LONDON — Emlyn Williams, the Welsh actor and playwright who wrote the 1938 hit play "The Corn Is Green" and directed his friend Richard Burton in his first movie role, died today at his London home of cancer. He was 81.
The son of a factory worker, Williams spoke only Welsh until he went to school. He won scholarships to study in France and at Oxford University, where he joined the drama society and fell in love with the stage.
Williams' pride in his Welsh background brought him into contact with such eminent compatriots as Burton and Dylan Thomas, whose poetry he used in successful one-man shows.
His first play, "A Murder Has Been Arranged," was staged in 1930. Five years later his macabre thriller, "Night Must Fall," became a hit, with Williams playing the leading role in London and New York.
First in Films in 1932
In 1938, he appeared as Morgan Evans, a young Welsh coal miner, opposite Sybil Thorndike in "The Corn Is Green," a smashing success that won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best foreign play of the year.
Williams first appeared in films in 1932, and in 1948 he wrote, directed and starred in "The Last Days of Dolwyn," a drama about a Welsh village threatened by a dam construction project. Richard Burton made his film debut in the movie.
Williams delivered the eulogy at a memorial service for Burton, who died in 1984.
Williams played Sir Thomas More after Paul Scofield in the New York run of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" and had a memorable cameo part as the eccentric kite-flying Mr. Dick in the 1969 film version of "David Copperfield."
Williams spent his last years in semi-retirement, emerging only occasionally into the public eye with a novel, "Headlong," published in 1980, and a part in the 1983 television film, "Rumpole of the Bailey."
A newspaper once accidentally published his obituary, an oversight that apparently amused him immensely. "They say I died in 1974," he told an interviewer, "but I have wracked my brains and cannot recall anything untoward happening that year."
His 1935 marriage to Irish actress Molly O'Shann lasted until her death in 1970. They had two sons.