British Icon of the Week: 'One Foot in the Grave' and 'Merlin' Actor Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson has given a new interview to British magazine The Oldie this week, revealing that his memory was affected when he hit his head while suffering a heart attack in 2016. Still, 84-year-old Wilson is now recovered and seems on upbeat form otherwise, adding that the fall has made him "more forgetful — but not more grumpy."
In appreciation of his impressive career, we're making the Scottish actor known for his roles as Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave and Gaius in Merlin our British Icon of the Week. Here are some things you might not know about his life and résumé.
1. He originally passed on his iconic role as irascible retiree Victor Meldrew.
"I was in my early 50s and Victor was 60," he told the Radio Times in 2016. "I turned it down." Fortunately, Wilson was persuaded to change his mind after being sent a couple One Foot in the Graves scripts by producer-director Susan Belbin.
Over the years, he says he's made his peace with the popularity of Victor's catchphrase. "I suppose the novelty of ‘I don’t believe it!' was rather amusing at first. And then it became rather boring," he said in the same interview. "And then I just thought to myself, 'Well, you're never going to escape this, so you might as well accept it.' Victor did change my life. If I am walking down the street now and someone shouts it at me I just raise a hand and wave and walk on."
2. He and Sir Ian McKellen once considered moving in together.
The plan, Wilson says, was for the two actors to share a large house in Dorset, southern England, but it never happened because McKellen did so well on the London property market. Before then, they had an idea to live separately but together, a bit like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, who had adjoining houses in north London when they were a couple.
"He's bought almost the whole street where he lives by the river," Wilson told The Times in 2016. "I thought we would be like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, but I think McKellen has more than enough property for now."
3. He was officially "outed" by London's Time Out magazine in 2013.
"They included me in a list of influential gays. I didn’t mind — because I am gay — but I did think I’d better warn my sister, who had probably guessed anyway," Wilson told The Guardian in 2015. "As a much younger man I was very keen not to come out, like so many others, because of my family. In any case I wasn’t leading a particularly gay life, though, of course, a lot of my friends were gay. Before that, when I was growing up on the west coast of Scotland, I didn’t really know, let alone understand, about homosexuality — the word, or what it was. I didn’t come across anyone gay until my late 20s. My parents never knew."
4. He describes himself as a "lifelong socialist" — and ascribes this to the inequality he saw growing up as the son of a shipyard foreman in Greenock, near Glasgow.
"I've always said that I was working class, but I might have been upper working class. All the shipyard foremen wore bowler hats: my father wore a bowler hat. He worked overtime without pay, used to bring work home every night, worked his socks off. I don't think I consciously thought he was silly at the time — although looking back on it, I realize he probably was," he told The Independent.
"That, I suppose, is part of the reason I am a socialist — although some would say a champagne socialist," he continued. "I feel the gap between the rich and poor is too great. The west of Greenock was full of the most gorgeous, beautiful houses, the east was full of the docks."
5. His voice may be instantly recognizable — but he wasn't always proud of it.
"I never thought of it as distinctive; I just thought it was nasal," he told The Independent. "I had a terrible time at Rada [drama school] — I loved the place, but I had a terrible time voice-wise. I had to have private lessons. It made me quite ill with nerves the first year. Only recently have I started to have any pride in my voice."
6. He reunited with his One Foot in the Grave co-star Annette Crosbie on British daytime show Loose Women in 2018.
As you'll see, it doesn't take long for the two actors to settle back into their old comic rhythm.
7. The only thing he disliked about playing Gaius in Merlin was his wig.
"My wig itself is absolutely fine because it’s a very good wig, but I’d rather not have to wear one," he told Sci-Fi Bulletin at the time. "But then I would look wrong — it’s very hard to look medieval when you’re bald, so I had to have a wig. But it’s a nuisance."
8. Over the years, he's been a prolific theater director — and a popular one.
Recalling Wilson's directorial approach, Dame Sheila Hancock told The Independent: "He starts with daft games: you have to throw bean bags around. And he once made me do an improvisation down a nuclear shelter — hours sealed in this tomb, with only tinned beef to eat. But I don't know a single actor who doesn't worship the ground he walks on. I have worked with more than 500 directors, and he's very near the top, if not the top. He hates tricksiness, affectation and easy laughs."
9. He became good friends with Alan Rickman after casting him in a play he was directing.
"When I auditioned him, I knew within seconds that he was the man for me; I knew it when he opened his mouth," Wilson told The Guardian in 2016, shortly after Rickman died. "He could take on anything. He was an open actor, a non-demonstrative actor. And he was easy-peasy to direct. We remained friends ever since."
Paying tribute to his late friend, Wilson added: "His stillness came from the fact that you could tell what he was thinking as an actor, without him doing anything. That’s why we got on so well, we both believed in that — it’s the actor’s thought that’s the important thing. Even when he was ill, he had that great stillness and great dignity."
10. Oh, and for the record: He doesn't think he's too much like Victor Meldrew.
"Victor was the opposite of me in many ways. I always thought that he was, maybe not a Conservative, but certainly a member of the Liberal Party, and I have always been a staunch left-winger," he told the Radio Times. He had no work at all, poor man, and I had too much. But I suppose there is a sort of Scottish dourness about Victor… and me."
Do you have a favorite Richard Wilson moment from One Foot in the Grave or Merlin?