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Thursday, 2 August 2018


Northern Ireland has never been short of creative and successful actors and directors. All of us from that part of the world can name at least a handful. But there are a few actors/directors who have achieved much but who are forgotten, and that is a great shame. So, in this post, I want to flag up an actor who doesn't automatically spring to mind when considering Ulster talent.

Noel Willman was born in Derry on 4 August, 1918. He was the son of a gentleman's hairdresser. He was educated at Foyle College and made his acting debut at 16 in a local production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, followed by a role in Journey's End.

He left Derry to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduated and entered the world of repertory theatre in London, Liverpool and Stratford. He grew in stature and received high praise as Hamlet, his big break in 1939, directed by John Gielgud, as Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler, as Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing, as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice and as Pandarus in The Taming of the Shrew. He played an interrogator opposite Alec Guinness in The Prisoner. In 1951, he appeared on Broadway in Legend of Lovers along with Richard Burton.

Sir Tyrone Guthrie encouraged him to consider directing for the stage. He dipped his toe in the water as actor/director in a 1955 Stratford production of All's Well That Ends Well. But the biggest prize of his career came in 1962 on Broadway. He won a Tony Award for directing A Man For All Seasons, written by Robert Bolt and starring Paul Scofield. The play opened in 1961 and chalked up 620 performances. In 1966, Willman was nominated for an Emmy for directing a TV adaptation of A Lion In Winter featuring a young Christopher Walken.

With his theatre hat on, acting or directing, he worked with Tyrone Power, Robert Preston, Flora Robson, Nigel Stock, Michael Denison, Anthony Quayle, Claire Bloom, Ian Bannen, Geraldine McEwan, Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Stanley Baker, Leo McKern and Katherine Hepburn.

His screen career began in 1952 and included film and television roles such as The Pickwick Papers (1952), Beau Brummell (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), Armchair Theatre (1958), Danger Man (1960), The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Paul Temple (1970), The Persuaders! (1971) and The Odessa File (1974).

He attracted a reputation as a rather sinister screen character in several horror films including one that is considered by fans as a classic Hammer production, The Reptile (1966). Here's a link to the trailer

Noel Willman's acting and directing CV is very impressive and his Tony Award is a glittering prize. He was a gifted man of many skills, a Northern Ireland man to be precise and a Derry man to  be even moreso. 

He suffered a heart attack and died at 70 in New York in 1988.

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