Family & Companions
Praised by playwright Samuel Beckett-who considered her his muse-as "a perfect actress," Billie Whitelaw made an indelible mark on British arts and entertainment from the age of 11 until her death at 82, covering radio, television, film, and theatre. Her noticeable Yorkshire accent was a boon to the rise of social realism, but that did not preclude her from spreading her focus as wide as possible, doing absurdist theatre, horror thrillers, one very famous production of "Othello," and even voicing a Jim Henson puppet.
Billie Honor Whitelaw was born on June 6, 1932 in Coventry, England to working class parents Perceval Gerry Whitelaw and Frances Mary Williams Whitelaw. In order to avoid the Germany bombings during World War II, the family relocated north to Bradford, but tragedy struck when her father died of lung cancer when Whitelaw was only ten. At her mother's suggestion, she began working at a local theatre to overcome her noticeable stutter, and by age 11, she was acting in a number of radio programs, including BBC's "Children's Hour," and later worked with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and as an assistant stage manager at Bradford's local Prince's Theatre. Her stage debut was at age 18 in Ronald Pertwee's "Pink String and Ceiling Wax," leading her to relocate to London in order to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Not one to settle into only one art form, Whitelaw touched hearts in the famed eight-part serialized 1952 BBC adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden," and first appeared on film in 1964's "The Sleeping Tiger." She made her London stage debut in 1954 at the Winter Garden in Georges Feydeau's "Hotel Paradiso," but her first true West End success came just a few years later with "Progress in the Park." She later famously replaced Maggie Smith in "Othello" opposite Laurence Olivier at the Chichester Festival in 1965.
After meeting famed Irish avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett in 1963, Whitelaw performed as Second Woman in his play "Play" at the Old Vic the following year. Beckett found himself stricken by her voice and ability to comprehend the strangest, most minute details of his writing, and so began a collaboration between the two that lasted 25 years. Two of the roles he wrote for her, May in "Footfalls" and W in "Rockaby" (although some reports say he intended the latter for Irene Worth until he changed his mind), were presented together Off-Broadway in 1984, giving Whitelaw her New York stage debut. In describing her performance, New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich wrote the following: "During the long silence, the actress doesn't so much as twitch an eyelash. And yet, by the time the darkness is total, we're left with an image different from one we'd seen half a minute earlier. Somehow Miss Whitelaw has banished life from her expression; what remains is a death mask, so devoid of blood it could be a faded, crumbling photograph. And somehow, even as the face disintegrates, we realize that it has curled into a faint baby's smile. We're left not only with the horror of death but with the peace. It's possible that you haven't lived until you've watched Billie Whitelaw die."
However, it was Beckett's 1973 piece "Not I" that truly defined their work together. In this 17-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue, Whitelaw plays Mouth, and the play's only action is of her lips and teeth, diction spotlighted on an otherwise pitch-black stage. The overwhelmingly challenging piece was, to quote her, like "falling backwards into hell," and according to The Telegraph, she had once told Beckett, "You've finally done it. You've written the unlearnable and you've written the unplayable." She performed the role for two different productions at London's Royal Court Theatre. After Beckett's death in 1989, she stopped performing his works, but made up for it by putting together a lecture on his plays that traveled the American college circuit.
Among her film roles, her most celebrated roles include "Charlie Bubbles" opposite Albert Finney (1967) and as Hayley Mills' mother in Roy Boulting's "Twisted Nerve" (1968), and she received the 1969 BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for both roles. Her silver screen career lasted until 2007, a span that led her to work with the likes of Val Guest (1960's "Hell Is a City"), Stephen Frears (1971's "Gumshoe"), Alfred Hitchcock (1972's "Frenzy"), Jim Henson (1982's "The Dark Crystal"), James Ivory (1987's "Maurice"), Franco Zeffirelli (1996's "Jane Eyre"), and Philip Kaufman (2000's "Quills"). Her final role was in Edgar Wright's action spoof "Hot Fuzz."She was best known internationally, however, for her fearsome performance as Mrs. Blaycock, the nanny of the Antichrist in Richard Donner's landmark 1976 horror thriller "The Omen." She was nominated for another BAFTA but lost to Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver."
In 1991, she was awarded as Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to drama, and published her Beckett-heavy autobiography Billie Whitelaw. Who He? in 1996. Whitelaw, who was married to actor Peter Vaughan (HBO's "Game of Thrones") and later to writer and actor Robert Muller until his death in 1998, spent her final years at Denville Hall, a retirement home for professional actors. She died on December 21, 2014.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Film debut in "The Sleeping Tiger" (directed by Joseph Losey)
Joined National Theatre Company; appeared in Samuel Beckett's "Play"
Replaces Maggie Smith as Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier in "Othello"
Wins the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for both "Charlie Bubbles" and "Twisted Nerve"
Plays Mouth in Samuel Beckett's "Not I"
Stars as Mrs. Blaycock in Richard Donner's horror thriller "The Omen"
Queen Elizabeth II awards her title of Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to drama
Writes autobiography <i>Billie Whitelaw Who He?</i>