-living wizard of Arthurian lore, and I've never been able to shake his intense, occasionally flamboyant portrayal. It's a bold, non-traditional interpretation (matched by Helen Mirren's wicked, hot-as-blazes Morgana), which I later learned was Williamson's m.o. Whether reinterpreting Hamlet as a neurotic cynic in Tony Richardson's celebrated 1969 production or boldly tackling Nicolas Meyer's cocaine-addled Sherlock Holmes in THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, Williams was renowned for never playing it safe.
This was an extension of his mercurial personality, which often made him a handful to deal with; he was notorious for walking off the stage mid-performance, going off-book or worse. During the 1965 Philadelphia tryout of John Osborne's INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE (in which Williamson originated the role of Maitland), he socked the powerful theatrical producer David Merrick. Fortunately, Williamson was too talented to be fired; a year later, he'd win his first Tony Award in this critically-acclaimed production. There were other outbursts over the years, the most memorable being his erratic behavior during the Broadway run of Paul Rudnick's I HATE HAMLET. Perhaps going a bit method as the ghost of John Barrymore, Williamson criticized the writing of the play, improvised when he felt his fellow actors weren't performing with enough zest, and, during a bit of stage combat, struck the show's lead, Evan Handler, in the back with the flat part of his sword. This was perhaps accidental, but Handler didn't care; he promptly quit the show, leaving his understudy to finish the performance and the rest of the run.
Though ever unpredictable, casting Williamson was always worth the risk. When fully engaged, his performances are the stuff of constant discovery; moment to moment, you feel his restlessness, his desire to seek out emotionally precarious territory. This fervid approach occasionally invited accusations of camp, but there was nothing cheap or sensational about Williamson's choices; he could've been as ruthlessly precise as Olivier, but this would've bored him senseless. Williamson wanted to have fun; he wanted to locate the madness in his characters, and get a little crazy himself. It's a daredevil trait he shared with Brando (to whom Osborne once compared him).
Like Brando, Williamson ultimately tired of acting. Over the last fifteen years, he indulged his love for music and poetry, some of which you can sample on his official website. Williamson was evidently living in poverty, but his son says he "never gave up, never complained [and] maintained his wicked sense of humor to the end." I am glad that he found peace, but I am also grateful that it was the last thing he was looking for as an actor. He was a delightfully unsettling talent. We should all live and create with such abandon.