Cult Classics: Excalibur
British actor Nicol Williamson died Wednesday after a two-year battle with esophageal cancer. He was 75.
The English actor was perhaps best known as the sorcerer Merlin in director John Boorman's 1981 retelling of the King Arthur saga, Excalibur. Way before Game of Thrones, that hugely influential film forever changed my perception of knights in shining armor with its gritty alchemy of blood, mud, lust, sex and sorcery.
A young, very sexy Helen Mirren stars as the seductive and budding sorceress Morgana, and as Arthur's (Nigel Terry) sometime impatient mentor Merlin, Williamson brought a welcome sense of humor to the role -- and the film -- with his wide-eyed and wily Shakespearean delivery; he broke the stereotype of the long-bearded, Gandalf-style old wizard.
Williamson won a Tony award in the mid-'60s for his role in Inadmissible Evidence, and in 1976 played both Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Percent-Solution and Little John in Robin and Marian. He also starred in several other stage performances, TV shows, and films such as Return to Oz, Black Widow, The Exorcist III and Spawn, his final major movie role.
While Excalibur surely broadened awareness of his work, Williamson never quite found the same fame of his contemporaries (including Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole) due to his reported drinking and well-documented off-camera antics that sometimes made him difficult to work with.
Because of Williamson's performance in Excalibur, I memorized the "dragon chant" word for word, even if I had no idea what I was actually saying. His unfortunate passing presents a perfect opportunity to rediscover -- or discover for the first time -- Boorman's Arthurian cult classic, now on Blu-ray.
Perhaps it's fitting that the man died in the Year of the Dragon.