She worked with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett for 25 years and is regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of his works. She 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.
In the movie "The Dark Crystal", Billie played the voice of Aughra.
Whitelaw was born in Coventry, the daughter of Frances Mary (née Williams) and Gerry Whitelaw. She grew up in a disadvantaged area and attended Thornton Grammar School in Bradford. At age 11, she began performing as a child actor on radio programmes 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 (1960). 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 psychological study Twisted Nerve (1969). She continued in film roles 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 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 gives lectures on the Beckettian technique, and has explained "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. A very early TV appearance was in the first series of the long running BBC Police series, Dixon of Dock Green (1955), as George Dixon's (Jack Warner) daughter, Mary. 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).
Whitelaw married first the actor Peter Vaughan, later divorced and 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.
In 1970, she was a member of the jury at the 20th Berlin International Film Festival.
- The Sleeping Tiger (1954)
- Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)
- Breakout (1959)
- Bobbikins (1959)
- The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
- Hell Is a City (1960)
- Make Mine Mink (1960)
- Payroll (1961)
- No Love for Johnnie (1961)
- The Comedy Man (1964)
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (TV)
- Charlie Bubbles (1967)
- 'Twisted Nerve (1968)
- The Adding Machine (1969)
- Leo the Last (1970)
- Gumshoe (1971)
- Frenzy (1972)
- Eagle in a Cage (1972)
- Follow the Yellow Brick Road (TV; 1972)
- Night Watch (1973)
- The Omen (1976)
- The Water Babies (1978)
- Leopard in the Snow (1978)
- Private Schulz (1980)
- Tangiers (1982)
- An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1982)
- The Dark Crystal (1982) (voice)
- Camille (1984) (TV)
- The Chain (1984)
- Terror in the Aisles (1984)
- The Krays (1990)
- Skallagrigg (1994)
- Jane Eyre (1996)
- Hot Fuzz (2007)