Among his generation of British actors, there is no more towering talent—or inferno—than Nicol Williamson. In the profession, his most envied performance was slugging producer David Merrick and getting away with it. On the London scene he made a rep as a party prankster urinating down the dumbwaiter at a chic townhouse.
Yet this least housebroken of men and classical scourge of women (he is cast to type as Henry VIII in the new stage musical Rex) has finally been brought to heel in a five-year marriage that could have lasted five minutes. The unlikely domesticator of the notorious Nicol is American actress Jill Townsend, 31. “I’ve taught him,” she explains, “not to tackle every day like it’s a title fight.” Nicol, though he is eight years her senior, has only one problem, figures Jill: he was “a late developer socially.” That is not the case with their son Luke, nearly 3, who already tells his ex-reprobate pop to “mind your manners” when he starts pounding his cutlery on the dinner table in another of his sputtering frenzies.
Clearly it was love that got Williamson together. He confides that he was “absolutely trembling” with excitement last year when he climbed back into bed with Jill after a work-forced separation of three weeks. And when they reunite in mid-April for the Broadway opening of Rex, he plans to surprise her with, for him, the ultimate present: “I no longer smoke or drink except I might have two or three glasses of wine and the odd glass of beer on the weekend. My wife won’t believe me.”
Fortunately, Jill’s stabilizing influence has in no way extinguished his artistic fire. Last year he was the adornment of the Royal Shakespeare Company, directing and playing in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and starring in a chilling Macbeth. But, loathing the prospect of settling in as “a pillar of the English theater and having people say, ‘What will Sir Thing give us this year?’ ” Williamson refreshes himself in such unexpected movie parts as a subdued and sensitive Little John in Robin and Marian or a coked-up Sherlock Holmes in the forthcoming The Seven-Percent Solution. Similarly, he essayed Richard Nixon in a powerful BBC reenactment of Watergate. And in Rex, he warbles half a dozen Richard Rodgers-Sheldon Harnick songs in a voice he proclaims (justifiably) is “not just talk-singing.”
Nicol’s driven schedule keeps Jill mostly at home with Luke in their six-bedroom London townhouse. “Someone has to sacrifice,” she says gamely, “and it’s usually me.” Yet last year Jill reemerged in a 16-part BBC series based on Winston Graham’s novels and was “stunning” (according to her director husband) as Elena in his production of Uncle Vanya. This year Jill has the female lead in the movie sequel to Alfie and, in a bit of Oedipal casting, is Nicol’s mother in The Seven-Percent Solution.
When they first met, Jill played Nicol’s daughter. That was in his 1965 Broadway debut as the splenetic solicitor in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, a bravura two-hour-and-50-minute part considered the most difficult written in this century. Jill auditioned wearing a foxy pantsuit and brown boots, and Nicol remembers thinking, “Screw me, who’s this?”
Who she was was a post-deb from Long Island. Her father is iconoclastic ex-Avis and American Express executive Robert Townsend. Jill started out typing the manuscript for Dad’s bestseller, Up the Organization, but she was drawn to acting by her maternal grandfather, composer-conductor Frank Tours, who lunched with the Algonquin Roundtable and was musical director of several Irving Berlin shows. She disdained college to study acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. (Her younger sister Joan is a sometime photographer and lover of Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider. Jill told a London paper last year her sister and Maria “are happier together than any married couple I know.”)
Jill won not only the part in Inadmissible Evidence but also, two weeks later, a boozy marriage proposal from the smitten Williamson. “I couldn’t take him seriously,” she recalls, though they did wind up living together. But Nicol proved “dominating and I had no identity of my own,” so she bailed out after 21 tempestuous months into a quickie marriage with a Hollywood horse trainer and stuntman.
Her defection hardly fazed Nicol. “Women have always come back to me, and I knew she would,” he boasts. “Even during my one-night stands, it was as if I were waiting for a period of purgatory to end.” Within two years, both her marriage and CBS series, Cimarron Strip, had gone under, and Jill was ringing up Nicol. She was being pursued by a Rothschild scion, but Williamson was not about to let her make him a two-time loser. Their nuptials took place at a London Registry Office, with the groom wearing jeans.
Unlike the patrician Townsends, who Jill says were not all that close, Nicol was born to an affectionate working-class family in a Scottish hamlet near Glasgow. His father moved to the satanic mills of Birmingham while Nicol got his first acting experience doing send-ups of Sinatra and Crosby and entering Shakespeare-reading contests in school. He says, “I never wanted to be anything other than an actor,” but first suffered two years as an army paratrooper and another year sweating in the foundry built by his dad. He escaped into provincial rep companies before finally smoking onto London’s West End in Inadmissible Evidence.
Now that he is established, Williamson is no less demonically intense. He has stopped in midscene to chastise noisy late-arrivers, and during his well-received Hamlet in 1969 offered an audience its money back when his performance didn’t meet his own merciless standards. He is lately into weight lifting because “it gives you tremendous stamina, the ability to last three times longer than other actors. When you become tired,” he finds, “that’s when your work becomes sloppy.” Williamson boiled with so much surplus energy during one Broadway run that after each night’s performance, he headed for an East Side boite to put on a rollicking one-man show of singing and dramatic readings. He has even recorded an LP of Dixieland, rock’n’roll, and country songs.
According to one friend, Jill is “extraordinarily subtle” in her handling of her volatile husband—”she never puts him down.” A few years ago, when he drove the car over the cliff and landed in the hospital, she took over for good as the family chauffeur. She loathes caviar and champagne, but Williamson insists on grande cuisine every night. “Nicol is one of nature’s aristocrats,” she shrugs. “He has to have a white tablecloth, silver and wine.” Jill is dominant, though, at the bridge table because, she notes, “He does everything in a swashbuckling way and tends to overbid.”
It’s characteristic of the turbulent wake Williamson cuts that his current pre-Broadway run in Rex has produced rumors that he was about to leave 1) the show, 2) his wife or 3) both. But Nicol, who phones his lady daily, snorts, “It’s rubbish.” Jill, who will join him with Luke in New York, just says that their schedules have made the past year “murder.” What Nicol really wants for their future is a chance to make a movie with Jill, “a nice, modest, funny little film, because she’s such a marvelous actress.” That’s all right with Townsend as long as she isn’t overwhelmed by the husband who has overpowered everyone else. “I’m smaller than life,” she observes shrewdly. “If I’m going to be effective it will be on a much quieter level and not on Nicol’s coattails. We don’t come as a package.”