SHUFFLING OFF THIS MORTAL COIL
The theatre world lost two mavericks not too long ago, and I thought they deserved some recognition for their work. The Scotsman Nicol Williamson left us in late January at the age of 75. Cancer. Hard to believe he lasted that long given the way he pretty much grabbed life by the throat and wrestled it to the ground. Playwright John Osborne thought him the greatest actor since Brando and playwright Samuel Beckett opined that Nicol was "touched by genius". As encomiums go... The acting profession has long had the reputation of spawning tempestuous, self-absorbed self-destructive, drunken obsessives--a tradition including John Barrymore, Erroll Flynn, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Marlon Brando, Oliver Reed, and of course Nicol. O'Toole spoofed the stereotype as well as both Flynn and himself when he assayed the role of Alan Swann in the delightful My Favorite Year. I saw Nicol on the stage first in 1973 in a Mike Nichols' production of Uncle Vanya with an all-star cast that included George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Barnard Hughes, and even Lillian Gish! A few years later at the Roundabout (1981) he reprised his legendary performance as the corrosive, embittered Maitland in John Osborne's Inadmissable Evidence . He was everything people had said. I did see him once more in the theatre about that time, I think in a Simon Gray play--but he wasn't on the stage. I was sitting in the back on the aisle and realized he was sitting in the seat in front of me!
The performance of Nicol's I've seen the most was his portrayal of Hamlet in Tony Richardson's film, adapted from the celebrated stage production at the Round House, a converted London railway yard. Nicol's neurotic Dane ranked with the best idiosyncratic interpretations of the century. The filmed Hamlet, a much truncated
version, was less successful. Richardson experimented with light, employed extreme
close-ups, and seemed little concerned about mixing acting styles (A largely unknown
Anthony Hopkins played Claudius and London chanteuse/model/rock girlfriend Marianne
Faithfull took on the role of Ophelia). She, as well as Helen Mirren, counted Nicol among
their lovers. The "Get Thee to a Nunnery" battle (Ms. Faithful is lounging in a hammock!) is actually very sweet, until Nicol's Hamlet realizes he has been duped. Then his Scot anger flashes. That anger became a legendary trait. Nicol was famous for his verbal attacks on fellow actors, members of the audience, etc. His legendary meltdown in I Hate Hamlet, a Broadway production back in the early 90s, ended with a verbal attack on one of his fellow actors followed by an attack on the actor with the flat of his sword! The victim stormed off the stage leaving Nicol to deal with a baffled audience! Nicol's career flagged. He made the odd film. Many know him as Merlin in Excalibur or as a drug-addicted Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. But it was his stage career that cemented his reputation. What better tribute to him than to say, quite simply, there was no one quite like him. Below a clip from John Osborne's play.
Want to mention also that we lost an underrated actor in Ben Gazzara back in early February. He was 81 and had suffered pancreatic cancer. Gazzara had much to look back on in his fascinating career. I first noticed him in the television series Run for Your Life which ran in the mid 60s. I recall that he was a wealthy lawyer, Paul Bryan, who learns that he only has a short time to live so decides to travel all over the world to satisfy some unspoken "bucket list". With nothing to lose (in the most existential of television shows with the exception of The Fugitive), he meets people from all walks of life and somehow touches their lives and is, himself, touched by these strangers. I always tell my students how delicious the irony that the show was so successful that it ran for three seasons and thus lengthened the life of his character. Gazzara was often a gruff presence, born of Lee Strasburg's Actors Studio. He made a splash as the original Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. During the 70s, after turning down many roles that surely would have led to stardom, he forged a relationship with John Cassavetes that led to roles in such films as Husbands, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night that helped define him as a stalwart of Indie Cinema before such a form really existed. Clearly, though, he was comfortable as a character actor and as a participant in the experimental formats preferred by Cassavetes.
The Manhattan-born Gazzara gave a wonderful performance as George opposite Colleen Dewhurst's Martha in the Edward Albee-directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1976. My brother Steve and I picked up half-priced tickets one summer day and sat, if memory serves, within feet of the stage. What I remember most was the paroxysms of laughter throughout that production. Albee brought out every possible comedic element of that text. What shocked both of us--and the audience--was Gazzara "going up" on his lines in Act III, when George arrives at the door with "flores por los muertos." George then fires the snapdragons at Martha, punctuating each projectile with a reverberant "Snap!" as he interrogates his wife about whether she consummated a physical relationship with Nick. Gazzara just forgot his lines. He cracked up at Dewhurst's attempts to help him via stage whispers. She then cracked up too. And for good measure, the audience then joined in! And then something remarkable happened. As soon as he regained his place, the intensity of that dramatic confrontation was restored in milli-seconds! Never seen it before or since. Ben Gazzara--you will be missed.