Frankie Howerd (6 March 1917 – 19 April 1992) was an English comedian and comic actor whose career, described by fellow comedian Barry Cryer as “a series of comebacks”, spanned six decades.
His first stage appearance was at age 13 but his early hopes of becoming a serious actor were dashed when he failed an audition for RADA. He began to entertain during World War II service in the British 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.
His act was soon heard on radio, when he made his debut, in early December 1946, on the BBC’s Variety Bandbox programme with a number of other ex-servicemen. His profile rose in the immediate postwar period (aided with material written by Eric Sykes, Galton and Simpson and Johnny Speight). In 1954, he made his screen debut opposite Petula Clark in The Runaway Bus, which had been written for his specific comic talent. The film was an immediate hit, even though Howerd never established a major film presence thereafter.
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, 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.
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 direct addresses to camera and by his littering monologues with verbal tics such as “Oooh, no missus” and “Titter ye not”. A later sale of his scripts, however, showed that the seemingly off-the-cuff remarks had all been meticulously planned. 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.
Howerd appeared as Francis Bigger, one of the lead characters in 1967’s Carry On Doctor.
Throughout his career, Howerd hid his potentially career-destroying homosexuality from both his audience and his mother, Edith. In 1958, he met wine waiter Dennis Heymer at the Dorchester Hotel while dining with Sir John Mills; Heymer became his lover as well as manager, and stayed with him for more than thirty years, until Howerd’s death.
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 a clinic in London’s Harley Street, but was discharged at Easter to enjoy his last few days at home. He collapsed and died of heart failure two weeks afterwards, aged 75. Two hours before he died, he was speaking on the telephone to his TV producer about new ideas for his next show. He died the day before fellow comedian Benny Hill. News of the two deaths broke almost simultaneously and some newspapers ran an obituary of Howerd in which Hill was quoted as regretting Howerd’s death, saying “We were great, great friends”. The quote was released by Hill’s agent, who was not aware that his client had died. [Wikipedia]