Date of Birth: 16 May 1937, Tayorville, Illinois, US
Birth Name: Yvonne Joyce Craig
Nicknames: Yvonne Craig
Dancer turned actress who brought a spirited grace to the high-kicking antics of the superheroine Batgirl
Yvonne Craig trained as a dancer and became the youngest-ever member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; but it was on television that her athletic grace won legions of fans, as Batgirl to Adam West’s Batman.
Now fondly remembered as an example of 1960s camp, Batman, made by the ABC television network, was steeped in the Pop Art sensibility of the era. The storylines were comic, the sets garish, and colourful bubble words like KAPOW!, BAM! and ZOK! livened up the fight sequences. When audience figures started to pall towards the end of the decade, the writers decided to freshen up the show by bringing in the character of Barbara Gordon, a good-looking librarian who pursues a second career as the crime-fighting Batgirl.
The producer, Howie Horwitz, was anxious to preserve the character’s femininity, so Batgirl was forbidden to punch her various on-screen nemeses, relying instead on high kicks and handily placed objects. While Adam West had his black Batcycle (with a detachable self-propelled sidecar for Robin), Yvonne Craig drove a purple version with a large yellow bow. She did most of her own stunts, which were made all the more uncomfortable by the bat wings that had replaced the motorcycle’s shock absorbers “like jumping off a table stiff-legged”, as she put it.
Such dedication could not halt the show’s decline, however, and after one more series it was cancelled in 1968. Looking back, Yvonne Craig expressed disappointment in the way the character was handled after her initial test screening. “When we did the pilot, Batgirl was supposed to be not only as good as the guys but better,” she recalled. “She ended up being this cute little bland character, when she could have been more in the style of Katharine Hepburn.”
None the less, her performance was eagerly taken up by feminist critics as a spirited example of the hard-working career girl an ally to the hero, rather than his dependant. In 1972 Yvonne Craig stepped into the role once more, this time on behalf of the US Department of Labor. A 30-second skit had Batgirl swinging to the rescue of a captive Batman and Robin but not before demanding equal pay.
Yvonne Joyce Craig was born on May 16 1937 in Taylorville, Illinois, and aspired to a career in dance from an early age. While attending the Edith James School of Ballet she was spotted by the Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova, who helped her win a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York. Aged 16 she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but left three years later and eventually fell into acting after a chance meeting with John Ford’s son Patrick. Her first starring role was as the beautiful yet spoiled Elena in The Young Land (1959), which the younger Ford produced.
By the mid-1960s she had moved away from temptress roles to play more traditional leading ladies, appearing alongside Elvis Presley in It Happened At The World’s Fair (1963) and Kissin’ Cousins (1964). The two of them hit it off and Yvonne Craig spent time with Presley at his home in Bel Air though, coming from the insulated life of the professional dancer, she had little idea of his rock-and-roll credentials. The reality was finally brought home to her when, trying to find the light-switch in his bedroom late one night, she accidentally hit a panic button and was greeted by several carloads of policemen at the front door.
On television she made a foray into the spy arena with a guest part in the original series of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1965), gave a passionate performance as the creatively named Ecstasy La Joie in The Wild Wild West (1966) and was painted green for a memorable turn as a psychotic alien in Star Trek (1969). In later life she swapped acting for a career in property, but continued to make regular appearances at comic and fantasy conventions in America.
Date of Birth: 8 June 1933, Brooklyn, New York, US
Birth Name: Joan Alexandra Molinsky
Nicknames: Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers, was best known for her acerbic, backbiting humour. Tiny and sharp-boned with candyfloss blonde hair and talon-like fingernails, she started her routines with her catchphrase “Can we talk?” and maintained that she only asked “the questions that truly obsess America”.
She insisted that she got most of her source material from the notorious American publication the National Enquirer (“I never go to the bathroom without it”), and often used headlines such as “Who chooses the Queen’s clothes?” as the basis for her insult-laden comments.
Described by fellow comics as having a “karate-like attack” and a “knee to the groin” delivery, Joan Rivers’s stage persona relied heavily on the quick-fire insult (“Mosquitoes see Liz Taylor and shout 'Buffet!’”) combined with an endless stream of self-deprecating satires (“I’m the tackiest person I know, and I haven’t forgotten Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter”). She claimed that she drew her inspiration from Lenny Bruce, whom she first saw in the early 1960s: “He confirmed my ideas about comedy, of using personal pain and insight to generate comedic material.”
Dismissed by some critics, who saw her masochistic routines (“Men who look down my dress usually compliment me on my shoes”) as a throwback to the 1950s, Joan Rivers nevertheless proved successful with audiences. After spending 15 years playing what she described as “mafia-owned strip joints”, she emerged as America’s most highly paid comedienne. In 1983 she became the first woman regularly to host the Tonight Show when presenter Johnny Carson was on holiday, establishing her firmly in the pantheon of the nation’s television entertainers. In 1986 she defected to Rupert Murdoch’s recently launched Fox Broadcasting Co to star in a rival to Carson’s programme.
Similarly, when she was signed by London Weekend Television for a series of six programmes (Joan Rivers: Can We Talk?) in 1986, the early shows attracted some 11 million viewers, but by the end of the series the public was expressing a preference for alternatives such as Gardeners’ World and One Man and His Dog.
Later, after the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, Joan Rivers returned to the cabaret circuit, touring extensively in both the United States and Britain. Following an appearance as a presenter of the 1987 Emmy awards and seasons at Las Vegas, she became a regular guest on ABC’s Hollywood Squares game show.
She was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 8 1933, the younger daughter of Dr Meyer Molinsky and his wife Beatrice. Both her parents were Russian-Jewish refugees, and Rivers recalled that her mother never fully adjusted to life in the United States (her family had been responsible for supplying the Tsar with furs in pre-Revolution Russia). “She had a pathological fear of poverty,” Rivers recalled. “She spent her time talking about her childhood in Russia and forcing my father to pay for maids and governesses.”
She also remembered her childhood as being “full of domestic tension”. As a “fat, ugly child”, she felt that she could never fulfil her parents’ expectations, and that she was “outshone” by her elder sister. “It made me a manic overachiever,” she said. “I wanted to be better, smarter and thinner than my sister at any cost.” In later life, her horror of being fat and unattractive manifested itself in chronic dieting and plastic surgery.
Joan Rivers said that her earliest hopes were of becoming a serious actress after playing “the Healthy Tooth” in a production at kindergarten. She immediately encountered serious opposition from her parents, who considered acting an unsuitable profession for a girl. Her mother’s antipathy continued throughout Joan’s childhood and adolescence. At her private school, Joan took elocution lessons (though she would never lose her strong Brooklyn accent), and also learnt to play piano and violin.
Still against her parents’ wishes, at school Joan became involved in drama. Aged eight, she had sent a photograph of herself and her personal details to the casting department of MGM; and at 17 she landed a small part in the film Mr Universe. Threatened by her family with being cut off from her family and friends, she capitulated, agreeing to attend Connecticut College and later Barnard College, where she studied English and Anthropology.
On completing her course she turned down both an opportunity to study at Rada in London and an apprenticeship at a local drama company. This was to placate her mother, who was eager that she should marry and settle down. After working for a time as fashion coordinator for a large chain store (and taking the surname Rivers), in 1957 she married the boss’s son, Jimmy Sanger. The union was annulled after only five months. “We tried marriage guidance,” Joan Rivers recalled, “but the counsellor took one look at us and said 'No way’.”
Six months later she returned to her original plan of becoming an actress. As previously threatened, her parents disowned her, and Joan was forced to find work as a temporary clerk to finance her embryo acting career. But she discovered that she could earn $5 a night as a stand-up comic at a local club (50 cents more than she was earning as a clerk), and made her professional debut in 1960.
Now seeing herself as a primarily as a comedienne, Joan joined an improvisational theatre company in Chicago. A year later she returned to New York where, unable to find work, she began performing for nothing at a number of clubs in Greenwich Village, among them the Showplace.
By the early Sixties Joan Rivers had developed her confidential style of performance, saying that she wanted to speak “directly and personally to the audience”. After an unsuccessful year in the comedy trio Jim, Jake and Joan, she returned to solo performance in 1964 at The Duplex, where she was spotted by Roy Silver (who had earlier launched the career of Bill Cosby).
