Playwright, Screenwriter, Director, Documentarian
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A highly regarded screenwriter as well as novelist and playwright, William Nicholson earned Oscar nominations for "Shadowlands" (1993) and "Gladiator" (2000), as well as major television award nominations for "A Private Matter" (HBO, 1992) and "Crime of the Century" (HBO, 1996) while enjoying a string of best-selling novels for young and adult readers, including the popular Wind on Fire (2000-2002) trilogy. His Catholic education informed many of his screen projects, which frequently dealt with issues of faith and spiritual identity with a non-secular context; the depth and emotional honesty of his writing reaped numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic, though Nicholson's attempt to launch a directing career with 1997's "Firelight" was largely ignored. He turned to novel writing with the Wind on Fire series, which became worldwide favorites among young readers. Nicholson subsequently divided his time between novels, Tony-nominated plays like "The Retreat from Moscow" (2004), and feature films, which soon included "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (2007) and the film version of "Les Misérables" (2012). The quality of William Nicholson's body of written work made him among the most celebrated writers in multiple mediums.
Born Jan. 12, 1948 in Sussex, England, William Nicholson spent a portion of his childhood in Nigeria due to his father's work as a doctor specializing in tropical medicine. Upon the family's return to England, Nicholson was educated by Benedictine monks at Downside, a Catholic school in Somerset before spending a year as a volunteer teacher in Belize. At 15, he penned his first novel, and continued writing long-form fiction as an English literature student at Christ's College, Cambridge. Upon graduation, he began making television documentaries for the BBC's "Everyman" (1977- ), series on religious affairs, among other programs. Following the publication of his first novel, The Seventh Level: A Sexual Progress in 1979, Nicholson was encouraged by one of his employers at the BBC to try his hand at writing scripts for television. His first effort, the biopic "Martin Luther, Heretic" (BBC), with Jonathan Pryce in the title role, was produced in 1983 before Nicholson enjoyed success with "Shadowlands" (BBC, 1987), a drama about the relationship between author C.S. Lewis and an American admirer, the poet Joy Gresham. The production won BAFTA awards for Best Play and Best Actress for Claire Bloom, who played Gresham, shortly before Nicholson adapted the work for the stage. The play opened in London in 1989, capturing best play honors from the Evening Standard Awards in 1990 before transferring to Broadway, where it received a Tony nomination for Best Play, as well as a Tony for actor Nigel Hawthorne as Lewis.
Nicholson's subsequent television work also won major awards, including BAFTA and ACE awards for "The Race for the Double Helix" (BBC/A&E, 1987) and the Royal Television Society's Writer's Award for "Sweet As You Are," a 1988 episode of the anthology series "Screen Two" (BBC, 1985-2002) with Liam Neeson and Miranda Richardson. In 1990, he made the leap to feature film writing with the dystopian science-fiction drama "The March," which was quickly followed by his first Emmy nomination for "A Private Matter," about the controversy that erupted around television hostess Sherri Finkbine's 1962 decision to abort her child, which had suffered severe deformities as a result of exposure to the drug thalidomide. The following year, he earned an Oscar nomination for penning a feature film version of "Shadowlands" for director Richard Attenborough and stars Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. A slew of movie scripts soon followed, including the Jodie Foster vehicle "Nell" (1994) and "First Knight" (1995) with Sean Connery, though results were met with less than stellar reviews. Nicholson rebounded with "Crime of the Century," a harrowing depiction of the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping that reaped Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Nicholson made his debut as a director with 1997's "Firelight," a period melodrama with Sophie Marceau as a governess hired to bear landowner Stephen Dillane's child. The film went largely unseen outside of arthouse circles, a fate also suffered by his next script, "Grey Owl" (1997), with Pierce Brosnan as real-life Englishman-turned-early 20th century Native American trapper Archibald Belaney. Frustrated by the back-to-back failures, Nicholson returned to novel writing, where he scored a substantial hit with The Wind Singer (2000), a fantasy novel for young readers. Winner of both the Nestle Smarties Prize Gold Award and Blue Peter Book of the Year Award for children's literature in 2000 and 2001, respectively, The Wind Singer served as the launching point for a trilogy called Wind on Fire that included Slaves of the Mastery (2001) and its 2002 conclusion, Firesong that became best-sellers in nearly every major market.
While enjoying this newfound success, Nicholson's screenwriting career also enjoyed a boost with an Oscar nomination for Ridley Scott's epic "Gladiator" (2000), which he shared with co-authors John Logan and David Franzoni. In 2004, his play "The Retreat from Moscow" enjoyed a Broadway run which reaped three Tony nominations, including Best Play. Another young adult series, the Noble Warriors trilogy, kicked off in 2005 with Seeker, which was released the same year as The Society of Others (2005), his first novel for adults since The Seventh Level in 1979. In 2007, he returned to screenwriting for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." A new novel for teens, Rich and Mad (2010), preceded a string of novels for mature readers, including All the Hopeful Lovers (2010), The Golden Hour (2011) and Motherland (2013). In 2012, he wrote the film version of "Les Misérables" (2012), which became a leading contender for screenplay awards during the 2012-13 award season.
By Paul Gaita