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Billie Whitelaw started acting at the age of eleven, on radio, and later joined Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop company.
In 1960, she won the Variety Club’s Best Actress Award. As a member of the National Theatre Company, she played opposite Laurence Olivier in Othello, and in productions of Hobson’s Choice and Trelawney of the Wells.
Ms. Whitelaw’s enduring association with the works of Samuel Beckett began in 1964 with the National Theatre production of Play. She also appeared in Come and Go (at the Royal Festival Hall); Not I (in multiple productions, including as a filmed short); and Happy Days, the latter directed by Mr. Beckett himself (at the Royal Court Theatre). In 1976, the playwright directed her in Footfalls, which he had written for Ms. Whitelaw.
In 1981, she first performed onstage in the United States, with Mr. Beckett’s Rockaby. She returned in 1984 to inaugurate the Samuel Beckett Theatre in New York with a triple bill of Beckett works (Enough, Footfalls,and Rockaby) directed by Alan Schneider. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s hourlong documentary Rockaby detailed the preparations for the latter staging. She also performed the trio at the National Theatre and the Riverside Studios in London; the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; and the Adelaide Festival, on tour in Australia. She later performed in three of the playwright’s works (Eh Joe, Footfalls, and Rockaby) for airing on U.K. television.
Ms. Whitelaw’s many other stage appearances include David Mercer’s After Haggerty; Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order, and Simon Gray’s Molly. For the Royal Shakespeare Company, she appeared in The Greeks and Passion Play. More recently, she returned to the National Theatre to star in Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood, which won the Evening Standard Comedy Award; and starred in Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Young Vic.
Her telefilm and miniseries credits include Silvio Narizzano’s Poet Game (opposite Anthony Hopkins); Napoleon and Love (opposite Ian Holm); The Sextet (for which she won a BAFTA Award); Philip Saville’s The Cloning of Joanna May; and Jim Goddard’s A Tale of Two Cities.
Ms. Whitelaw made her film debut in 1953. Her notable early movies include Val Guest’s Hell is a City (for which she earned her first BAFTA Award nomination) and Mr. Topaze (directed by and starring Peter Sellers). She won a BAFTA Award for her work in two features, Charlie Bubbles (directed by and starring Albert Finney) and Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve. The former also earned her the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress.
Her many other films include Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy; John Boorman’s Leo the Last; Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe; Bud Yorkin’s Start the Revolution Without Me; Christopher Petit’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; (in voiceover) Jim Henson and Frank Oz’ The Dark Crystal; Merchant Ivory’s Maurice; Jim O’Brien’s The Dressmaker (for which she won an Evening Standard Award); Peter Medak’s The Krays (for which she received a BAFTA Award nomination); Philip Kaufman’s Quills; Matthew Vaughn’s soon-to-be-released Stardust; and, particularly memorably, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976). The latter performance brought her an Evening Standard Award as well as a BAFTA Award nomination.
In 1991, she was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). Her autobiography Billie Whitelaw...Who He? was published in 1996.