Billie Whitelaw, CBE (born June 6, 1932) is a distinguished English actress of both stage and film. The actress has won multiple BAFTA awards and Evening Standard British Film Awards for her film work and has appeared in many prestigious theatrical productions in a career spanning more than fifty years.
One of the most notable aspects of her diverse acting career has been her renowned twenty-five year collaboration with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Whitelaw is regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of his works, and continues to gives lectures on her experiences working with Beckett. Their collaboration has produced some of the most distinctive and innovative techniques in experimental theatre. In 1991, Whitelaw was awarded the CBE.
Whitelaw was born in Coventry, Warwickshire, the daughter of Frances Mary (née Williams) and Gerry Whitelaw. She grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood and attended the Thornton Grammar School in Bradford. At age 11, she began performing as a child actor on radio programs and later worked as an assistant stage manager at a provincial theatre.
After training at RADA, Whitelaw made her stage debut at age 18 in London 1950. She made her film debut in "The Sleeping Tiger" (1954), followed by roles in Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and Hell is a City (1959). Whitelaw soon became a regular in British films of the 1950s and early 1960s. In her early film work she specialized in blousy blondes and secretaries, but her dramatic range began to emerge by the late 1960s. She starred alongside Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles (1967), a performance which won her a BAFTA award as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She would win her second BAFTA as the sensuous mother of college student, Hayley Mills in the disturbing psychological study Twisted Nerve (1969). She continued to add memorable roles to notable films including Leo the Last (1970), Gumshoe (1971), and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Frenzy (1972).
Whitelaw gained international acclaim for her chilling role as Mrs. Baylock, the evil guardian of the demon child Damien in The Omen (1976). Her performance was considered one of the most memorable of the film, winning her the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actress. Other notable films included the hopelessly naive Mrs. Hall in Maurice (1987), one of two sisters, with Joan Plowright, struggling to survive in war-time Liverpool in The Dressmaker (1988), the fiercely domineering and protective mother of psychopathic twin murderers in The Krays (1990), a performance that earned her a BAFTA nomination, and the blind laundress in Quills (2000). She returned to film, in a comedic turn, as one of the village residents in Hot Fuzz (2007). According to Simon Pegg, his wife accidentally referred to her as "Willie Bitelaw".
In 1963, Billie Whitelaw met the famed Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. She and Beckett enjoyed an intense professional relationship until his death in 1989. He wrote many of his more experimental plays especially for her, referring to Whitelaw as "A Perfect Actress". Whitelaw became Beckett's muse, as he created, reworked and revised each play while she physically, at times to the point of total exhaustion, acted out each movement. She would explain in lectures on how "He used me as a piece of plaster he was molding until he got just the right shape". They collaborated and performed plays such as Play, Eh Joe, Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby for both stage and screen. Although other actresses have attempted Beckett's plays, Whitelaw remains the foremost interpreter of the man and his work.
Whitelaw has also appeared frequently on television and won acclaim for her work. She won a BAFTA award as Best Actress for her performance in "The Sextet" (1972), the BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales (1973), A Tale of Two Cities (1980), A Murder of Quality (1991), Jane Eyre (1996), Merlin (1998), and A Dinner of Herbs (2000).
Married first to the actor Peter Vaughan, whom she divorced, Whitelaw later married writer and drama critic Robert Muller with whom she had a son. Her autobiography, Billie Whitelaw... Who He?, was published by St. Martin's Press (published in 1996). Whitelaw currently lives in Hampstead, London and continues to work on stage, films and television. She regularly gives lectures on the Beckettian technique.
Her son, who had lent Edgar Wright the use of his flat for Shaun of the Dead, convinced his mother to come out of retirement and accept the role of Joyce Cooper in Hot Fuzz.
A photo of her is on the cover of the Smiths' double A-side 'William, It Was Really Nothing/How Soon Is Now?'. Whitelaw also had an affair with actor Albert Finney while he was married to Jane Wenham.