While Silver tried repeatedly to get her a booking on the Tonight Show, Joan wrote for television shows such as Candid Camera and The Ed Sullivan Show, and producing material for Zsa Zsa Gabor and Phyllis Diller. By 1965, agents had begun to dismiss her as “too old” to make a success as a solo comic, but after eight auditions Silver finally secured her a spot on the Tonight Show. She was an immediate hit, and was offered bookings in all the leading comedy clubs; she was placed under contract by NBC, and recorded her first comedy album for Warner Brothers (Joan Rivers Presents Mr Phyllis).
After a five-year engagement at Upstairs at the Downstairs in Greenwich Village, and a cameo role in the Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer (1968), she was offered her own show by NBC. That Show was screened every morning and included Joan Rivers’s monologues and ad lib conversations with the audience.
Throughout the Seventies, Joan Rivers continued to gain popularity, despite occasional flops such as the Broadway comedy Fun City (1971). In 1971 she was the first woman to host the Tonight Show for a full week; in 1973 she wrote and produced the hugely popular television film The Girl Most Likely To…; and in 1978 she made her directorial debut in Rabbit Test. Although this film was panned by the critics, it made a profit and enabled her to set up her own production company, Shafta Productions.
She also wrote a thrice-weekly column for The Chicago Tribune from 1973 to 1976, and published her first book, Having a Baby Can Be a Scream (which she described as a “catalogue of gynaecological anxieties”) in 1975.
By the early 1980s Joan Rivers was established as one of the most popular comediennes in the United States, enjoying sell-out tours. She appeared as guest host of Saturday Night Live and released another album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?, which won a Grammy. In 1983 she was made permanent guest host on the Tonight Show, a slot she filled for the next three years. She distinguished herself from other chat show hosts by routinely insulting her guests.
On one occasion she claimed that she “had Victoria Principal [the Dallas actress] hysterical” when she inquired about the star’s proposed marriage to the Bee Gee Barry Gibb; Victoria Principal dismissed the rumour, at which point Joan Rivers claimed that Victoria had earlier shown her the engagement ring.
By now Joan Rivers was appearing on magazine covers; addressing the National Federation of Republican Women; and commanding fees of $200,000 for a five-night booking at Las Vegas. Her first novel, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz, topped the bestseller list for 18 weeks. In 1984 she made her first appearance in Britain, in LWT’s An Audience With.
In 1986 Joan Rivers published an autobiography, Enter Talking. It was also the year she fell out with her mentor Carson over the Fox Network’s The Late Show with Joan Rivers. This was in direct competition with Carson’s Tonight Show, on which Rivers frequently guest hosted. As it turned out, the Rivers show was soon cancelled after dropping in the ratings; the critics had complained that Joan Rivers was “too kind” to the guests on her show. She fared little better when she came to Britain for Joan Rivers: Can We Talk?
Carson, meanwhile, hurt that Rivers hadn’t consulted him about her plans, banned her from appearing on his show. She responded in an allusion to Carson’s numerous divorces that she was “the only woman in the history of the world who left Johnny Carson and didn’t ask him for money”. The prohibition lasted until earlier this year, when the current host Jimmy Fallon finally invited the comedienne back. “The last time I was on the show, Melissa [her daughter] was in diapers,” Rivers joked. “Now, I’m in diapers.”
Joan Rivers believed that the cancellation of her talk show was what led to her husband’s suicide in 1987. Rosenberg had served as executive producer on the show and had been suffering from heart trouble. “The guilt never goes,” Rivers said in 2002. “For years and years I would suddenly stop and find myself thinking: you son of a b----! How could you?” She surprised some of her fans by embarking on what she called “a merry widow tour”, performing in clubs in Europe and the United States. It drew mixed reactions: in Los Angeles she was booed after telling gags about her husband’s death (“I couldn’t identify the body, I hadn’t looked at him for years. I said, 'I think it’s him, let me see the ring’.”) She also confided to friends that her relationship with Rosenberg had been a “total sham”, and complained bitterly about his treatment of her during their 22-year marriage.
The performer threw herself into her various business projects. As she entered her seventh decade there was no sign that her energy was flagging. She recalled that her aunt Alice used to say that “the person who is happy is the person who gets up wanting something”. In Joan Rivers’s case, the mixture of excitement and anxiety involved in making money, and avoiding penury, drove her on.
She was intermittently successful: her Joan Rivers Worldwide Inc business, selling opulent costume jewellery on television shopping channels, turned over more than $25 million a year at its height. However, that all went wrong when a partner in the business absconded with $37 million. “I used to wake up thinking of that number,” Rivers recalled. The partner went to jail but Rivers had to sell her name and jewellery designs to stave off bankruptcy.
In 2010 a warts-and-all documentary, Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work, showed a workaholic Rivers at 77 performing her one-woman show in the UK and being chauffered to gigs. It opened with alarmingly close shots of Rivers’s surgically enhanced face without make-up.
Joan Rivers’s career experienced an upswing during the last years of her life. She continued performing both live and on television. Recently she stirred up controversy by making tasteless jokes about the Israel-Gaza crisis. When a reporter told her that 2,000 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict, she raised her hands in mock shock and said: “They were told to get out. They didn’t get out. You don’t get out, you are an idiot.”
She enjoyed collecting antiques (“If Louis XIV hasn’t sat on it, I don’t want it”) and described her offstage persona as “shy, introverted and bookish” “That awful, vulgar, loud woman on stage, that’s not me. I wouldn’t want to be her friend.”
Date of Birth: 21 July 1951, Chicago, Illinois, US
Birth Name: Robin McLaurin Williams
Nicknames: Robin Williams
Robin Williams, who has died aged 63, was one of America’s most versatile and successful comedy actors; brilliant at improvisation and mimicry, he made his name on the stand-up comedy circuit, while on screen he was able to portray anyone from a post-menopausal grande dame (Mrs Doubtfire) to a psychopathic killer (One Hour Photo).
Stardom came in the early 1970s after he had taken a cameo role as Mork, an extraterrestrial in the television sitcom Happy Days. Williams’s eccentric, largely improvised performance was a huge hit and spawned a spin-off sitcom, Mork & Mindy, in which Mork lands on Earth and ends up sharing an apartment with the quintessential girl next door. The series which ran on ABC from 1978 to 1982, and arrived in Britain in 1979 showcased the frenzied energy and amazing facility with voices and faces which he would later use in his films. Mork & Mindy eventually reached an audience of 60 million.
After making his screen debut in Robert Altman’s ill-fated 1980 version of Popeye, Williams’s breakthrough came in 1987, when he played Adrian Cronauer, a motormouth DJ who gets up the noses of the top brass in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987).
He delivered an Academy Award-winning performance as a psychologist battling his own emotional demons in Good Will Hunting (1997), and won several Oscar nominations including one for his performance in 1993 as Mrs Doubtfire, the ex-husband who infiltrates himself back into the bosom of the family by disguising himself as a middle-aged Scottish nanny.
Hollywood directors sometimes found it difficult to harness Williams’s talents to a script and a storyline strong enough to take him. There were memorable flops, among them The Survivors (1983), Club Paradise (1986), Toys (1992), Patch Adams (1998), Jakob The Liar (1999) and Bicentennial Man (1999). But he won Oscar nominations for his roles as the mildly anarchic teacher in Dead Poets Society (1989) and as the deranged tramp who leads Jeff Bridges towards personal redemption in The Fisher King (1991).
His critics often complained that Williams’s characters were all the same: cuddly, waifish innocents with a mawkish need to ingratiate themselves with their audience. And there was, admittedly, something curiously sexless about his performances. One American columnist described his appearance as the owner of a gay club in The Birdcage (1996) as akin to “a hirsute construction worker halfway through a sex change operation who can’t afford to finish the job”. Of his performance as a psychologist in Awakenings (1990), one critic observed: “This is another of Robin Williams’s benevolent eunuch roles.” He certainly never got anywhere near a screen clinch.
Yet Williams proved he could play it straight; and he could play it nasty, too. In later life he revealed a darker, more interesting side to his acting. In Insomnia (2002) he put in a masterly performance as a sociopathic killer on the run from Al Pacino’s LAPD cop in the frozen wastes of Alaska. In One Hour Photo (2002) he was chilling as a photo lab technician who becomes obsessed with a family whose films he develops. And in The Night Listener (2006) he played a radio show host who realises that he has developed a friendship with a child who may not exist.
Williams first made his name on the stand-up comedy circuit, and the versatility which was so evident in his later career would have come as no surprise to those familiar with the virtuoso free-fall improvisation of his stage routines. One critic wondered whether the star of such sickly-sweet offerings as Jack (1996) or What Dreams May Come (1998) could be “the same Robin Williams who used to spend two hours on stage pretending to be a penis”.
