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Welsh Dramatist and Actor Emlyn Williams Dies at 81

September 26, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Emlyn Williams, the Welsh-born writer who overcame a troubled personal life to give the world his celebrated play, "The Corn Is Green," and then became the actor Charles Dickens reportedly always wished to be when he became "Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens" in a venerated series of one-man shows, died Friday of cancer.

He was 81 and died at his London home after recent surgery, said his son, Alan Williams.

A complex man who wrote candidly of his penurious childhood, his struggles with bisexuality and the frustrations of attending English schools when he spoke only Welsh, Williams in his adult years crossed gracefully between the written and spoken word.

Pride in Background

And through such friends as Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, he learned to take unabashed pride in the Welsh background that once had shamed him.

At his birth, he faced the bleak future of his coal-miner father and peers, who customarily went to work in the mines of Wales while only 10 or 12 years old. What was to prove his salvation as a boy also produced his most lasting literary credit.

Sarah Grace Cooke, the inspiration for "The Corn Is Green," established a school for the children of miners in Holywell County, and under her guidance Williams not only learned English but came to glory in the written word.

Much like the protagonist in "The Corn Is Green," Williams went from near-illiteracy to a scholarship at Oxford. Unlike the protagonist, however, Williams suffered a nervous breakdown (in 1926, and blamed largely on a failed emotional friendship with another undergraduate). But the omnipresent Miss Cooke, Williams wrote in one of a series of autobiographies, encouraged him to heal himself by writing.

First Play at Oxford

The Oxford University Dramatic Society produced his first play, "Full Moon," while he was still an undergraduate, and his drama teacher, J. B. Fagan, found him a small acting role in the London production of "And So to Bed."

Williams first commercial writing success was "A Murder Has Been Arranged," which was staged in 1930. Five years later his macabre thriller, "Night Must Fall," became a hit, with Williams playing the leading role of the psychopathic bellhop Danny in London and New York.

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. His friend Burton made his film debut in the movie. Thirty-six years later, Williams delivered Burton's eulogy.

In 1938, he appeared in "The Corn Is Green" opposite Sybil Thorndike. It proved an immediate success and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best foreign play of the year. It was recently revived in London starring Deborah Kerr and in New York starring Cicely Tyson.

(The play was made into a motion picture in 1945 with Bette Davis starring as Miss Cook. It was remade as a television movie in 1978 with Katharine Hepburn.)

Memorable Cameo Part

Williams later followed Paul Scofield in the role of Sir Thomas More in the New York run of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons." He also had a memorable cameo part as the eccentric kite-flying Mr. Dick in the 1969 film version of "David Copperfield."

But his most famous public portrayal came to be that of novelist Charles Dickens, born out of an invitation to take part in a royal charity show in London in 1950.

"I had about 20 minutes, so I did the lawyer's role from 'Bleak House,' which has a wonderful description of London," he said in a 1981 interview.

From that grew, "Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens," a 90-minute, one-man show that Williams performed for the rest of his active stage life. In 1981, he took an updated version of the show on a tour of the United States.

"I never thought it would last this long," he said last year, "but I'm coming up to the 2,000th performance."

Insight on Dickens

In a 1982 interview with The Times, Williams saw Dickens as an author "very keen on displaying himself as an actor." Dickens, who late in life toured the United States reading his own works, "wanted people to say, 'Oh, you should have been on the stage.' "

Williams also gave one-man shows as his fellow countryman, Dylan Thomas, and as the Scottish humorist H. H. Munro, who used the pen name Saki.

His successes enabled him to overcome his years as a shy, bumbling youth who was drawn toward women but frightened of them and, despite having a long marriage to one woman, which ended only with her death in 1970, found other relationships with men.

His book editor, Roger Smith, remembered Williams as "a charming man, very thoughtful and witty and, as many old actors are, vain about his appearance but in a very inoffensive way."

And he didn't lack for a sense of humor.

A newspaper once accidentally published his obituary. "They say I died in 1974," he told an interviewer, "but I have wracked my brains and cannot recall anything untoward happening that year."

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