Comic actor Sir Norman Wisdom has died aged 95, his son has confirmed.
The London-born comedian was known for his slapstick film roles in the 1950s and 1960s, famously for the character Norman Pitkin whose haplessness often frustrated boss Mr Grimsdale.
Sir Norman had suffered a series of strokes causing a decline in his health over the past six months.
His family said he passed away at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man on Monday evening.
A statement said: “He had maintained a degree of independence until a few days ago. However, over the last few days his condition rapidly declined. He was in no pain or distress and peacefully passed over at 1846 on October 4.”
The family asked for time to grieve a “much loved father and grandfather”.
Sir Norman was renowned for a string of comic roles and Charlie Chaplin described him as his favourite clown.
The Londoner only made his debut as a professional entertainer aged 31 after the end of the Second World War but went on to find fame on stage and screen, starring in his final film, Expresso, in 2007.
This was despite him having announced his official retirement in February 2005 on his 90th birthday.
Amazingly, he achieved cult status in Albania because he was the only Western actor whose films were permitted by the country’s dictator, Enver Hoxha.
In 2007 he moved to the Abbotswood nursing home in Ballasalla on the Isle of Man and had a pacemaker fitted in 2006 after a brief stay in hospital.
In recent years his family said his memory had become so bad he no longer recognised himself in his own films.
Wisdom was famous for his slapstick film roles in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the character Norman Pitkin.
A statement issued by the nursing home where he lived said: “Over the past six months Sir Norman has sustained a series of strokes causing a general decline in both his mental and physical health.
“He had maintained a degree of independence up until a few days ago, however over the last few days his condition rapidly declined. He was in no pain or distress and peacefully passed away at 6.40pm this evening.”
Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom OBE (4 February 1915 – 4 October 2010) was an English comedian, singer-songwriter and actor best known for a series of comedy films produced between 1953 and 1966 featuring his onscreen “gump” character Norman Pitkin. Charlie Chaplin famously referred to Wisdom as his “favourite clown”.
He later forged a career on Broadway and as a television actor, winning critical acclaim for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently in 1981. He was knighted in 2000 and spent much of his later life on the Isle of Man, and retired from acting aged 90 following a deterioration in his health.
Norman Joseph Wisdom was born in the Marylebone district of London. His parents were Frederick, a chauffeur and Maud Wisdom (née Targett), a dressmaker who often worked for West End theatres. The couple married in Marylebone on 15th July 1912. Norman Wisdom’s elder brother, Frederick Thomas “Fred” Wisdom (13 December 1912 – 1 July 1971). The family resided at 91 Fernhead Road, London W9, where they slept in one room.
After a period in a children’s home in Deal, Kent, Wisdom ran away when he was 11 but returned to become an errand boy with a grocery store on leaving school at 13. After this he walked (by his own account) to Cardiff, Wales where he became a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy. He also worked as a coal miner, waiter and page boy. He then enlisted as a drummer boy in the 10th Royal Hussars of the British Army and in 1930 was posted to Lucknow, India as a bandsman.
There he gained an education certificate, rode horses, was the flyweight boxing champion of the British Army in India and learned to play the trumpet and clarinet. While performing a comedy boxing routine in an army gym, Wisdom discovered he had a talent for entertainment and began to develop his skills as a musician and stage entertainer. After leaving the army he learned to drive and worked as a private hire car driver and having improved his diction in the army he also took a job as a night telephone operator.
Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store in 1953. This film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954.
Their cheerful, unpretentious appeal make them the direct descendants of the films made a generation earlier by George Formby. Never highly thought of by the critics, they were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom’s films were among Britain’s biggest box office successes of their day, and were successful in some unlikely overseas markets, helping Rank stay afloat financially when their more expensive film projects were unsuccessful.
The films usually involved the Gump character—Norman Pitkin—in some manual occupation, in which he is barely competent and in a junior position to a straight man, often played by Edward Chapman—Mr Grimsdale. They benefited from Wisdom’s capacity for physical slapstick comedy and his skill at creating a sense of the character’s helplessness. The series often contained a romantic subplot; the Gump’s inevitable awkwardness with women is a characteristic shared with the earlier Formby vehicles.
Despite a move to filming in colour, by the mid-1960s Wisdom’s commercial film appeal was in eclipse. The obvious incongruity of a fifty-year old man playing the prime minister’s grandson in Press for Time (1966) counted against him; Wisdom’s age was inaccurately reported for many years.
