Wednesday, 31 March 2010

THE TRAGIC COMIC

An eerie look at the deaths of some of comedy's favourites - Sadly a fair portion of our best loved comics met miserable or untimely deaths, many in coincidental similar circumstances. Making us laugh was often a mask for personal and private addictions, illnesses and vulnerabilities.
With a fair portion of the comics mentioned leading unhealthy lifestyles, heavy drinking, smoking, adultery, domestic violence, drug use and anxiety all common with several - all maybe contributing to their early deaths, some others just sheer bad luck with illness or an untimely fatal heart attack, that one proving to be the main killer in the comedy world. There's nothing funny about that.

The following comics all left the stage early in bizarrely familiar fashion:

Sid James In 1967 just prior to taking the lead role in Carry On Follow That Camel, Sid James suffered a massive heart attack and had to be replaced by Phil Silvers aka 'Sgt Bilko' in a guest starring role, his next Carry On in the same year, for Carry On Doctor he was filmed largely in a hospital bed owing to his scare and health. After that he made 11 more Carry On films as well as TV specials and the sitcom and spin off film for Bless This House. On the 26th April 1976 on the opening night of a play 'The Mating Season' at Sunderland's Empire theatre he suffered a second heart attack on stage, with the shows director requesting a doctor, the audience laughed believing it to be part of the script, he died an hour later in hospital aged 62.

Tommy Cooper famously died on National Television on the 15th April 1984 aged 63, on the show Live From Her Majesty's for London Weekend Television. Bizarrely, the videos are out there on the likes of YouTube. An assistant had helped him put on a cloak for his sketch, while Jimmy Tarbuck, the host, was hiding behind the curtain waiting to pass him different props which he would then appear to pull from inside his gown. The assistant smiled at him as he collapsed, believing that it was a joke. Likewise, the audience laughed as he fell, until it became apparent he was seriously ill. (Cooper's act largely featured deliberate clumsiness) For a long time it was suggested his size 13 feet were visible under the curtain as the show continued on one side of the curtain, whilst on the other people frantically tried to revive him.

Eric Morecambe Like Sid James and Tommy Cooper Eric Morecambe was to meet an untimely end in an eerily similar fashion aged just 58. Morecambe took part in a show at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire in May 1984. In the show he talked and joked about his childhood and commented on the recent death of Diana Dors and also Tommy Cooper and the way in which he died. With Morecambe claiming he'd hate to go that way.
After the show had ended and Morecambe had left the stage, the musicians returned and picked up their instruments. He rushed back onto the stage to join them and energetically played various instruments in the encore. He then left the stage only to return moments later. All in all, he made six curtain calls. Finally, he said "That's your lot!", waved to the audience, and left the stage. He walked into the wings and joked "Thank goodness that's over." He then suffered a third and fatal heart attack.

Leonard Rossiter died from Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a disease of the muscle of the heart) in 1984 aged 57 while waiting to go onstage at the Lyric Theatre, London, where he was performing in Joe Orton's play Loot. His death coming as a surprise as he was very active — he played squash, football and tennis regularly — and had been given an 'all clear' by his doctor prior to accepting the role in Loot.

In a similar bizarre trend, two other Carry On stalwarts Bernard Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth were to meet their untimely early ends in very similar ways. Bernard Bresslaw was a mountain of a man at 6 foot 7.5" and died of a heart attack on the 11th June 1993 aged just 59 in his dressing room, as he was just about due on stage to play Grumio in the New Shakespeare Company's production of Taming of the Shrew. He died the day after another comic favourite Les Dawson, Dawson was a heavy smoker and drinker throughout his adult life. On 10 June 1993, during a routine check-up at a hospital in Whalley Range, Manchester, Dawson died suddenly after suffering a heart attack aged 62. Peter Butterworth who was a famous Stopfordian, (born just around the corner from me in leafy Bramhall) Was starring as Widow Twankey in the pantomime Aladdin in Coventry, Butterworth went back to his hotel after a successful evening performance. His failure to return for the following day's matinee show caused alarm, and he was found dead in his room from a heart attack aged just 59, like Bresslaw.

Richard Beckinsale was just 31 when he died from a massive heart attack in his sleep. He was working on a new sitcom entitled Bloomers, he'd complained to a co-star of having a black out and suffering from dizzy spells, it alarmed him enough to see a doctor but apart from an overactive stomach lining, and slightly high cholesterol he was deemed fit. As filming on the show progressed, Beckinsale appeared increasingly tired, and "greyer and greyer", according to another co-star. Towards the end of filming, Beckinsale was also complaining of pains in his arms. He'd also told his wife of feeling unwell but put it down to nerves as she was due to have an operation to help them be able to have another baby. On the evening of his death he attended a party for The Two Ronnies and afterward had told friends of feeling tired and suffering chest and arm pain. His post-mortem, revealed that he had a congenital heart defect.

