Norman Wisdom, the cheeky joker in a cloth cap, dies at 95
Published 05/10/2010 | 05:00
Legendary comedian and actor Norman Wisdom died last night at the age of 95.
His family said he died "peacefully" yesterday evening on the Isle of Man, where he had lived for many years. He had suffered a series of strokes over the past six months that left his physical and mental health impaired.
In a statement, the family said: "He had maintained a degree of independence until a few days ago. However, over the last few days his condition rapidly declined."
Wisdom was the knockabout clown who made a million playing the downtrodden man in the cloth cap and the ill-fitting jacket. "Don't Laugh at Me 'Cos I'm a Fool," he sang. But people did laugh -- helplessly -- and they loved him.
The gump with the gormless totter and the sad eyes was a family favourite for laughs. But he also made them cry at the way he was constantly at odds with the world.
He was a 5ft 4in dynamo who clowned his way out of a poverty-stricken childhood, when he was forced to steal to eat, to become a world favourite comedian and a multi-millionaire knight of the realm.
He appeared in 32 television sitcoms, 19 films and won Royal approval with a string of Command Performances.
He also earned international acclaim, winning fans from Albania to Argentina and China to the Soviet Union -- in the days before technological wizardry and glasnost.
Born Norman Wisden on February 4, 1915, he had a tough upbringing in Marylebone, London. The son of a chauffeur and a dressmaker, he had one older brother Fred. His parents divorced when he was nine and he was brought up by his father.
Money was short and Norman's father was often away for long periods, either driving or in a drunken rage.
The hungry brothers pinched eggs, bacon, and bread to eat.
Wisdom left school at 13 and took a job as an errand boy for Lipton's Teas for 50p a week.
He broadened his sexual horizons through the keyholes of the London Ladies Forum Club where he was a pageboy. He was a cabin boy on a ship to Buenos Aires and also learned his skills as a prize-winning boxer at sea.
His first break into showbiz came in 1946 at a music hall in Islington, north London, and he won a place in his first Royal Command Performance in 1952. Rank soon snapped him up for a seven-year contract.
He became so popular that Charlie Chaplin said: "If anyone's going to replace me -- it's Norman Wisdom."
In 1981, Wisdom broke with slapstick tradition and played a doomed cancer victim in a harrowing BBC television play.
He married showgirl Freda Simpson when he was 27 but they divorced in 1969. They had two children, Nick and Jacqui.
Despite Wisdom's image he had a sharp business mind and dealt in stocks and shares, laughing all the way to the bank.
He designed a luxury £300,000 home on the Isle of Man and filled it with one of his hobbies -- antiques.
He owned a Rolls-Royce but enjoyed speeding around country lanes on his motorbike. "It makes me feel young again," he said.
He loved football and was a keen Arsenal supporter.
When he turned 75 in February 1990, he said he would not appear on television again because most of it was "too smutty".