Born September 14, 1936; Died December 16, 2011.

Nicol Williamson, who has died of cancer at the age of 75, was widely regarded as one of the greatest actors Scotland ever produced. The playwright John Osborne called him "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando" and Samuel Beckett considered him "touched by genius".

His Hamlet was acclaimed in the London West End and on Broadway in the late 1960s and was compared to Olivier, Gielgud and Burton.

But Williamson was never as big a star as Brando or Sean Connery, although he appeared in more than 20 feature films, between 1968 and 1997, sometimes in leading roles, more often in supporting parts. He was Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), Merlin in Excalibur (1981) and the eponymous superhero's mentor in the comicbook adaptation Spawn (1997).

One of his most memorable and poignant screen performances was as Little John to Connery's Robin Hood in the underrated Robin and Marian (1976).

An intense performer, Williamson had a unique facility for slowing down and speeding up language to alter the emotion and experience of the words, while mournful eyes and demeanour more than hinted at inner turmoil.

He drank heavily, maintaining he suffered from regular hangovers, but that he never got drunk. He had high standards and apologised to a theatre audience at one performance, promising that he would retire from acting immediately.

He demanded high standards of others too and there were violent altercations with several co-stars. He went through a series of relationships with actresses and other women, including Helen Mirren, Marianne Faithfull and Jill Townsend, to whom he was married in the 1970s.

In a disturbing interview on David Frost's television show in the 1960s he spoke at great length about death. He said he thought about it "constantly, throughout the day". Latterly he had concentrated on his interest in music and recording songs and had seemingly been living modestly and anonymously in the Netherlands. He died in the middle of December, in Hoorn, near Amsterdam, though news of the death only became public yesterday.

The son of a metallurgist, he was born in Hamilton in Lanarkshire, in 1936 – not 1938, as reference books would have it. He studied acting at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and joined the Dundee Repertory company in time to appear in their 1959 panto Sinbad the Sailor. Over the next two years he went on to appear in at least another 20 productions at the theatre, including Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seagull.

Graduating to the London stage, he made a big impression in 1964 in Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence as a heavy-drinking, philandering divorce lawyer who hates what he has become. Williamson reprised the role on Broadway and in a 1968 film version.

He had a starring role in the military drama The Bofors Gun (1968) before his triumph as Hamlet in 1969-70, which included a performance in the White House after Harold Wilson insisted President Nixon must see it.

There was also a film version, shot largely in close-up in the Round House theatre in London. Marianne Faithfull, who was Ophelia, later revealed details of their relationship in her autobiography. Hamlet propelled him to the forefront of British acting talent. But already he was showing signs of a difficult temperament and more than once walked off stage mid-performance.

In 1971 he married Jill Townsend, an American actress who played his daughter in the Broadway production of Inadmissible Evidence, though she is possibly best known from Poldark (1975-77). The marriage ended in divorce.

Williamson failed to repeat the success of Hamlet with Macbeth (1974), in which he co-starred with Helen Mirren. A few years later John Boorman supposedly tapped into the lingering antagonism when he cast them as bitter enemies in Excalibur.

Robin and Marian gave him the chance to appear alongside Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw and Richard Harris. John Simon of New York magazine thought the film came close to perfection and Andrew Sarris in Village Voice called it "one of the most affecting moviegoing experiences" in years. However the film was a commercial flop.

Williamson played the MI6 agent who is caught up in a web of intrigue and death and who inadvertently manages to feed secrets to the Russians in the 1979 film of Graham Greene's The Human Factor. He had the title role in the TV mini-series Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986).

Return to Oz (1985) and The Exorcist III (1990) must have provided healthy pay cheques and they maintained a presence on the big screen, but they were hardly landmarks either in art or popular culture.Williamson made some strange career choices and had an ambivalent attitude towards acting. Perhaps it is fitting that one of his later successes was I Hate Hamlet, a 1991 Broadway production in which he played the legendary American actor John Barrymore. He subsequently devised and starred in a one-man Broadway show called Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore (1996).

He was Badger in the film The Wind in the Willows (1996), with Terry Jones as Toad and Steve Coogan as Mole. Spawn, the following year, was his last screen credit.

He is survived by Luke, his son from his marriage to Jill Townsend.