Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I Hit Hamlet

Nicol Williamson

He was part of the "Angry Young Men" generation of British actors, coming of age in the 1950s and 60s, bringing a grittier realism to their art than had their predecessors. 

In rehearsal for "Inadmissible Evidence."
During the tryout, Nicol dumped producer
David Merrick into a trash can.

Williamson, in fact, made his first splash in Inadmissible Evidence, written by John Osborne, who was considered the playwright who invented the Angry Young Man in his landmark drama Look Back in Anger.  But Nicol never became the international star that others of his generation did.  Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Richard Harris all drank and caroused their way to the top, earning critical laurels and eventual knighthoods.  Williamson drank and caroused himself into a reputation as a temperamental drama queen, raging against injustices done to him.

He had great success with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Sherlock Holmes (The Seven-Percent Solution), but he rarely escaped a project without causing trouble. 

As Henry VIII, he couldn't keep
his temper.

His onstage antics were legion, including a famous incident when, during the curtain call for his flop musical Rex, he slapped a chorus member whom he thought was drawing focus from his bow (I mentioned Rex several years ago, when digitizing my album collection).  His most notorious onstage incident was during the run of the Paul Rudnick comedy, I Hate Hamlet.

I saw the original production of this show, drawn there by the presence in the cast of the legendary Celeste Holm.  I was visiting New York on one of my numerous college tours, and snagged a ticket without knowing that, the night before, Nicol had caused a situation which is now infamous.  In the show, he was playing the ghost of John Barrymore, who has returned from the dead to guide a young actor in the playing of Hamlet.  Act one climaxes in a big sword fight between the two characters, and on this particular evening, Nicol changed the fight choreography and smacked his costar on the ass with his sword.  Evan Handler, playing the younger actor, halted the show, walked off the stage, and did not return.

Anyone who deals with fight choreography knows the necessity for accuracy.
One night, costar Evan Handler had had enough.
I did not see this particular performance.  I saw the next one.  The understudy had taken over, and Williamson was on his best behaviour. 

At the curtain call, the star took the young replacement by the hand, and asked the audience to give him a special round of applause for stepping into the role so quickly.  (The guy was not very good, as I recall, and the show ended up closing shortly after this mishap.  I wrote all about this when remembering my trip to New York in 1991).

Nicol Williamson died in December after a long bout with esophageal cancer, never having achieved the international acclaim he felt he deserved.  He was 75.

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