"Nicol Williamson, the British actor best known for his role as the wizard Merlin in the 1981 film Excalibur, has died of esophageal cancer," reports the AP. "Williamson had dozens of film credits to his name but won more plaudits for his stage acting. Playwright John Osborne once described him as 'the greatest actor since Marlon Brando.' He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1966 for his role in Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence and again in 1974 for Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. He also was nominated three times for acting honors at the British Academy Film Awards, Britain's equivalent of the Oscars."
"He made his professional stage debut at the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1960, before appearing in Tony Richardson's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Court Theatre," notes the BBC. "He later teamed up with Richardson again, to star his Hamlet production at the Roundhouse. It was so successful, it transferred to Broadway and was adapted into a film, which co-starred Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull."
In the Telegraph, Tim Walker notes that Samuel Beckett once described Williamson as "touched by genius." When he died at 73, he "had not made a film since 1997's superhero picture Spawn. He had, in recent years, been concentrating on music." As for Excalibur, "John Boorman, the director, cast him in the latter film opposite his former lover Helen Mirren, to the dismay of both actors. The pair had previously appeared together, disastrously, in Macbeth…. Another cherished project in his later years was narrating an audio version of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit. Ultimately, acting didn't seem to mean all that much to Williamson. As he once observed: 'Actors act too much.'"
Update: At the AV Club, Sean O'Neal has a fuller biography and five clips.
Updates, 1/26: Michael Coveney for the Guardian: "Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, a battered baby face and a mop of unruly curls, he was the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud, and certainly the angriest, though he scuppered his own performance at the Round House, north London, in 1969, by apologizing to the audience and walking off the stage. The experience was recycled in a 1991 Broadway comedy called I Hate Hamlet, in which he proved his point and fell out badly with his co-star…. 'I enjoyed playing Merlin,' Williamson told the Los Angeles Times. 'I tried to make him a cross between my old English master and a space traveller, with a bit of Grand Guignol thrown in.'"
Williamson "had made something of a career out of turning down fabulous offers," writes Roger Lewis in the Telegraph: "an O'Neill play at the National alongside Laurence Olivier, directed by Mike Nichols; the title role in Macbeth; Ibsen directed by Ingmar Bergman — Williamson's reaction was succinct: 'I just felt nausea and self-disgust.' It seems to have been a characteristic of actors of his generation (he was born in 1937) that they rather despised their craft and talents. Perhaps these working-class fellows — Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, and so forth — thought that acting was unmanly, epicene. Hence the drinking and womanizing, for compensation." And stories follow.
Glenn Kenny finds it "lamentable that a good deal of his film work is either accessible to us only in indifferent iterations (The Seven Percent Solution may not warrant Criterion treatment, but still...) or hardly at all (he's really wonderful in Preminger's odd and oddly affecting The Human Factor, and I've never been able to see Richardson's Laughter in the Dark)."