6 March 1917
19 April 1992 (aged 75)
Frankie Howerd OBE (born Francis Alick Howard, 6 March 1917 – 18 April 1992), was an English comedian and comic actor whose career, described by Barry Cryer as 'a series of comebacks', spanned six decades.
Howerd was born the son of a soldier, Francis A. W. Howard, in York, North Yorkshire, England, in 1917 (not 1922 as he later claimed). He was educated at Shooters Hill Grammar School in Woolwich, London. His first appearance on stage was at age 13, but his early hopes of becoming a serious actor were dashed when he failed an audition for RADA. He got into entertaining during World War II service in the army. Despite suffering from stage fright he continued to work after the war, beginning his professional career in the summer of 1946 in a touring show called For the Fun of It.
He soon started working in radio, making his debut at the start of December 1946 on the BBC Variety Bandbox programme with a number of other ex-servicemen. His fame built steadily throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s (aided by material written by Eric Sykes, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and Johnny Speight). In 1954, he made his screen début opposite Petula Clark in The Runaway Bus, which had been written for his specific comic talents, but he never became a major film presence. The film was so low-budget that they could not afford scenery, background and such; instead they used a fog generator so that little was visible behind the action. The film was an immediate hit.
When he began experimenting with different formats and contexts, including stage farces, Shakespearean comedy roles, and television sitcoms, he began to fall out of fashion. After suffering a nervous breakdown at the start of the 1960s, he began to recover his old popularity, initially with a season at Peter Cook's satirical Establishment Club in Soho in London. He was boosted further by success on That Was The Week That Was (TW3) in 1963 and on stage with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963–1965), which led into regular television work. In 1966 and 1967, he did a 90-minute Christmas show called The Frankie and Bruce Christmas Show with Bruce Forsyth, featuring many top acts of the day.
Through the '60s and '70s, he did a number of shows for the BBC and Thames Television (as well as Frankie Howerd Reveals All for Yorkshire Television in 1980). Ray Galton and Alan Simpson wrote for him from 1964 to 1966 when he worked for the BBC and also for a one-off show for Thames, Frankie Howerd meets The Bee Gees, shown on 20th August 1968. He was famous for his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks to the audience, especially in the show Up Pompeii!, which was a direct follow-up from Forum. His television work was characterised by addressing himself directly to the camera and littering his monologues with verbal tics: "Oooh, no missus", "Titter ye not", and so on, but a later sale of his scripts showed that the seemingly off-the-cuff remarks were all planned. Barry Cryer said of his technique : " What he could do with a script was amazing, like all the great performers. He transformed something you'd just written - what you hoped was in a Frankie Howerd idiom - but when you heard him do it, my God, it was something else; - it was gossiping over the garden wall, the apparent waffle - he was like a tightrope walker, you thought he's going to fall off in a minute, you thought , 'Come on, Frank' , we're waiting for a laugh, and then, suddenly, Bang. He knew exactly what he was doing." Another feature of his humour was to feign innocence about his obvious and risqué double entendres while mockingly censuring the audience for finding them funny. He was awarded an OBE in 1977.
In 1978, Howerd was cast in the big-budget Hollywood musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band playing Mean Mr Mustard, acting alongside musical and film talent such as Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, George Burns, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Steve Martin. He was cast by producer Robert Stigwood as he was on Stigwood's record label at the time. The film was a critical and commercial flop, although now it has achieved cult status. Since Howerd was not well known to American audiences, this may have been his biggest exposure in the U.S.
After five years without a regular television show (though he had hosted a one-off UK version of The Gong Show for Channel 4, which was critically panned and was not commissioned for a full series), Howerd returned to TV screens in 1987 in the Channel 4 show Superfrank!, scripted by Miles Tredinnick and Vince Powell. In the last years of his career, Howerd developed a cult following with student audiences and performed a one-man show at universities and in small theatrical venues. He was also a regular and popular guest on the late night BBC Radio 1 programme Into the Night, hosted by Nicky Campbell.
Howerd often worked with Sunny Rogers who was his accompanying pianist from 1960 onwards. She appeared in his TV and live theatre shows including his last major West End appearance — his one-man show — at the Garrick Theatre in 1990.
In 1982, Howerd appeared in the televised versions of Trial by Jury (as the Learned Judge) and H.M.S. Pinafore (as Sir Joseph Porter, KCB).
Having contracted a virus during a Christmas trip up the Amazon River in 1991, Howerd suffered respiratory problems at the beginning of April 1992 and was rushed to London's Harley Street clinic, but was released at Easter to enjoy his last few days at home. He collapsed and died of heart failure two weeks afterwards, on the morning of 18 April 1992. He was 75 years old. Two hours before he died, he was speaking on the telephone to his TV producer about new ideas for his next show.
Howerd died one day before fellow comedian Benny Hill. News of the two deaths broke almost simultaneously, and some newspapers ran a canned obituary of Hill in which the already dead Howerd was quoted as regretting Hill's passing, saying "We were great, great friends."
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