Noel Willman was an award-winning actor who starred alongside such movie stars as Omar Sharif, Jon Voight, Julie Christie and Rod Steiger - what’s less well known are his Derry roots and his links to his old school, Foyle College. Today, the ‘Journal’ takes a look at a glittering career which, arguably, reached its zenith when he received a coveted Tony Award in the early 1960s.
Noel Bath Willman, who was born in Derry on August 4, 1918, was the son of Romain Willman, a native of the French province of Alsace, who owned and ran the leading gentleman’s hairdresser in the city.
He entered Foyle College in 1929 and made his acting debut in December 1934 as Elizabeth Barrett in Rudolph Besier’s West End hit, ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1930), which told the story of the dramatic wooing of the invalid poet by Robert Browning and of their elopement in spite of the strong opposition of her father.
The Foyle play ran for three nights and it became clear even then that his was a remarkable talent.
The editorial in ‘Our School Times’, printed at Easter 1935, noted: “... for beauty, sympathy and entire conviction, Willman’s acting was extraordinary.”
This growing reputation was reinforced by his performance as Raleight, the idealistic young lieutenant, in an excerpt from the anti-war play, ‘Journey’s End’ (1928), by RC Sherriff, that won him first prize at Londonderry Feis.
After graduation from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, Willman was in repertory with the Old Vic Company in London, The Playhouse, in Liverpool, and in Stratford.
His prestigious stage debut was as Hamlet at the Lyceum Theatre in London, but his “almost feline delicacy and capacity for menace” were better seen in such roles as Claudius in the same play, Judge Brack, Hedda Gabler’s nemesis, and Don Pedro in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
His finest acting was seen as the Interrogator in ‘The Prisoner’, by Brigid Boland in 1954, playing opposite Alec Guinness.
In addition, he made more than 20 film appearances with performances that have been described as mingling “grisly humour” with an “unease that was chilling.”
Notably, in the 1960s, he appeared in a number of Hammer horror films. His performance as Dr. Ravna in “The Kiss of the Vampire” (1963) still receives rave reviews today and is regularly hailed by aficianados of the horror genre.
Willman was often cast as cold, aggressive, authoritarian figures. In ‘Doctor Zhivago’(1965), David lean’s epic based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, he was Razin, the icily intimidating Commissar jointly commanding a group of communist partisans during the Russian Civil War, who kidnap Omar Sharif’s eponymous doctor.
In ‘The Odessa File’, he played Beyer, a former SS officer in charge of vetting applicants to join a secret society of former SS members.
In 1976, he appeared as the Bavarian Minister of the Interior, Bruno Merk, in ‘21 Hours at Munich’, a TV film dramatising the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics when members of the Israeli team were taken hostage by terrorists.
He also appeared often on television, never giving an undistinguished performance.
As a stage director, Willman was equally successful and, in Robert Bolt, he found an ideal collaborator, directing his play, ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (1960) in London in 1960 and winning a Tony Award for its direction on Broadway in 1962.
In 1966, the Derry man was nominated for An Emmy for his production of ‘A Lion in Winter’, which featured Christopher Walker who would go on to become a leading Hollywood star.
He made his home in New York but returned regularly to Europe for stage, film and television work - both as actor and director.
Noel Willman died in New York of a heart attack on Christmas Eve in 1988. He was aged 71.