An only child, Robin McLaurin Williams was born on July 21 1951 in Chicago. His mother was a former model, his father an executive with Ford. The family moved several times during his childhood, at one point living in a house with 40 rooms.
Williams was often portrayed as a lonely child who tried to use humour to build friendships and avoid being picked on. Perhaps, he once joked, it was “because my mother was a Christian Dior Scientist... I was not only picked on physically but intellectually people used to kick copies of George Sand in my face.” But he denied being the class clown, and claimed that he got into acting in his final year at Redwood High School simply “to get laid”.
After leaving school, and a brief spell studying political science, Williams won a place at the Juilliard Academy in New York to study drama. There he demonstrated such extraordinary gifts for improvisation and mimicry that his tutors advised him to concentrate on comedy. He became good friends with his fellow student Christopher Reeve, and the two remained close until Reeve’s death in 2004, nine years after the riding accident that had left him paralysed from the neck down. Their relationship demonstrated the loyal, decent side of Williams’s character. When Reeve’s medical insurance ran out, Williams picked up the tab for many of the bills; then, after Reeve’s widow, Dana, died in 2006, he provided practical and financial support for their 14-year-old son.
After two years at the Juilliard, Williams moved to San Francisco, where he worked in restaurants by day and on the comedy circuit by night until his lucky break on Happy Days. The live stand-up comedy circuit remained a consistent thread throughout his career, and he sometimes turned up unannounced at San Francisco clubs just to get up on stage and start “riffing” — a great way to “peel off any pretence”, as he put it.
In his films and television performances, Williams often ad-libbed his own dialogue. The story goes that his television scriptwriters on Mork & Mindy got so fed up that they took to sending blank pages down to the set, inscribed “Robin Williams does his thing”.
For some reason his stand-up routine did not go down so well on the other side of the Atlantic. “I went to a club in Windsor and I just died,” he recalled. “It was the worst night of my life. A friend was watching and laughing his ass off because all you could hear was the clink of glasses.”
In 1978 Williams married his first wife, Valerie Velardi, a former dancer; but as a result of life in the fast lane he had become addicted to cocaine (“God’s way of telling you you’ve made too much money”, as he remarked). In the early 1980s his marriage fell apart and he started to make bad career moves, choosing films that bombed. But the death from a drugs overdose in 1982 of his friend the actor John Belushi, just hours after Williams had been with him, led Williams to rethink his own lifestyle. He went into rehab and sobered up.
The critical success of Good Morning, Vietnam was followed by a voice role as the Genie in Disney’s cartoon Aladdin (1992), in which left in the studio with a microphone Williams spun off into imitations of everyone from Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson to Carol Channing. Disney ended up with 30 hours of his improvisations, to which the animation was adapted later to synch with his voice-over. What started as a small cameo role eventually stole the show and helped make Aladdin the biggest earner in Disney’s history. By the time of Mrs Doubtfire in 1993 Williams was one of the biggest box office draws in the world.
In August 2008 Williams announced a 26-city stand-up comedy tour entitled Weapons of Self-Destruction. Though he explained that the tour was his last chance to have fun at the expense of George W Bush, the title could just as well have applied to himself. In 2006 he had gone into rehab for alcoholism, and in 2008 his second wife, Marsha Garces, whom he had married in 1986 and who had become his producer, filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.
Williams’s many other film credits include Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), in which he played the adult Peter Pan, and Flubber (1997), in which he was an absent-minded professor who invents a miraculous flying green gloop. He starred in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson (1984); appeared in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997); and played Theodore Roosevelt in the three Night at the Museum movies, the last of which is currently in post-production. He also played President Eisenhower in The Butler (2013).
An avid video games player, and a fan of professional road cycling and Rugby Union, Williams owned a vineyard in the Napa Valley, California, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities, including Comic Relief. In addition to his Oscar award and nominations, he won six Golden Globes, two Screen Actors’ Guild Awards and three Grammy awards.
He belonged to the Episcopal Church (“Catholic Lite same rituals, half the guilt”), and was philosophical about death. “In your fifties, loss is a thing you live with a lot,” he told an interviewer . “Pretty soon friends will be checking out from natural causes. It’s the grim rapper, he’s comin’.”
Robin Williams, who had recently been suffering from depression, died at his San Francisco Bay home in an apparent suicide.
Date of Birth: 2 February 2 1925, Detroit, Michigan, US
Birth Name: Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch, the American actress, who has died aged 89, was the femme formidable of Broadway, famous for her foghorn voice and deadpan comic timing, and notorious for her filthy temper and “cut-the-crap” frankness; but like many who adopt an abrasive outer shell, underneath there beat a softer heart.
Brassy, skyscraper tall and with a voice once described as “like a corncrake wading through Bourbon on the rocks”, Elaine Stritch was a natural scene-stealer. Not strikingly beautiful, though with wondrously long and shapely legs, there was no one quite like her in showbusiness.
In Britain, where she scored an instant hit as Mimi Paragon, the cruise ship hostess in Noël Coward’s Sail Away, she became everyone’s favourite American actress. She will be best remembered for the long-running 1970s BBC sitcom, Two’s Company, in which she played a rich, demanding American in London, opposite Donald Sinden as Robert, her plummy-voiced butler.
But it was on the Broadway stage that she began her career and where she continued to perform on and off for six decades in comedies and musical drama. She understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam; and brought the house down in Pal Joey singing Zip in the famous 1946 revival. Stephen Sondheim gave her one of his greatest songs, Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch, in Company, in which she played beady-eyed lush Joanne in the original 1970 production. One reviewer noted that “she can race through the gears from a savage purr to an air-raid siren howl in five seconds without ever losing a note of the melody”.
Elaine Stritch partied with as much energy as she performed. She knocked it back with such dedicated topers as Judy Garland and Jackie Gleason. “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this, but goodnight!” said Judy Garland as she made an 8am exit from one marathon session. She dated John F Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and even Rock Hudson, for whom she ditched Ben Gazzara a “bum rap”, she confessed.
The diva of the put-down, Elaine Stritch never learned the art of turning the other cheek. She always had the last word. “I’m sorry about what I said to you earlier today,” an interviewer heard her tell an assistant. “I meant every word.”
Yet underneath this spiky carapace there lurked a more fragile personality, at once addicted to, yet terrified of, performing a woman who fought a long-running battle with the bottle which nearly destroyed her altogether.
The youngest of three daughters, Elaine Stritch was born on February 2 1925 into an upper-middle-class Roman Catholic family in suburban Detroit. Her uncle Samuel was Cardinal Stritch of Chicago; her father a senior executive in Ford Motors. She was educated at a convent where “you daren’t speak in the lavatory and you bathed in your nightgown”.
Her more conventional elder sisters left school and got married, but Elaine’s tastes tended towards the bohemian. As a teenager she accompanied the family’s black maid, Carrie, to “Black and Tan” clubs, where she became familiar with “down and dirty” blues such as I Want a Long Time Daddy, which she sang without understanding the lyrics. She tasted her first whisky sour aged 13 and wanted more.
Her father sent her, aged 17, to New York, where she lived in a convent and studied acting at the New School in Manhattan. A contemporary of Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando, she made her student stage debut as a tiger. She “dated” Brando nothing more. When, after a night on the town, he took her back to his place, went to the bathroom, and reappeared in his pyjamas, the teenage Elaine Stritch shot straight back to the convent. “I kissed like a crazy woman,” she recalled. “But I was a virgin until I was 30. Somebody’d touch my breast, and I’d think I was pregnant.”
She was immediately successful. In 1945 she played the parlourmaid in The Private Life of the Master Race and, in 1946, Pamela Brewster in Loco and Miss Crowder in Made in Heaven. After Three Indelicate Ladies and The Little Foxes, she appeared in the review Angel in the Wings singing “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo...”. In 1949 she played the part of Joan Farrell in Yes, M’Lord. Having kicked her heels as an understudy to Ethel Merman in the Broadway production of Call Me Madam, she left a show-stopping role in Pal Joey to do the Merman part on tour to enthusiastic reviews.
After that she starred in shows by Irving Berlin, Noël Coward, Stephen Sondheim and Edward Albee, and was directed by such figures as Erwin Piscator, George Abbott, Harold Clurman and Hal Prince. Coward called her “Stritchie” and, after rescuing her from the flop musical Goldilocks (1958), gave her the lead in Sail Away, in which she sang Why Do the Wrong People Travel?
