Terry-Thomas and His Tragic Final Days

The great eccentric British comedian Terry-Thomas (Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, 1911-1990) was born on July 10. It may shock you (or perhaps not) to know that this quintessential caricature of an upper-crust Englishman was a working class kid, the son of a butcher who was into amateur theatricals. As a teenager, Young Tom Stevens began to cultivate his accent, basing his speech on that of an actor named Owen Nares, and began dressing nattily in imitation of his favorite movie stars. He was endowed by nature with the gapped teeth; the cigarette holder, tailored suits, mustache, spats, bowler hat and so forth would all be added later, as would the unique hyphenated professional name. As a young man he held menial jobs (clerkships and so forth), while simultaneously playing ukulele in jazz bands, working as a movie extra and developing a cabaret act. During World War II, he traveled with a unit that entertained the troops, and this increased his confidence and his visibility.

It wasn’t until after the war, at age 36, that his star began to rise. He performed in a sketch revue called Picadilly Hayride that was a smash success in the West End, running close to 800 performances. This led to his becoming the first British comedy tv star in 1949 on a show called How Do You View? He was a star of British comedy film throughout the 1950s (Tom Thumb, 1958, and I’m Alright, Jack, 1959 might be best known to Americans.) In the ’60s his stardom went international. La Grande Vadrouille (1966) was the most successful film in France in terms of box office dollars until 2004, and still ranks third. Americans know him from several popular Hollywood pictures made during the 60s, in which lampooned the stereotypical Brit for our benefit, though not always. He’s in The Wonderful Wold of the Brothers Grimm (1962), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Mouse on the Moon (1963), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Munster Go Home (1966), Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967), The Perils of Pauline (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge Lower the River with Jerry Lewis (1968), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? and How Sweet It Is, both made with Doris Day in 1968, the Dr. Phibes films with Vincent Price (1971 and 1972), and the voice of the snake in Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973).

Unfortunately, in 1971 he learned that he had Parkinson’s Disease, and thus began a slow, painful descent that lasted nearly two decades. Throughout the ’70s he continued to act, although the roles got smaller, fewer, slower and more feeble. Here is in the 1977 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles with starred Peter Cook and Dudley Moore:

His last screen credit was in 1980. Throughout the ’80s he was forced to live off his savings to live and pay for his medical treatments, and withdrew from public life. Towards the end he had sold all of his property and was discovered living with his wife in a charity flat. At that point his condition was publicized, an all-star charity concert was held, and thousands of pounds were raised. Look at the screen shot below. For the final indignity, they left out the hyphen in the lower third caption! Terry-Thomas died a few months after the celebrity concert, in 1990.

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One Response to “Terry-Thomas and His Tragic Final Days”

  1. So sad. That concert came far too late. I remember so well the Parkinson’s posters on the Underground with several famous people who had the condition including Terry-Thomas. The only other I remember on that poster was John Betjeman.

    Like

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