In 1966, Wisdom went to the United States to star in a Broadway production of the James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn musical comedy Walking Happy. His performance was nominated for a Tony Award.
On December 31, 1976, Wisdom performed his theme song Don’t Laugh At Me (Cause I’m a Fool) on BBC1′s A Jubilee Of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II’s impending Silver jubilee.Wisdom had performed in front of the Queen at many Royal Command Performances, the first being in 1952.
He also completed his first American film as a vaudeville comic in The Night They Raided Minsky’s. After a typical performance on the Ed Sullivan Show the opportunities which might have been in the United States were cut short when he had to return to London when his second wife left him. His subsequent career was largely confined to television and he toured the world with his successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play, Going Gently.
On 11 February 1987 Wisdom was the subject of Thames Television’s This Is Your Life for the second time. He became prominent again in the 1990s, helped by the young comedian Lee Evans, whose act was often compared to Wisdom’s work. His classic Rank films were playing to new audiences on television screens and DVD, with a growing number of new young fans in the UK and abroad. The highpoint of this new popularity was the knighthood he was awarded in 2000.
From 1995 until 2004 he appeared in the recurring role of Billy Ingleton in the long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine. The role was originally a one-off appearance, but proved so popular that he returned as the character on a number of occasions. In 1996, he became recipient of a Special Achievement Award from the London Film Critics.
Wisdom was a guest on a This Is Your Life special in the year 2000 for actor/director Todd Carty. He appeared as a half-time guest at the England vs Albania 2002 World Cup qualifier at St James’ Park, Newcastle upon Tyne and scored a penalty at the Leazes End.
In 2002 he filmed a small role as Winston the butler in the movie Alone in the Dark although this was not released until 2008 under the title Evil Calls: The Raven. In 2004, he made a cameo appearance in Coronation Street playing fitness fanatic pensioner Ernie Crabbe. In 2007 Wisdom came out of retirement to take a major role in a short film called Expresso (see details below).
Wisdom was a cult icon in Albania, where he was the only Western actor whose films were allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. He was known as “Mr Pitkin” after the Gump character from his films. In 1995, he visited the post-Stalinist country, where to his surprise he was greeted by many appreciative fans including the then president of Albania, Sali Berisha. On a visit in 2001, which coincided with the England football team playing Albania in the city of Tirana (of which Norman was granted the freedom in 1995), his presence at the training ground eclipsed even that of David Beckham. He appeared on the pitch before the start of the Albania v England match wearing a half Albanian and half English football shirt. He was well received by the crowd especially when he performed one of his trade mark trips on his way out to the centre circle.
In his book and TV series One Hit Wonderland, Tony Hawks united with Wisdom and, along with Sir Tim Rice, released a single “Big In Albania” in an attempt to enter the Albanian pop charts. It reached number 18 in the Top Albania Radio chart.Wisdom’s fondness for Brighton & Hove Albion is renowned in Albania and consequently there are many “Seagulls” fans in Albania.
Wisdom announced his retirement from the entertainment industry on his 90th birthday (4 February 2005). He announced that he intended to spend more time with his family, playing golf and driving around the Isle of Man, where he was living.
In 2007, he made a singular return to acting in a feature film directed by Kevin Powis, Expresso. The film, which Wisdom later announced (reported BBC/ITV News) was to be officially his last film role, is set during one day in a coffee shop and was funded by the UK Film Council and ScreenWM. Shot in January, it premièred at the Cannes Film Festival on 27 May 2007. It was later adopted by the UK charity Macmillan and released on DVD in aid of the charity. In the movie Wisdom plays a vicar plagued by a fly in a café. Producer Nigel Martin Davey gave him only a visual role so he would not have to remember any lines, but on the day Wisdom was alert and had his performance changed to add more laughs.
In 2008, Wisdom appeared in the film Evil Calls: The Raven, apparently sharing a role with Rik Mayall.
Wisdom married his second wife Freda Isobel Simpson, a dancer in October 1947; they had two children: Nicholas (born 1953) and Jacqueline (born 1954). The couple divorced in 1968, and Wisdom was granted full custody of the children. Freda Wisdom died in Brighton in 1992.
Wisdom was a lifelong supporter and a former board member of football team Brighton and Hove Albion F.C.. He enjoyed golf and was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats. Popular in the Isle of Man, he lived for 27 years in a house in Andreas named Ballylough (Manx for “House of Laughs”). He was an Honorary Member of the Winkle Club, a famous charity in Hastings, East Sussex.