In his diaries, Coward saw her more vulnerable side: “Poor darling Stritch with all her talents is almost completely confused about everything. She is an ardent Catholic and never stops saying f*** and Jesus Christ. She is also kind, touching and loyal and, fortunately, devoted to me.” After “the Master’s” death, she attended his memorial service wearing a bright red blazer, and mistook Yehudi Menuhin for a busker friend of Coward’s.
Elaine Stritch began her film career inauspiciously with Scarlet Hour (1956). After attending a matinee, Richard Burton told her: “Halfway through your last number I almost had an orgasm.” “Almost?” she shrieked reprovingly. She contributed compelling performances to the 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms, and Providence (1970). In 1971 she was offered a contract by 20th Century Fox but turned it down, not wishing to be typecast as the new Eve Arden the wisecracking girlfriend who never gets her man. Later she appeared in such films as September (1988) and Cocoon (1990),
On television, Elaine Stritch starred in the 1948 domestic comedy Growing Paynes, the short-lived 1960 sitcom My Sister Eileen, and co-starred as the star’s mother in The Ellen Burstyn Show (1986). She was a member of the supporting comedy troupe on the 1949 show Jack Carter and Company, a comic switchboard operator on the 1956 variety series Washington Square, and Peter Falk’s secretary in The Trials of O’Brien (1965).
Coward brought her to London in 1962 in Sail Away, and she returned in 1972 with Sondheim’s Company, winning more ecstatic reviews. She remained in London for several years, making her second home in the Savoy Hotel. Of her barnstorming performance in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings, one reviewer described her “bashing through the play like a truck driver in a garage full of Minis”. “I love asking the way in London,” she told an interviewer. “A man actually left his shop to show me where to go. I thought 'I’m not that attractive and I don’t look like a hooker, so what’s in it for him?’ I finally realised he was simply good-mannered.”
By now she had triumphantly shed the title of the “oldest virgin on Broadway”, having lost her virginity aged 30 to the Fifties film star Gig Young, to whom she was briefly engaged before ditching him for Ben Gazzara. This was fortunate, as Young went on to experiment with LSD and ended up shooting his fourth wife and himself. Less percipient was her decision to get rid of Gazzara when she unwisely fell in love with Rock Hudson well known in green room circles as a rampant homosexual.
Eventually, in 1973 and aged 47, she met and married John Bay, her co-star in Small Craft Warnings. When they got engaged, Elaine Stritch called home to ask her father whether she should bring her fiancé home to see if he approved of him. “No, just marry him,” came the reply. “Don’t let him get away.” The marriage lasted a happy 10 years, until Bay died of cancer.
Since her early years Elaine Stritch had suffered from stage fright and, when prayers did not do the trick, she quelled her nerves with alcohol. By the late 1970s her opening gambit at every watering hole was “I’d like four martinis and a floor plan”. Sacked from shows and thrown out of clubs, she failed to stop drinking even after she became diabetic. But after suffering a severe attack in the hallway of a New York hotel (from which she was saved only because a passing waiter happened to be carrying a Pepsi), she went on the wagon and never touched another drop.
In 2002 she made a triumphant return on Broadway in her one-woman retrospective of her career, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, co-written with John Lahr, which played to sell-out audiences at London’s Old Vic the following year. “There’s good news and bad news,” she told her audience. “The good: I have a sensational acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad: I’ve had it for 45 years.” In a typical Stritchian postscript, when she really did make the speech after being awarded a Tony for her performance, it was so long that the orchestra cut her off in mid-flow. Afterwards she gave an angry, tearful press conference. The show also won her the Drama Desk award for best solo performance and a nomination for the Olivier Award for her performance at the Old Vic.
In 2003 she was made a “Living Landmark” of New York City for her contributions to Broadway, and in 2010-11 she appeared in a Broadway revival of A Little Light Music. She was the subject of a documentary film, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, released earlier this year.
Date of Birth: March 7 1958, Matching Tye, Harlow, Essex, UK
Birth Name: Richard Michael Mayall
Nicknames: Rik Mayall
Rik Mayall, the comedian and actor, was terrible of alternative comedy with an anarchic line in over-the-top scatology; he later broadened his appeal with his portrayal of the egregious politician Alan B’Stard.
His breakthrough came in 1982 when he co-wrote and co-starred in BBC Television’s The Young Ones, a situation comedy featuring a group of revolting students on the breadline, squeezing spots, baring bottoms and sharing a filthy flat.
Arms flailing and eyes bulging, Mayall’s character, the angst-ridden loud-mouthed student Rick, chimed with the programme’s unpredictable “alternative” quality. The show tore up the established rules of comedy; the resulting 35 minutes of rampaging, violent slapstick struck some as having more in common with Warner Bros cartoons than with traditional sitcoms.
Mayall wrote The Young Ones with his then girlfriend Lise Meyer and another emerging alternative comedy star Ben Elton. Although it found a cult audience straight away mostly students, teenagers and twentysomethings others were slow to catch on and it was only when the series was repeated that it began to build a sizeable audience.
In contrast to his outrageous, rebarbative characterisations, Mayall was quietly-spoken and shy, with a reputation as the chameleon comedian: “fluent, funny, polite, informed” noted one of the comparatively few interviewers he spoke to, but “also evasive, slippery, canny, cautious and a tad self-congratulatory”.
“There’s a quality about me,” Mayall himself once confessed, “that you don’t quite trust”.
Although he became a defining part of the television landscape of the 1980s including a memorable turn as the rumbustiously randy Squadron Commander Flashheart in Blackadder Goes Forth (“Always treat your kite like you treat your woman ... get inside her five times a day and take her to heaven and back!”) Mayall always preferred working in the live theatre. His fellow comic actor Simon Fanshawe ascribed to
Mayall “a kind of pure energy as a solo performer on stage that, if you are prepared for the ride, is irresistible”.
In April 1998, when he was 40, a near-fatal accident on a quad bike left Mayall in a coma for five days; severe head injuries caused impaired memory, shaky co-ordination and speech problems. “The accident was over Easter and as you know, Jesus our Lord was nailed to the cross on Good Friday,” recounted Mayall in an interview last year. “The day before that is Crap Thursday, and that’s the day Rik Mayall died. And then he was dead on Good Friday, Saturday, Sunday until Bank Holiday Monday.”
But he appeared to have made a complete recovery, and returned to work in blustering form as Richie Twat (pronounced Thwaite) in Guesthouse Paradiso (1999), a film he co-wrote with his friend and long-time comedy partner Adrian Edmondson.
Although his part as Peeves the poltergeist in the first Harry Potter film failed to make the final cut, Mayall remained philosophical. “I’ve looked over the edge,” he remarked, adding that his brush with death had taught him that ending up on the cutting room floor hardly seemed so bad.
Richard Michael Mayall was born on March 7 1958 at Matching Tye, a village near Harlow, Essex, but brought up in Droitwich, Worcestershire. The third child of two Left-wing drama teachers, he made his stage debut when he was six in a crowd scene in his father’s production of The Good Woman of Setzuan.
Taking the name Rik from the comic strip character Erik the Viking, he passed the 11-plus aged nine as it was being phased out, winning a free place at the fee-paying King’s School, Worcester, the youngest boy there when he arrived a year early.
At Manchester University, studying drama in the late 1970s, his tutor noted that Mayall’s humour was “always pretty puerile”. Nevertheless Mayall undertook a student tour of America as Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors. Graduating in 1979, he arrived in London to work for a job agency on £29 a week.
With Edmondson, whom he met at university, he formed a comedy duo called Twentieth Century Coyote, and began making appearances at The Comedy Store. The pair went on to make their name at another club, The Comedy Strip, launch-pad for several so-called “alternative” comedians. Television work followed, with Mayall teamed with Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in the Comic Strip films.
Mayall also found work as a straight actor, making what The Daily Telegraph called “a brilliant debut” as the dashingly good-looking dandy Ivan in Gogol’s The Government Inspector at the Olivier Theatre in 1985. In 1988 he starred with Stephen Fry in Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit at the Phoenix, and in 1991 was what one critic considered a “downright nerdish” Vladimir in Waiting for Godot at the Queen’s Theatre.
In Simon Gray’s ill-starred Cell Mates at the Albery in 1995 Stephen Fry famously walked out of the production after three performances and vanished for several days Mayall’s portrayal of the petty Irish criminal Sean Bourke was hailed as “brilliant” by The Sunday Telegraph’s John Gross: “At every stage he exerts a magnetic spell.”
Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Covent Garden during the play’s six-week run, Mayall pulled a toy gun in the street and pointed it at two strangers. Police formally warned him but he was released without charge, Mayall himself conceding that he had been “a total prat”.
