British comic actor Norman Wisdom dies aged 95

5th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

British comic actor Norman Wisdom, famous for his slapstick film roles in his trademark cloth cap and ill-fitting jacket, died Monday at the age of 95, his family said.

Wisdom passed away in a nursing home on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea off Britain's northwest coast, after suffering a series of strokes in recent months.

His family paid tribute to a "much loved father and grandfather."

"Over the last six months Norman has sustained a series of strokes causing a general decline in both his physical and mental health," said a family statement.

His condition rapidly declined over the past few days and he died at 6:46 pm (17:46 GMT), they said.

Wisdom rose to stardom with a series of films in the 1950s and 1960s, such as "A Stitch in Time" and "Trouble in Store", which usually involved his cheery cloth-capped "Gump" character as an underdog battling adversity.

He appeared in 19 films and 32 television comedy series and the actor's extraordinary comic talents prompted Charlie Chaplin to call Wisdom his "favourite clown."

The diminutive star had a poverty-stricken childhood but rose to become one of the country's best-loved comics and received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.

Although his audience was mainly British, he was a cult figure in Albania where he was the only Western actor whose films were allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Tributes poured in for the actor late Monday.

Johnny Mans, his agent for more than 30 years, told the BBC: "It's absolutely devastating. I thought he'd go on until he was at least 100 and get his telegram from the Queen.

"He was not only a client, he was my best friend."

Phil Day, who had been Sir Norman's publicist since 1969, paid tribute to him as a "lovely man."

"He never turned down any request. He never threw a tantrum. He was 100 percent professional all of the time," said Day.

"Of all the artists I've ever worked with, he's been the closest. It's a sad day."

He admitted the star could be "unpredictable", adding: "Whatever he said, you had to look for the tongue in the cheek to see if he was serious."

Born Norman Wisden on February 4, 1915, he had a tough upbringing in London. His parents, a chauffeur and a dressmaker, divorced when he was nine and he was brought up by his father.

But money was often so short that Wisdom was forced to steal food.

He left school at 13 and took a job as an errand boy and it was when he joined the army that he started acting.

While performing a comedy boxing routine in an army gym, the young man discovered that he had a talent for entertainment, and began to work on it.

After a charity concert in a town hall during World War II, actor Rex Harrison came backstage and urged Wisdom to become a professional entertainer.

Leaving the army in 1946, Wisdom made his debut as a professional entertainer at the age of 31. His rise to the top was phenomenally fast.

As "the Gump" he adopted the suit that would remain his trademark: tweed flat cap askew, with peak turned up, a suit at least two sizes too tight, a crumpled collar and a mangled tie.

A West End star within two years, he made his TV debut the same year and was soon commanding enormous audiences.

Wisdom was married twice and had two children with his second wife, the late Freda Isobel Simpson, who was a dancer.

© 2010 AFP

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