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Whitelaw in c. 1960s
|Born||Billie Honor Whitelaw
6 June 1932
Coventry, Warwickshire, England
|Died||21 December 2014
Hampstead, London, England
|Years active||1950–2002, 2007|
(m. 1952–1966, divorced)
(m. 1967–1998, his death)
Billie Honor Whitelaw, CBE (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014) was an English actress. She worked in close collaboration with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett for 25 years and was regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of his works. She was also known for her portrayal of Mrs Baylock, the demonic nanny in the 1976 horror film The Omen.
Whitelaw was born in Coventry, Warwickshire, the daughter of Frances Mary (née Williams) and Gerry Whitelaw. She grew up in a working class part of Bradford and later attended Grange Girls' Grammar School in Bradford. At age 11, she began performing as a child actress on radio programmes, including the part of Bunkle, an extrovert prep-schoolboy on Children's Hour from Manchester, and later worked as an assistant stage manager and acted with the repertory company at the Prince's Theatre in Bradford during high school. Her father died of lung cancer when Billie was 10 years old. Money was tight and her mother struggled on her own to support the family. "It's something I haven't come to terms with ... I'm rather ashamed of having the good life I have", she later recalled.
After training at RADA, Whitelaw made her stage debut at age 18 in London 1950. She made her film debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), followed by roles in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) and Hell Is a City (1960). Whitelaw soon became a regular in British films of the 1950s and early 1960s. In her early film work she specialized in blousy blondes and secretaries, but her dramatic range began to emerge by the late 1960s. She starred alongside Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles (1967), a performance which won her a BAFTA award as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She would win her second BAFTA as the sensuous mother of college student Hayley Mills in the psychological study Twisted Nerve (1969). She continued in film roles including Leo the Last (1970), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Gumshoe (1971) and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Frenzy (1972).
Whitelaw gained international acclaim for her chilling role as Mrs. Baylock, the evil guardian of the demon child Damien in The Omen (1976). Her performance was considered one of the most memorable of the film, winning her the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actress. Other films included performing the voice of Aughra in The Dark Crystal, as the hopelessly naive Mrs. Hall in Maurice (1987), one of two sisters, with Joan Plowright, struggling to survive in war-time Liverpool in The Dressmaker (1988), the fiercely domineering and protective mother of psychopathic twin murderers in The Krays (1990), a performance that earned her a BAFTA nomination, as the nurse Grace Poole in Jane Eyre (1996), and the blind laundress in Quills (2000). She returned to film, in a comedy turn, as Joyce Cooper in Hot Fuzz (2007).
Theatre and Beckett
In 1963, Billie Whitelaw met Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. She and Beckett enjoyed an intense professional relationship until his death in 1989. He wrote many of his more experimental plays especially for her, referring to Whitelaw as "a perfect actress". Whitelaw became Beckett's muse, as he created, reworked and revised each play while she physically, at times to the point of total exhaustion, acted out each movement. Whitelaw remained the foremost interpreter of the man and his work. She gave lectures on the Beckettian technique, and explained, "He used me as a piece of plaster he was moulding until he got just the right shape". They collaborated on Beckett plays such as Play, Eh Joe, Happy Days, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby for both stage and screen.
Whitelaw also appeared frequently on television and won acclaim for her work. A very early TV appearance was in the first series of the long-running BBC1 police series, Dixon of Dock Green (1955), as Mary Dixon, daughter of George (Jack Warner). She also appeared as a woman who tries to join Robin Hood's outlaw band in a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood, "The Bride of Robin Hood". She won a BAFTA award as Best Actress for her performance in The Sextet (1972), the BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales (1973), A Tale of Two Cities (1980), A Murder of Quality (1991), Duel of Hearts (1991), Firm Friends (1992-1994) with Madhur Jaffrey, Jane Eyre (1996), Merlin (1998) and A Dinner of Herbs (2000).
Personal life and death
Whitelaw was married first to the actor Peter Vaughan (1952–66) and, until his death, to the writer and drama critic Robert Muller, with whom she had a son. Her autobiography, Billie Whitelaw... Who He?, was published by St. Martin's Press in 1996. In her later years she lived at a nursing home in Hampstead, London, where she died on 21 December 2014, aged 82.
- The Fake (1953)
- The Sleeping Tiger (1954)
- Mr. Arkadin (Voice Only) (1955)
- Small Hotel (1957)
- Miracle in Soho (1957)
- Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)
- Time Out for Peggy (TV, 1958-59)
- Breakout (1959)
- Bobbikins (1959)
- The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
- Hell Is a City (1960)
- Make Mine Mink (1960)
- Payroll (1961)
- No Love for Johnnie (1961)
- The Comedy Man (1964)
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (TV) (1968)
- Charlie Bubbles (1967)
- Twisted Nerve (1968)
- The Adding Machine (1969)
- Leo the Last (1970)
- Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)
- Gumshoe (1971)
- Frenzy (1972)
- Eagle in a Cage (1972)
- Follow the Yellow Brick Road (TV; 1972)
- Night Watch (1973)
- Napoleon and Love (TV: 1974)
- The Omen (1976)
- Space: 1999 (TV:1976)
- The Water Babies (1978)
- Leopard in the Snow (1978)
- A Tale of Two Cities (1980)
- Private Schulz (1980)
- Tangiers (1982)
- An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1982)
- The Dark Crystal (1982) (voice)
- Jamaica Inn (1983 TV Serial)
- Camille (1984) (TV)
- The Chain (1984)
- Terror in the Aisles (1984)
- Shadey (1985)
- The Secret Garden (1987)
- Maurice (1987)
- The Dressmaker (1988)
- The Krays (1990)
- Freddie as F.R.O.7 (1992) (voice)
- Skallagrigg (1994)
- Jane Eyre (1996)
- Merlin (1998)
- The Lost Son (1999)
- The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000)
- Hot Fuzz (2007)
- Billie Whitelaw at New York State Writers Institute, State University of New York
- Billie Whitelaw Biography
- Obituary, bbc.com; accessed 22 December 2014.
- "Saving Abel's Top 10 Female Villains". DreadCentral.
- "Berlinale 1970: Juries". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2010-03-08.
- New York TImes article An Outsider in His Own Life
- Lyn Haill (ed.) Olivier at Work, 1989, p. 28.
- Billie Whitelaw at the Internet Movie Database
- "Rest in Peace: Billie Whitelaw". BBC News. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.
- "Actress Billie Whitelaw dies aged 82". BBC News. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.
- Video of Billie Whitelaw performing Beckett's Not I
- Billie Whitelaw at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- Billie Whitelaw; Aveleyman