He came to national notice on television as the unemployable investigative reporter Kevin Turvey in A Kick Up The Eighties, a sketch show that he co-wrote. Mayall went on to co-write and star in The Young Ones with Elton, Edmondson and Nigel Planer. The show became a cult hit worldwide including in America and was his best-known project. The team’s feeble follow-up Filthy, Rich and Catflap was followed in turn by the critically-panned black comedy Bottom (1991), with Mayall starring as a sex-starved bachelor; a sell-out touring stage version of the programme was resurrected a few years later.
In The New Statesman (1987), Mayall portrayed a ruthless and corrupt Tory MP called Alan B’Stard who would stop at nothing to gain power; as part of Mayall’s character research, the Conservative MP Michael Portillo gave him a tour of the Commons. The scriptwriters Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran explained that they had taken Mayall’s persona from The Young Ones and poured it into a Savile Row suit.
He continued to blossom as a comic actor in a series of hour-long showcases for ITV Rik Mayall Presents (1993), in which, noted the Telegraph’s critic, “Mayall achieves high comedy”.
In addition to his occasional role in the BBC’s Blackadder during the 1990s, Mayall also provided the voice of a malevolent baby in the mini-sitcom How To Be A Little Sod (1995). His other film credits included both a Hollywood flop, Drop Dead Fred (1991), and a British one, Bring Me The Head of Mavis Davis (1997), in which he played a music industry manager plotting to kill his fading pop star client.
After his accident, Mayall’s output had been less prolific, but as well as Guesthouse Paradiso he starred in several video versions of Bottom, and as a camp DJ in Day of the Sirens (2002). He also starred in the ITV sitcom Believe Nothing (2002) as an egotistical Nobel Prize-winning Oxford professor named Adonis Cnut, a member of the Council for International Progress, an underground organisation that aspires to control the world. He reprised the role of Alan B’Stard in the stage play The New Statesman 2006: Blair B’Stard Project (Trafalgar Studios), in which B’Stard has left the Conservatives to become a Labour MP. In 2011, Mayall appeared on Let’s Dance For Comic Relief, attacking his old friend Edmondson with a frying pan as he attempted to perform The Dying Swan.
His autobiography Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ was published in 2005.
Date of Birth: 8 September 1922, Yonkers, New York, US
Birth Name: Isaac Sidney Ceasar
Nicknames: Sid Ceasar
Sid Caesar became the best-known comedian on American television in the 1950s; but while his innovative and influential Your Show Of Shows was credited with accelerating indeed arguably creating the postwar surge in sales of television sets in the United States, he subsequently spent two decades battling drink and drug addiction.
First broadcast in February 1950, Caesar’s live Saturday night variety series was an enormous hit with the American viewing public. At first blush the smorgasbord of ingredients seemed an unlikely mix: comic sketches, ballet, modern dance, popular music and even operatic numbers. Caesar would appear as an “interviewing reporter” in comedy skits with his co-star Imogene Coca, and alone in "double-talk" monologues or pantomime.
When Caesar made his breakthrough, television comedy as an art form was still in its infancy. A New York-based concept, the genre featured (mostly Jewish) comedians and writers whose edgy, urban sophistication did not always chime with the plainer fare preferred by the American mid-West, where many were only just starting to trade in their radios for television sets. With Caesar’s 90-minute weekly Saturday night show, small-screen comedy came of age.
Using mostly his own material, Caesar drew on his observations of everyday life, making use of the comedy of situation or character rather than the gag or wisecrack, so prefiguring the emergence of the sitcom. By modern lights, the humour lacked edge. “There were so many things we couldn’t do,” Caesar later recalled. “It was the 1950s. Everything had to be squeaky clean. So it made us work harder and made us think deeper.”
A talented cast of comedy writers, including Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, also contributed, cutting their teeth before setting the comic agenda for American popular culture for two decades to come. So did the playwright Neil Simon, and the authors of the two longest-running 1960s Broadway musicals, Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) and Michael Stewart (Hello, Dolly!). Between 1954 and 1958 Caesar also starred in his own domestic comedy series Caesar’s Hour, the prototype of countless imitations, with his “wives” including Nanette Fabray and Janet Blair.
But then he vanished almost entirely into what he called his “20-year blackout” while he struggled with addiction. It turned out that (unbeknown to even his closest colleagues) Caesar was already an alcoholic when he burst through to television stardom. Earning $1 million a year at the age of 30, he later admitted to destroying himself with two bottles of Scotch a night, followed later by an addiction to barbiturates and tranquillisers.
As he battled his demons, an ordeal later chronicled in his memoir Where Have I Been? (1983), Caesar would tear basins out of the bathrooms in his mansion on Long Island. In 1978 he spent four months in bed, secretly ordering beer whenever his wife turned her back.
From time to time he would emerge to make a guest appearance on other people’s television shows and he remained a close friend of Mel Brooks, appearing in his films Silent Movie (1976) and History Of The World Part One (1981).
Isaac Sidney Caesar was born on September 8 1922 in Yonkers, New York, where his Austrian-born father, Max, owned a 24-hour diner. From his Riussian mother and the Italian and Polish building workers who patronised the restaurant, the youngster developed a good comedian’s ear for dialect. He learned his trademark “double-talk”, a stream of nonsense sounding plausibly like a foreign language, from listening to his parents’ immigrant clientèle.
Enrolling at the Franklin and Hawthorne junior high schools, he worked after classes to pay for lessons on the saxophone at the Juilliard School of Music. As a Yonkers high school student, he played at school dances and, in 1939, on graduating, went in search of work as a musician.
In 1942 he enlisted in the US Coastguard and was assigned to pier duty in Brooklyn where he wrote sketches for Six On, Twelve Off, a musical later produced as a coastguard show. He got a part in another successful coastguard musical, Tars And Spars, and was the only member of the cast to be used when Columbia made a film of it in 1946.
In 1945 he made his first nightclub appearance at the Copacabana in New York playing saxophone in a swing band. When he started adding jokes to his music-making, he became a regular cabaret fixture in the so-called Borscht Belt, the tourist area in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York where the resort hotels booked Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason and Jerry Lewis to entertain some of the toughest audiences in America.
Caesar appeared in the 1948 revue Make Mine Manhattan and won the Donaldson award for the best debut performance in a Broadway musical.
His television debut as a relative unknown in the 1949 hour-long weekly Admiral Broadway Revue, which included Imogene Coca, was abruptly cancelled after 19 weeks when the sponsors, the Admiral electronics firm, complained that they were having to retool their factory to meet the surge in demand for television sets 10,000 a week instead of the 500 they were geared up to produce on account of the show’s success.
But within a year this backhanded triumph had led directly to Your Show Of Shows. As the series grew in popularity, Caesar mentored many younger American comedy writers; Neil Simon later based his 1993 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor on his experiences. When Caesar took on the unknown Mel Brooks, and paid him $5,000 a week, the future star comedy writer introduced himself as a Jewish pirate: “You know how much they’re charging for sailcloth these days?… I can’t afford to pillage and rape anymore.”
Caesar’s Your Show of Shows ran for four years (1950-54), and was also the inspiration for the Peter O’Toole film My Favourite Year (1982). For Caesar’s Hour, the staff writers were augmented by, among others, Neil Simon’s elder brother Danny, and Larry Gelbart, who would later create the hit television show M*A*S*H.
Caesar’s other film appearances included Tars and Spars (1946); The Guilt Of Janet Ames (1947); It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); A Guide For The Married Man and The Busy Body (both 1967); Ten From Your Show Of Shows (1973), Airport 75, Grease and The Cheap Detective (1978), and The Fiendish Plot Of Dr Fu Manchu (1980) in which he played an FBI agent trying to track down the Chinese arch-villain.
Caesar eventually overcame his addictions, thanks to a self-help regime he loosely described as “spontaneous Jungian analysis”. In a second volume of memoirs, Caesar’s Hours (2003), he admired the way his heroes, great comedians of the silent film era like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Date of Birth: 8 February 1944, Islington, North London, UK
Birth Name: Roger Llyod-Pack
Roger Lloyd-Pack, the actor, who has died aged 69, will forever be associated with the slow-witted Peckham road sweeper Trigger, whom he played in the much-loved television series Only Fools and Horses.
As one of the regulars at the Nag’s Head pub, Trigger provided an immeasurably dim foil to the wit and wisdom of wheeler-dealer Del Boy (David Jason), used-car salesman Boycie (John Challis), landlord Mike (Kenneth MacDonald) and Del Boy’s younger brother, Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst).