Peter Sellers In 1964, at age 38, Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks (13 in a few days), which permanently damaged his heart. Sellers chose to consult with psychic healers rather than seek Western medical treatment, and his heart condition continued to deteriorate. In 1977, he suffered a second major heart attack, resulting in him being fitted with a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat. Once again, Sellers refused to slow down, nor did he follow doctor's orders and consider open heart surgery, which would have considerably extended his life. On the 22nd July 1980 Sellers suffered a massive heart attack in his Dorchester Hotel room and fell into a coma, he died in hospital two days later aged just 54.

Harry H. Corbett had his first heart attack in 1979. Though he appeared in pantomime at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley within two days of leaving hospital. Though four years later he was to have a 2nd fatal attack aged just 52.

Kenneth Williams lived alone all his adult life, despite a decent income choosing to rent flats close to his mother, he'd talk about his loneliness and depression, as he got older his health declined and his depression deepened he was found dead in his flat on the 15th April 1988, the cause of death was put down to an overdose of barbiturates, it's unknown whether it was intentional suicide or accidental, though his diaries often pointed to suicidal tendencies and he'd often claim he seemed no point in existence. His elderly mother outlived him by four years and there remains a mystery over the death of his father who died in 1962 after poison was found in his cough medicine, Willams was refused a visa to work in America as he was a Scotland Yard suspect in his father's death.

Dermot Morgan Just 24 hours after finishing the recording of the last episode of Father Ted, while hosting a dinner party at his South West London home, Morgan had a heart attack and died soon after in Hounslow, London, one month before his 46th birthday. Frank Kelly said of his acting colleague: "Dermot's mind was mercurial. I think he was a kind of comedic meteor. He burned himself out." The irony of Morgan's death, at a time when after twenty years of struggle, he had finally achieved financial and artistic freedom, was not lost on his family and friends and commented on by his colleagues in the media.

Terry Scott suffered from ill-health for many years. In 1979, he had a life-saving operation after a hemorrhage. He also suffered from creeping paralysis and had to wear a neck brace, even on television as was sometimes evident with his choice of attire - the polo neck. When Terry and June was axed in 1987, Scott suffered a nervous breakdown. The attack was in part brought on by his public confession that he had had a series of affairs during his marriage to former dancer Maggie Pollen. Scott had married Pollen in 1957 and they had four daughters together.To top off all this heartache Scott was to succumb to the dreaded cancer on 26 July 1994, aged 67.
Bob Grant a trained actor with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, though best known for his turn as the randy lecherous bus conductor Jack in the long running On The Buses. When On The Buses came to an end and work started to dry up, Grant became severely depressed. He disappeared for 5 days where it was alleged he intended to kill himself but was coaxed back after a heartfelt public and celebrity backed appeal. Though in 1995 he attempted suicide again but was found slumped in his car after attempting to fill it with the exhaust fumes, and was subsequently treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Sadly in 2003 aged 71 he was found dead after repeating the same process.

Tony Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney on 24 June 1968, being found dead in his Latimer Road, Bellevue Hill apartment with an empty vodka bottle and an empty bottle of sleeping pills at his side.
In one of his suicide notes he wrote: "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times". His ashes were brought back to the UK in an Air France hold-all by satirist Willie Rushton and in deference to his fame and knowing love of cricket, his ashes travelled back in the first class cabin.
Spike Milligan commented in 1989: "Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he's got rid of everybody else, he's going to get rid of himself. And he did."


Graham Chapman The Monty Python actor who battled alcoholism for a number of years before becoming sober, also kept his homosexuality a secret for many years, died of throat cancer in 1989 after it had spread to his spine and become terminal by September, despite chemotherapy and tumour removal he was confined to a wheelchair in his last weeks of life. He passed away in hospital in the company of his partner, brother, sister and two co-Pythons John Cleese and Eric Idle who had to be led away to deal with their grief.

Over the pond...

John Candy struggled with obesity throughout his adult life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s he gained a large amount of additional weight, making him almost unrecognisable from his years on SCTV. However, he had been making a significant effort to improve his overall health in the last year of his life - he had quit smoking and had begun losing some weight. Candy died in his sleep from a heart attack on March 4, 1994, while on location in Durango, Mexico, filming Wagons East! He was just 43 years old.

