For Merlin: a tribute to Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson (1936-2011)  was one of the most unique and dynamic actors to appear on stage or screen.  Born in Hamilton, Scotland, to an industrial family, he was brought up in Birmingham but never lost his Scottish burr or roots.  After training at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, and completing his National Service, his professional debut came in 1960 at Dundee Rep.

By the end of the 1960s he was already marked out as a major and interesting performer on the stage, and with his film debuts in 1968 (The Bofurs Gun, Inadmissable Evidence, The Reckoning) a star was born – or at least should have been.  However Williamson was known for being difficult and often walked out in the theatre during performances.  His talent was perhaps eventually as legendary as his temper.  However, when he focused and produced the best of his work, he had no equal.

He played ‘Hamlet’ in the film directed by Tony Richardson (1969), and Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Seven Per Cent Solution’ (opposite Robert Duvall as Watson, 1976, directed by Herbert Ross).  For Richard Lester he appeared as Little John in ‘Robin and Marian’ (with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the leads) and acquitted himself well, producing a sympathetic yet tough character.  But it was in 1981 when he appeared as the sorcerer Merlin in the film ‘Excalibur’ where his edgy personality and unusual voice took centre stage and provided one of his most memorable roles.

By the 1990s Williamson’s career was taking some diverse directions – he appeared on stage as John Barrymore in the play ‘Jack: A Night On The Town’, while on film he essayed a great comic performance as Mr Badger in Terry Jones’ ‘The Wind In The Willows’.  His final film performance came in 1997 in ‘Spawn’ – since then, he has concentrated on his music (he was a fine singer) and recordings with his band were completed shortly before his death.

Williamson was married once (1971-77) to the actress Jill Townsend.  The official website for Nicol Williamson, run by his son Luke, can be found at, which includes a number of rare recordings and information.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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