The character was involved both in one of the series’ best running jokes, and its greatest slapstick moment. In the latter, he accompanies Del Boy on a mission to pick up a couple of “modern euro-birds”, only for Del Boy to fall through the bar after a waiter, unnoticed, lifts the hatch. In the former, Trigger persistently refers to Rodney as “Dave”. Even on the announcement of Rodney’s engagement, to Cassandra, Trigger raises a glass “to Cassandra and Dave”. When she discloses that she is pregnant, he suggests that the couple call the baby “Rodney, after Dave”.
Born with what he described as “an old man’s face”, Lloyd-Pack had to wait until his 40s to find success as an actor; once he found it with Trigger, however, the role would not leave him be. Such was his identification with the road-sweeper that passers-by, even policemen, would shout out “Wotcher Trig?” at him in the street. In conversation, he said, strangers assumed he was very thick. He described the role as “like an albatross in one way. If something becomes mega, like Fools, you’ve had it. I’ll never escape Trigger, I’ve learnt to live with that.”
But the role (which he nearly abandoned after two series, until his agent told he would be “mad”) provided him with a measure of financial security and also ensured that he did not have to worry about finding work again. Though he never subsequently secured the golden roles of Lear or Shylock, to which he aspired, he was sought after for smaller, plum Shakespearean parts, such as Buckingham (in Richard III) or Sir Andrew Aguecheek (in Twelfth Night).
Not that he was above playing a pantomime dame, or signing on to the Harry Potter franchise. Acting, he said, was “a silly job, in a way, especially when you get older. It’s just dressing up, playing at being someone else. It’s rather lovely, too, but it’s hardly life and death.”
Roger Lloyd-Pack was born on February 8 1944 in north London. His father, Charles Pack, had grown up a working-class lad in the East End before turning to acting and, in the 1930s, adding Lloyd to his surname. Roger’s mother, Ulrike, was an Austrian-Jewish emigrée who had fled the Nazis.
Roger was educated at St David’s (“a snobby little prep school run by a sadistic couple”) and Bedales, where he “coasted”. He did not shine at Geography (securing just nine per cent in his O-level), but did begin acting, eventually auditioning for Rada. After training there, however, he found jobs hard to come by.
In part he put this down to his looks. “It took a while for all my features to fall into place,” he said. “I didn’t come into my own as an actor until I was 40. I was not easy to cast.” He found bit parts in series such as The Avengers, The Protectors and Dixon of Dock Green, but spent much of his time drifting in rep waiting, with increasingly little confidence, for his big break.
In the mid-1970s his career got a boost when the director Bill Gaskill invited him to join the Joint Stock Theatre Company, which pioneered the idea of using collaborative workshops to inspire new material from playwrights such as David Hare and Caryl Churchill. But it was not until 1981, with the advent of Only Fools and Horses, that he secured his future as an actor. He was signed up after being spotted by the series’ producer, Ray Butt, while in a play alongside Billy Murray, who was being considered for the Del Boy role.
The series ran for a decade, with the character of Trigger appearing in nearly every episode and acquiring something approaching cult status, notably for moments of inadvertent wisdom that pierced the fog of idiocy. On one occasion, Trigger prompts a philosophical debate by revealing that he has used the same broom to sweep streets for 20 years. When asked his secret, he reveals that he has lovingly maintained it, replacing the head 17 times and the handle 14 times.
In interviews Lloyd-Pack was frank, sometimes disarmingly so, about the nature of his/Trigger’s rather peculiar brand of celebrity. He was also frank about the travails of his personal life, in particular the mental health difficulties faced by his eldest daughter, Emily.
Emily Lloyd, who was born when Lloyd-Pack was 26, was catapulted to Hollywood stardom while still in her teens after appearing in the film Wish You Were Here (1987). A decade in Hollywood followed, but she was increasingly afflicted by mental health problems. In an interview last year, Lloyd-Pack said that watching his daughter struggle with her condition was “absolutely heart-rending and painful”.
He was also forthright about the possibility that, having left his first marriage, to the actress Sheila Ball, when Emily was only two, he had somehow contributed to his daughter’s later difficulties. “I feel very sad about that,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you can’t have a second chance. Forming good, trusting relationships with your children involves being with them when they’re very small and holding them. You can’t replace it. The thing you most want in your life when you’re little is for both your parents to love each other. If not, it can be the beginning of all your problems.”
Roger Lloyd-Pack, who died of cancer, was also clear-sighted about death, upon which, he said, even before his diagnosis, he reflected every day. A keen cyclist, recycler, and campaigner for Left-wing causes, he revealed he would like to buried in “a cardboard coffin”. As for his obituaries: “I don’t really care what [they] say, so long as they are fair. I know I will be best remembered for Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, but I hope all my other work will be acknowledged, too.”
His television credits included Spyder’s Web; Moving; The Bill; The Old Guys; and The Vicar of Dibley. Film credits included The Naked Civil Servant; 1984; Wilt; Interview with the Vampire; Vanity Fair; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Date of Birth: 15 November 1926, Islington, North London, UK
Birth Name: Michael Weinstein
Nicknames: Michael Winters, Mike Winters
Mike Winters was the straight man to his goofy-toothed brother Bernie in the comedy double act Mike & Bernie Winters.
The brothers were pioneers of television comedy, first appearing on Britain’s screens in 1955 on the BBC show Variety Parade, before becoming regulars on programmes such as Big Night Out and Sunday Night At The London Palladium. In 1965 they won their own comedy show on ITV.
Mike was the suave, pipe-smoking member of the duo, referred to as “Choochie-Face” by his brother Bernie, a lovable buffoon with a gormless grin and the cheery catchphrase: “I’ll smash yer face in”. Known for his sophisticated wordplay, Bernie would confuse “vowels” with “bowels” or say “You’ve heard of Frank Sinatra? Well, here’s Stank Tomato!”, while Mike would interrupt with an exasperated “Stop! I’m not interested.”
It is somewhat difficult in hindsight to see what people found so funny; even in their heyday critical opinion was mixed. An oft-quoted story told of Bernie following his brother on stage at the notorious Glasgow Empire, to be greeted by a voice from the stalls: “Good God, there’s two of them!”. Meanwhile, when Morecambe and Wise were asked what they would have done had they flopped in show business, they replied: “We’d have been Mike and Bernie Winters.”
Yet they were immensely popular. Their ITV show ran for eight years, regularly reaching the top three in the ratings and attracting guest stars such as Tom Jones and The Beatles, who appeared on the programme three times.
The brothers continued to work together, but in 1978 they fell out, allegedly over Bernie’s long-running affair with a dancer 20 years his junior. While Bernie dreamed up a new act starring a new partner, his St Bernard dog Schnorbitz, and became a regular on television shows such as Punchlines and Give Us A Clue, Mike abandoned showbusiness and emigrated to Florida to become a businessman.
Michael Winters was born Michael Weinstein on November 15 1926 in Islington, North London, into an Orthodox Jewish family. His brother Bernie was born in 1929.
Michael attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied the clarinet. During the war he served in the Merchant Navy despite being underage. Discharged on medical grounds, he subsequently enlisted in the Canadian Legion as a musician.
He had a facility for jazz and after the war, with brother Bernie on drums, he began getting gigs at the Stage Door Canteen, an ex-servicemen’s club in Piccadilly. To keep the audience entertained they began interrupting their solos with short comedy impressions, and soon found work entertaining the troops abroad, appearing in the Occupied Zone in Vienna.
From 1955 to 1958 Mike and Bernie Winters were regulars on the BBC’s Variety Parade, after which they moved to ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, supporting Shirley Bassey. They did pantomimes in Cardiff, cabarets in Sheffield and summer seasons in Yarmouth where, in 1967, despite the resort also boasting Rolf Harris, Morecambe and Wise and Val Doonican, each in their own their rival shows, Mike and Bernie broke all box-office records for the season — an achievement that still stands. In 1962 the brothers starred at a Royal Variety Performance and the following year they starred with Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper in Michael Winner’s film The Cool Mikado.
After the brothers’ act broke up, Mike emigrated to Florida, where he became a successful Miami nightclub owner, did much work for charity and wrote several books including a memoir, The Sunny Side Of Winters (2010). He eventually retired to Gloucestershire.
Although he and his brother never worked together again, they made their peace before Bernie’s death in 1991.
Date of Birth: 3 December 1952, Chiswick, Middlesex, UK
Birth Name: Melvin Kenneth Smith
Nicknames: Mel Smith
Mel Smith was part of one of television's best-known comedy double acts as well as a successful actor and director in his own right.