A lover of cars, he owned a 1987 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and a Jaguar S-Type, until his age and failing mental health meant he failed a Department of Transport fitness to drive test, and they were sold in September 2005. A supporter of various charities including Mencap, in 2005 Wisdom starred in a video for the Manx girl group Twisted Angels for their single LA, in support of local charity Project 21.
In mid-2006, after he suffered an irregular heart rhythm, Wisdom was flown by helicopter to hospital in Liverpool and after a few days was fitted with a heart pacemaker.
In August 2007, newspapers of the Daily Mail group and the Isle of Man Newspapers reported that Wisdom was in the Abbotswood nursing home in Ballasalla, where he had been resident from 12 July 2007.
On the release of Expresso to DVD in the same month, BBC News confirmed that Wisdom lived in a care home, due to his suffering from vascular dementia. It was also reported that he had granted his children power of attorney over his affairs and having sold off his flat in Epsom, Surrey, they were now in the process of selling his Isle of Man home to raise money to fund his longer term care.
In an exclusive interview on 27 August 2007 with the News of the World, journalists were given access to Wisdom’s room at the home. He claimed to be happy and content in a routine which his family and carers considered kept him safe in spite of the memory losses associated with his condition.
On 16 January 2008, BBC2 aired Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and 3/4, a documentary highlighting the dilemma of coping with an ageing parent. In a spoken trailer on BBC Radio 5 Live for the programme and in later publicity interviews undertaken by his family, it was stated that Wisdom’s memory loss had become so severe that he no longer recognised himself in his own films.
* A Date with a Dream (1948)
* Wit and Wisdom (1948–50, TV)
* Trouble in Store (1953)
* One Good Turn (1954)
* As Long as They’re Happy (1955)
* Man of the Moment (1955)
* Up in the World (1956)
* Just My Luck (1957)
* The Square Peg (1958)
* Follow a Star (1959)
* There Was a Crooked Man (1960)
* The Bulldog Breed (1960)
* On the Beat (1962)
* The Girl on the Boat (1962)
* A Stitch in Time (1963)
* The Early Bird (1965)
* The Sandwich Man (1966)
* Press for Time (1966)
* Androcles and the Lion (1967, TV)
* The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968)
* What’s Good for the Goose (1969)
* Norman (1970, TV)
* Music Hall (1970, TV)
* Nobody Is Norman Wisdom (1973, TV)
* A Little Bit of Wisdom (1974, TV)
* BBC Playhouse: “Going Gently” (1981, TV)
* BBC Bergerac: “Almost Like a Holiday” (1983, TV)
* The 1950s: Music, Memories & Milestones (1988, TV)
* Double X: The Name of the Game (Double X, Run Rabbit Run) (1992)
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “The Man Who Nearly Knew Pavarotti” (1995, TV)
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “Extra, Extra!” (1996, TV)
* Where on Earth Is … Katy Manning (1998, TV)
* Casualty episode “She Loved the Rain” (1998, TV)
* Junfans Attic (2001)
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “Gnome and Away” (2001, TV)
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “The Coming of the Beast” (2001, TV)
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “A Musical Passing for a Miserable Muscroft” (2002, TV)
* Dalziel and Pascoe episode “Mens Sana” (2002, TV)
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “The General’s Greatest Battle” (2004, TV)
* Coronation Street (2004, TV)
* Five Children and It (2004) Played Nesbitt.
* Last of the Summer Wine episode “Variations on a Theme of the Widow Winstanley” (2004, TV)
* Expresso (2007) [www.expressofilm.com]
* Evil Calls: The Raven (Filmed Pre-2007 Released(2008))
* Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and 3/4 (2008, TV) (his last appearance)
CDs and vinyl
* I Would Like to Put on Record
* Jingle Jangle
* The Very Best of Norman Wisdom
* Androcles and the Lion
* Where’s Charley?
* Wisdom of a Fool
* Nobody’s Fool
* Follow a Star
* 1957 Original Chart Hits
* Follow a Star/Give Me a Night in June
* Happy Ending/The Wisdom Of A Fool
* Big in Albania – One Hit Wonderland
* Lucky Little Devil:Norman Wisdom on the Island He’s Made His Home (2004)
* Norman Wisdom, William Hall (2003). My Turn. Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0099446767.
* Don’t Laugh At Me / Cos I’m a Fool (1992) (two volumes of autobiography)
* Trouble in Store (1991)