Billie Whitelaw dies at 82; veteran British actress collaborated with Samuel Beckett

British actress Billie Whitelaw, shown here in 2006, collaborated closely with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and appeared on stage and screen for decades. She died in a London nursing home at the age of 82.
(Edmond Terakopian / Associated Press)
Times staff and wire reports

British actress Billie Whitelaw, who collaborated closely with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and appeared on stage and screen for decades, died Sunday in a London nursing home. She was 82.

Whitelaw’s death was confirmed by Charlotte Schram, general manager of Denville Hall, a care home used by many retired actors.

Whitelaw was well known for her roles in a number of films, including “The Omen” and most recently “Hot Fuzz,” and for her regular work with Beckett, who once described her as the “perfect actress.”

Their association began with her appearance in Beckett’s “Play” in 1964. Her work in Beckett’s “Not I” inspired the playwright to produce a piece specially for her, “Footfalls.”


She and Beckett routinely rehearsed the language, timing, gestures and expressions required of actors for his plays.

She also appeared in his “Happy Days” and “Rockaby.” Whitelaw acted in productions of “Not I,” “Rockaby” and “Enough” at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Mark Taper Forum in 1984.

Whitelaw was born June 6, 1932, in Coventry, England. After the Nazi Luftwaffe’s three-day blitz of Coventry in November 1940, her parents sent her to stay with relatives first in Liverpool and then Yorkshire.

“Nothing was as bad as Coventry,” she told The Times in 1988. “You’re scared, waiting, and then the bombing stops, you go outside and look at the sky. It’s blood red, filled with a crackling sound which is coming from all the houses on fire. ...

“The most frightening thing was hearing the machine-gun fire from the German planes. And Coventry had no defense, no ammunition. My playground was the craters and bombed-out buildings.”

Her father died of lung cancer when she was 9, and her mother sent her to acting lessons to try to eliminate her stutter.

Whitelaw first performed on radio when she was 11 and made her stage debut in 1950. She made more than 50 movies, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972) and “The Dressmaker” (1988), and worked with a number of film greats, including Albert Finney in “Charlie Bubbles.”

She joined the National Theatre Company in the early 1960s, playing a number of lead roles, and continued playing major roles onstage for several more decades.


Whitelaw won several acting honors, including a British Academy Award for best supporting actress.

She told the Independent newspaper in a 1997 interview that she was not frightened of death: “Oh, no. Death’s not one of those things that frighten the life out of me,” she said, adding that getting onstage with the curtain about to rise was much more daunting.