His comedy sketches on Alas Smith and Jones and Not the Nine O'Clock News turned him into a household name.
Often he played the role of world-weary know-it-all, but also thrived as a loveable rogue.
He enjoyed long and varied career, which saw Smith appear in and direct Hollywood films, introduce Queen at Live Aid and score a top-five chart hit.
Born in Chiswick, west London, it was perhaps inevitable Smith the son of a bookmaker would enter the world of entertainment as even at the age of six he was directing plays with his friends.
He went up to New College, Oxford, to study experimental psychology, having chosen the university especially for its dramatic society.
Smith's involvement in the society led to him becoming its president, and he directed productions at the Oxford Playhouse and performed at the Edinburgh fringe festival during his university days.
His directing career saw him first working at the Royal Court in London, before moving on to the Bristol Old Vic and the Sheffield Crucible.
It was after being invited by producer John Lloyd to join the Not the Nine O'Clock News that Smith met Griff Rhys Jones, who would go on to become his comedy sidekick for decades to come.
When the programme, which also featured Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson, came to an end, Smith and Jones decided to continue their comedy partnership with their own sketch show, its name being taken from American Western series Alias Smith and Jones.
Its trademark became the pair's head-to-head chats, which have been compared to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Dagenham Dialogues.
The conversations saw Smith play a know-it-all, while Jones took on a dim-witted persona, and they would engage in discussions on every topic under the sun. Over the next 16 years, there were a total of 10 series of the show.
In addition, Smith and Jones made films and radio shows together, and performed in plays, clip shows and Christmas specials. The comedians' many charity appearances included taking to the stage at Wembley to introduce Queen at 1985's Live Aid.
They founded production firm Talkback in 1981, which was responsible for comedy hits including Da Ali G Show and Knowing Me Knowing You. The firm was sold in 2000.
The last Smith and Jones series aired in 1998, but the pair stayed in touch and in 2005 collaborated on The Alas Smith and Jones Sketchbook, a showcase of their past shows.
Smith directed films including Bean The Ultimate Disaster Movie, which starred fellow Not the Nine O'Clock News comic Atkinson, and Richard Curtis romantic comedy The Tall Guy. His acting credits included Babylon in 1980, the 1987 hit The Princess Bride and Sir Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn's 1996 production of Twelfth Night.
The comic also took the title role in Raymond Briggs' animated Father Christmas in 1991, in which he sung the song Another Bloomin' Christmas.
He had previously demonstrated his vocal talents in 1981, releasing the single Mel Smith's Greatest Hits, and in 1987 when he teamed up with Kim Wilde for the Comic Relief song Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree which reached the top five.
Smith worked with Jones again on a sketch show for BBC One only last year.
Date of Birth: 15 January 192, Dulwich, London, UK
Birth Name: Frank Thornton Ball
Nicknames: Frank Thornton
Best known as the haughty department store supervisor Captain Peacock in the TV comedy Are You Being Served?
The actor Frank Thornton, who has died aged 92, had a flair for comedy derived from the subtle craftsmanship of classical stage work. However, he will be best remembered for his longstanding characters in two popular BBC television comedy series the sniffily priggish Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served? and the pompous retired policeman Herbert "Truly" Truelove, in Roy Clarke's Last of the Summer Wine.
Robertson Hare, the great Whitehall farceur, told him: "You'll never do any good until you're 40." And, said Thornton, "he was quite right." In the event, he was 51 when David Croft, producer of another long-running British staple, Dad's Army, remembered the tall, long-faced actor from another engagement and decided to cast him as the dapper floor-walker in charge of shop assistants played by Mollie Sugden, Wendy Richard, Trevor Bannister and John Inman in the Grace Brothers department store of Are You Being Served? (1973‑85). Thornton's latter-day Malvolio, all pinstripes and impassive disdain, proved a perfect antithesis to the general air of jobsworthy incompetence and smutty innuendo.
Captain Peacock was ideal casting for Thornton, who went on to appear in all 10 series. For when it came to a sense of the punctilious, the right way to do things, Thornton was your man.
In later life, he came to lament his own typecasting, feeling it had limited his chance to play more heavyweight roles. But his deadpan manner and ability to play the straight man gave him a career that extended for more than seven decades from a debut in 1940.It was Thornton's understated but exquisite sense of timing that marked him out and gave him his durability, something that the writer-director Ray Cooney put down to his early years in weekly repertory, where over a period of three years "you'd get through 150 plays. It steeped you in character work."
He recalled Thornton's ability to hold his ground in the most trying circumstances, citing an instance in the 1993 run of his West End farce It Runs in the Family. With the rest of the cast "corpsing" around him, Thornton, solid as a rock, and the foil for the surrounding mayhem, resisted by a desperate working of his eyebrows before finally succumbing "with tears pouring down his face". He was, says Cooney, the epitome of professionalism.
Born Frank Thornton Ball in Dulwich, south-east London, he was educated at Alleyn's school. He knew he wanted to be an actor from about the age of five, but first became an insurance clerk, taking drama classes at night at the London School of Dramatic Art. As a child, he described himself as "a bit of a loner, not one of the lads. I think I was probably a bit of a prig because I seem to have been stuck with this supercilious persona for as long as I can remember."
From his first professional appearance, in Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears in Co Tipperary, he swiftly graduated to companies led by the actor-managers Donald Wolfit where he met his future wife, Beryl Evans – and John Gielgud. After reaching the West End and appearing in the first production of Rattigan's Flare Path in 1942, Thornton then spent four years in the real RAF.
After demob, he divided his time between repertory and the West End before his television comedy career took off in 1960 with Michael Bentine's frenetic It's a Square World. Regular appearances followed alongside such comic greats as Tony Hancock (including the celebrated Hancock's Half Hour episode, The Blood Donor), Benny Hill, Eric Sykes, Ronnie Corbett and even Kenny Everett, on whose show he memorably appeared attired as a punk rocker.
But he also continued to work in the theatre. His air of lugubriousness served him well as a "grey-faced, bug-eyed" Eeyore (as one review put it), in an adaptation of Winnie the Pooh at the Phoenix theatre, London, in the early 1970s.
In 1980, he and Gwen Nelson were the old couple in Eugène Ionesco's absurdist drama The Chairs for the Royal Exchange, Manchester, and played Gremio in Jonathan Miller's TV version of The Taming of the Shrew. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he could be seen in the West End and elsewhere in classic revivals: Cooney farces, and musicals such as Me and My Girl (1984), Spread a Little Happiness (1992) and three of the Barbican's Lost Musicals series, Music in the Air (1993), the Gershwins' Strike Up the Band (1994) and Take Me Along (1995).
The reality TV court show got its comeuppance with the spoof version All Rise for Julian Clary (1996-97) in which Thornton supplied the necessary token gravitas. When his turn came for This Is Your Life in 1998, Clary responded with a glowing compliment: "I'm here, Frank, to tell the world what we all know, what a funny, amusing and very handsome man you are." By then Thornton had succeeded Michael Bates, Brian Wilde and Michael Aldridge in leading the exploits of the trio at the heart of Last of the Summer Wine: his tenure lasted from 1997 till the series came to a close in 2010.
Thornton had more than 60 film credits, including Victim (1961), The Dock Brief (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (with Zero Mostel, 1966), A Flea in Her Ear (with Rex Harrison, 1968), The Bed Sitting Room (1969), The Old Curiosity Shop (1995) and Gosford Park (2001), as well as the Disney TV adaptation of Great Expectations (1991). His last appearance came in the 2012 film version of Run for Your Wife.
Date of Birth: 19 June 1940, Thrybergh, South Yorkshire, UK
Birth Name: George Frederick Speight
Nicknames: Paul Shane
Paul Shane made the leap from provincial stand-up club comedian to television stardom when he played the lowbrow holiday camp compère Ted Bovis in the popular 1980s BBC sitcom Hi-de-Hi!
Jimmy Perry, who co-wrote the series with David Croft, was watching Coronation Street in 1979 when he spotted Shane playing a minor character called Frank Roper, a Post Office official. The scene lasted only two minutes, but Perry immediately realised that the bull-necked Shane would be perfect as Bovis, the resident comic at Maplin’s holiday camp.
In an ensemble cast typical of the Croft-Perry canon (Dad’s Army; It Ain’t Half Hot Mum), Shane was perhaps the character with the greatest individual heft, a wily, vulgar, end-of-the-pier throwback concerned to raise a belly-laugh at every turn and, in so doing (as one commentator has observed), elevate low comedy to the status of a high art.