Lenny Bruce The controversial comic who had been in trouble with the law regarding his act and also banned from many cities and clubs blacklisted him for fear of prosecution. In 1962 He was banned from performing in Sydney, Australia At his first show there Bruce took the stage, declared "What a fucking wonderful audience" and was promptly arrested. Bruce did have a famous performance at the Berkeley Community Theatre in December 1965. It was recorded and became his last (live) album, titled "The Berkeley Concert" - his performance here has been described as lucid, clear and calm, and one of his best. His last performance took place on June 25, 1966, at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, on a bill with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. The performance was not remembered fondly by Bill Graham, who described Bruce as "whacked out on amphetamines". On August 3, 1966, Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 N. Hollywood Blvd. The official photo, taken at the scene, showed Bruce lying naked on the floor, a syringe and burned bottle cap nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia. On December 23, 2003, 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki.

John Belushi On March 5, 1982, Belushi was found dead in his room at Bungalow number 3 of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.The cause of death was a speedball, a combined injection of cocaine and heroin. On the night of his death, he was visited separately by friends Robin Williams (at the height of his own drug exploits) and Robert De Niro, each of whom left the premises, leaving Belushi in the company of assorted others, including Cathy Smith. His death was investigated by forensic pathologist Dr. Ryan Norris among others, and while the findings were disputed, it was officially ruled a drug-related accident.
Two months later, Smith admitted in an interview with the
National Enquirer that she had been with Belushi the night of his death and had given him the fatal speedball shot. After the appearance of the article "I Killed Belushi" in the Enquirer edition of June 29, 1982, the case was reopened. Smith was extradited from Toronto, arrested and charged with first-degree murder. A plea bargain arrangement reduced the charges to involuntary manslaughter, and she served 15 months in prison.

Bill Hicks After being diagnosed with cancer, Hicks would often joke openly at performances exclaiming it would be his last. Hicks performed the actual final show of his career at Caroline's in New York on January 6, 1994. He moved back to his parents' house in Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly thereafter. He called his friends to say goodbye, before he stopped speaking on February 14, and re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He died of cancer in the presence of his parents on February 26, 1994 aged just 32

Richard Pryor had an up and down life from his early days growing up in his grandmother's brothel. In 1980 whilst filming Bustin Loose Pryor set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine while drinking 151-proof rum. He ran down Parthenia St. from his Northridge, California, home until subdued by police. He was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for burns covering more than half of his body. Pryor spent six weeks in recovery at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. His daughter, Rain Pryor, has stated that Pryor poured high-proof rum over his body and set himself on fire in a bout of drug-induced psychosis. In 1986 he was digonosed with Multiple Scerlosis. He said MS stood for "More Shit". On December 10, 2005, Pryor went into cardiac arrest in Encino, California. He was taken to a local hospital after his wife's attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was pronounced dead at 7:58 am PST. He was 65 years old. His widow Jennifer was quoted as saying, "At the end, there was a smile on his face."


John Ritter felt ill whilst filming his sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter and was taken across the street to the local medical center. Though he died there 6 days short of his 55th birthday.The cause of his death was later an aortic dissection caused by a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect. His father had died of a heart attack almost thirty years earlier. His widow filed an unsuccessful lawsuit for the doctor misdiognosing his condition as a heart attack.

Phil Hartman the comedian, screenwriter and graphic artist famous for his work in the Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, had an argument with his wife Brynn who had a history of drug abuse, he'd threatened to divorce her if she didn't stop, he then went to bed. His wife entered his room at 3am and shot him twice in the head and in the body whilst he slept. She was intoxicated, as well as taking cocaine. She confessed the crime to her friend who didn't believe her and drove over to the house on discovering the body he phoned the police, Brynn locked herself in the bedroom and rather than face the consequences she committed suicide by shooting herself in the head.

Chris Farley In 1997 a notable decline in his health was mentioned in the press, Farley had sought out treatment for his obesity and drug abuse on no fewer than seventeen different occasions. On 17th December of the same year he was found dead in his apartment, the cause of death a heart attack and an overdose of cocaine and morphine. Naturally his death is compared to that of John Belushi, due to the similarites of the two both coming from Saturday Night Live and both dying aged just 33 from an overdose involving cocaine and opiates.

Bernie Mac had been hospitalized for about a week at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, he was being treated for pneumonia but unfortunately, he was only getting worse. At one point, he was beginning to heal but his health began to deteriorate once again. After a week of unsuccessful medical treatment, Mac died in the early morning hours of August 9, 2008 aged 50. A few years prior to his passing - he publicly disclosed that he suffered from sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in tissue, most often in the lungs.

Further reading / viewing: Fantabulosa, Cor Blimey, The Curse of Comedy, Carry On Darkly, Richard Pryor, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Hicks.

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