Amid the shabby splendour of Maplin’s Hawaiian Ballroom, Ted Bovis unceasingly strove to fashion his latest “belter” by way of a gag or comedy routine. Moreover, Shane as Bovis squat, pie-faced, garishly dressed, with a ragged moustache and heavily-greased slicked back hair was the ideal foil for his sidekick, the lanky, gormless novice comedian, Spike Dixon (Jeffrey Holland).
Shane’s path to fame had started in the late 1960s when he was invalided out of his job as a coalminer and determined to make a career as a singer, borrowing from the repertoires of stars ranging from Matt Monro to Elvis Presley. His bookings took him from venues like the Cemetery Road Social Club, Scunthorpe, where he played to an audience of steelworkers impatient for the glamorous grandmother competition final, to cabaret dates at leading nightspots across Yorkshire and Lancashire.
As an unreconstructed provincial entertainer, it was Shane’s good fortune to emerge into the national consciousness before television sitcoms became neutered by the dictates of political correctness, relying instead certainly in the case of Hi-de-Hi! (1980-88) on the saucy humour of the seaside postcard. This was given full rein in the portrayal of Maplin’s Yellowcoats, the cadre of young women led by the man-eating Gladys Pugh (Ruth Madoc), charged with keeping up the campers’ flagging esprit de corps.
Although the series became the programme Butlins loved to hate for perpetuating the stereotypical image of holiday camps as chilly, regimented and down-at-heel, in 1985 the company hired Shane to appear as Ted Bovis in a publicity stunt assisted by a leggy Redcoat.
The son of working-class parents, Paul Shane was born George Frederick Speight on June 19 1940 at Thrybergh, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire. Leaving Spurley Hey school, Rotherham, he took a job as a miner, so impressing his workmates at Silverwood Colliery with his singing at the coalface that they urged him to turn professional. When, in 1967, he injured his back slipping on soap in the pithead baths, he was pensioned off at the age of 27.
With his compensation he bought the equipment he needed to launch himself as a singer in the clubs and pubs of South Yorkshire, encouraged by his mother, who herself occasionally sang at weddings. Initially calling himself Paul Stephens, he made his debut as a vocalist at a local pub, followed by his first club booking at St Ann’s Club, Rotherham, for which he was paid 30 shillings (£1.50).
Making the transformation from singer to comedian, Paul Stephens began with a “straight” rendition of Green Green Grass of Home, but eventually made it a comic send-up of the Tom Jones hit. Warned by Equity that there was another entertainer called Paul Stephens, he decided to change his name to Paul Shane after seeing the Alan Ladd Western Shane (1953) on television.
As his career as a club entertainer around the pit villages flourished, Shane started to pick up small parts on television. In 1977 he appeared for the first time in Coronation Street as a disc-jockey called Dave-the-Rave, and in May 1979 he was cast as Frank Roper, the appearance noticed by Jimmy Perry, who offered him the part of Ted Bovis in Hi-de-Hi!
When the series ended in 1988, Perry and Croft offered Shane the part of the butler Alf Stokes in their next sitcom You Rang, M’Lord? A comic parody of dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs, which ran until 1993. Although in 1991 ITV had given Shane his own series, Very Big Very Soon, in which he starred as a northern variety agent, it fared badly in the ratings and was pulled after one series.
In Oh, Doctor Beeching! (1995-97), Shane played the acting stationmaster Jack Skinner. Other television roles included appearances in Holby City, Muck And Brass, Kavanagh QC and Emmerdale. In 1981 he was the subject of an edition of This Is Your Life.
Shane’s stage work included roles in Run For Your Wife at the Whitehall Theatre, as Mr Bumble in a revival of Oliver! at the London Palladium, and in tours of Fur Coat And No Knickers and Ray Cooney’s Out Of Order. His numerous pantomime appearances included Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk in 2008. His last film role was as a retired bank robber in The Grey Mile (2012).
Date of Birth: 25 December 1925, Hull, UK
Birth Name: Norman Victor Collier
Nicknames: Norman Collier
Norman Collier belonged to the tradition of northern comics on which television feasted in the 1970s and 1980s before dumping them in favour of “alternative” comedians.
Collier started out on the northern club circuit, attracting an enthusiastic regional following before coming to wider attention with his debut on the Royal Variety Show in 1971. “Unknown comedian Norman Collier won a standing ovation for his act,” reported the Daily Express. “Norman turned out to be one of the big successes of this year’s Royal knees-up,” agreed the Daily Mirror.
He is perhaps best remembered for his recurring gag in which a northern club compère struggles with an intermittently faulty microphone; and another in which he created the noises, gestures and movements of a chicken, using his out-turned, off-the-shoulder jacket to suggest the creature’s wings, a routine that recalled the antics of Max Wall.
Drawing on the tradition of the 1950s radio comedian Al Read, Collier perfected a style of absurd situational monologues rather than relying on the usual rattle of quick-fire jokes. Although his set pieces often drew on northern working-class stereotypes, he made a point of avoiding the kind of racist material that proved the undoing of some other comedians, and made them unusable on television.
As well as making regular appearances on popular radio and television shows of the 1970s and 1980s, including The Generation Game, Blankety Blank and The Little And Large Show, Collier also toured extensively in Britain, the United States, Canada, Europe and the Far East. Jimmy Tarbuck became a fan, acclaiming Collier as “the comedian’s comedian”.
Collier stumbled into showbusiness by chance. In 1948, when he was working as a builder’s labourer, a friend invited him for a pint at the social club in Perth Street, round the corner from his house in Hull. When the booked comedian failed to appear, Collier stepped forward. “In those days, if the act didn’t turn up, they asked for a volunteer,” he explained. “The next thing I knew, I was being announced.”
Notwithstanding his lack of experience, Collier paid five shillings (25p) for a Variety Artists’ Association card that allowed him to work in the clubs; in post-war Hull the working men’s clubs were all privately owned.
While venturing further afield to appear at nightclubs in Doncaster and Goole, he spent his days employed as a labourer at the DCL chemical works (now BP) at Saltend, on the outskirts of Hull. Once, when moving some scrap, he found a funnel and, using it as a prop, started shouting “Vote for Collier” through it. When he realised the boss was watching, Collier expected to be sacked. Instead, when the boss pointed to all his smiling colleagues, he was told to carry on.
By 1962 Collier was getting so much nightclub work that he turned professional. Booked for a show called Clubland Performance in Blackpool, hosted by Michael Aspel, he was subsequently signed to Lew Grade’s talent agency and billed with Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Collier was soon touring Britain with other big stars of the day, such as the Everly Brothers.
One of Collier’s sketches about a mythical northern working men’s club in which he played various characters, including the cloth-capped chairman became the basis of Granada Television’s popular Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Social Club series in the mid-1970s.
His own television debut was in 1965 on Let’s Laugh, made by the BBC in Manchester. Also on the bill was another unknown northern comedian, Les Dawson, and the singer Tom Jones, who, despite seeing his second single, It’s Not Unusual, rocket to the top of the record charts, arrived at the studios in a little blue van.
The eldest of eight children, Norman Victor Collier was born in Hull on Christmas Day 1925, and is said to have weighed 15lb 4oz at birth. His expanding family lived in a two-bedroomed house with an outside lavatory and no hot water. As the eldest child, Norman had to run errands and bathe the other children.
“We were like rats in a box,” he recalled. “Everything was on tick, and I used to run round to the shops at nearly closing time on a Sunday night and ask them to fill my carrier bag up with stale pastry for twopence. I also used to go to the old marketplace in Hull and bid for meat, sixpence a joint.”
At the age of 17 he joined the Royal Navy, and towards the end of the Second World War served as a gunner in an aircraft carrier.
Throughout his years on the club circuit, Collier invariably returned home to Hull after his show, regardless of whether he had been performing in Wales, London or on the south coast.
He claimed that he was kept “grounded” by his wife, Lucy, who would dispatch him and their son, Vic, who drove the car, with “snap” boxes of sandwiches wrapped in tin foil together with tea bags and powdered milk.
Collier also appeared frequently in pantomime, notably as Widow Twankey opposite the comedians Little and Large in Aladdin at the New Theatre, Hull. He continued to perform into his eighties. In 2009 he appeared with Tom O’Connor, Faith Brown, Bucks Fizz, Cannon and Ball and Ray Allen in a 25-night tour of The Best of British Variety.
Collier, a long-standing member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, raised thousands of pounds for charity by organising golf tournaments, and also played golf for the Variety Club of Great Britain. His autobiography, Just a Job, appeared in 2009.