Late Obituaries

Month: April, 2015

Ronnie Barker

25 September 1929 – 3 October 2005

British actor and writer; one could argue (perhaps hyperbolically) the greatest writer since Shakespeare and a star of some of comedy’s greatest shows. A bank clerk who never abandoned an acting dream, Barker rose from weekly repertory theatre, to a substantial career on the West End and on to TV fame. He was part of the pioneering satirical sketch shows The Frost Report and Frost on Sunday (1966-1970), featuring in the legendary class sketch alongside John Cleese and his later comedy partner Ronnie Corbett. It was on the latter that his prodigious gift for writing was revealed. Barker secretly submitted scripts for the show under the name Gerald Wiley, fearing their true authorship would see them selected regardless of their actual merit. They well heralded as the show’s best and Barker eventually revealed his deception. With Corbett he starred in twelve series of sketch show The Two Ronnies (1971–1987) for the BBC. Now respected he nevertheless continued with his pseudonym, writing the majority of the show’s content. This included ‘Four Candles’, which entered the pantheon of comedic greatness, encapsulating Barker’s mastery of the English language, wordplay and perfectly tuned comedic sensibility. His acting genius and meticulous embodiment of character were demonstrated throughout the show, and with two of Britain’s most celebrated characters: meddlesome, penny-pinching Northern shopkeeper Albert Arkwright in Open All Hours (1976-1985) and endearing habitual criminal Norman Stanley Fletcher in Porridge (1974-1977) and Going Straight (1978). He won four BAFTAs for his work and received an OBE in 1978. An immensely modest, happily-married family man, Barker shunned the limelight, refusing to appear publically unless in character and rejected dramatic roles in preference for comedy. Barker, fearing for his health and that his best days would soon be behind him, retired in 1987 to run an antiques shop. Sporadic returns were inevitable and, after the success of a BAFTA Tribute show, retrospective compilation The Two Ronnies Sketchbook aired in 2005, as a celebration of Barker’s unrivalled brilliance. He died in October 2005, aged 76, from heart failure.

Joe Ranft

March 13, 1960 – August 16, 2005

American writer, animator and actor, acclaimed for his work with Disney and Pixar. A student of the esteemed Cal Arts animation programme, Ranft was a key figure in the 1990s animation renaissance. Joining Disney in 1980, he worked as a writer and storyboard artist on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King. He collaborated with Tim Burton on both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. In 1991 Cal Arts contemporary John Lasseter hired him as head of story at the fledgling CGI animation studios Pixar. He garnered an Academy Award nomination for co-writing the revolutionary Toy Story in 1995, storyboarding many of the film’s central sequences including the moving van chase. A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles were classics produced under his watch. Ranft also had voice roles: Wheezy the penguin and Lenny the binoculars in the Toy Storys, Jacques the shrimp in Finding Nemo and Heimlich the German caterpillar in A Bug’s Life. Cars, which he co-wrote and directed, was his final Pixar feature. Ranft died before its completion, aged 45, in August 2005, after the car he was a passenger in crashed through a highway guardrail, and rolled over a cliff.

Sir Jimmy Savile

31 October 1926 – 29 October 2011

British television presenter, disc jockey and charity fundraiser whose perennial weirdness and eccentricity took on new meaning when he was posthumously revealed as perhaps the most prolific sex criminal in British history. A Bevin boy in World War II, Savile came to fame as a nightclub disc jockey, claiming to invent the first twin-table record player, and worked for Radio Luxembourg and for decades on BBC Radio 1. One of the BBC’s biggest stars he presented pioneering live music chart show Top of the Pops from 1964 and the children’s show Jim’ll Fix It from 1975-1994, where each week he arranged for the wishes of children (writing in to the show) to be fulfilled. Noted for his Yorkshire accent, catchphrases, hairstyle, preference for grotesque shell suits, tinted glasses, jewellery and cigars, and friendship with Margaret Thatcher, Savile was the subject of much parody and ridicule throughout his life for his general weirdness and blowhard accounts of his professional and personal achievements. He was still revered for his charitable efforts, having raised millions for various hospitals, and was knighted in 1990. Savile died in 2011, aged 84, from natural causes. His obscene sexual preferences were rumoured throughout his life, but never proven. After his death, the extent of his depravity was revealed by a series of horrifying victim revelations and official investigations which confirmed Savile had sexually abused and raped hundreds of children and women throughout his life, with his celebrity status allowing him to escape accusations.

Jeff Astle

13 May 1942 – 19 January 2002

English footballer who played as a striker, considered one of the best players in West Bromwich Albion’s history. Astle started his career at Notts County, scoring 31 league goals in five years, before spending a decade at West Brom. He scored 174 goals in 361 games for the Baggies, the most notable of which was the only goal of the 1968 FA Cup final, as West Brom beat Everton to the trophy. Known to Baggies fans as ‘The King’, Astle had scored in every round of that year’s competition and was also the First Division’s top scorer in the 1969-1970 season. Astle played five times for England, without scoring, and is chiefly remembered for missing a chance to equalize against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup group stage, a goal which may have given England a less challenging knockout route. Forever modest, in retirement, Astle ran a window cleaning business and made numerous comedic appearances on Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League, usually singing over the end credits. Astle died in 2002, aged 59, from degenerative brain disease caused by his repeated heading of the then-used leather footballs, subsequently becoming a symbol for research into the dangers of head injuries in football.

Andy Whitfield

October 17, 1971 – 11 September 2011.

British actor of huge promise, whose breakout role in Spartacus proved to be his last significant work. Originally an engineer on relocating to Australia, Whitfield turned to acting in his 30s and had single episode roles in a number of Australian TV series. He played the lead role of Archangel Gabriel in 2007 Gabriel, and Australian horror-action film produced on a shoestring budget. In 2010, still a relative unknown, Whitfield was cast as Spartacus, the enslaved Thracian gladiator who led an uprising against the Romans in the Starz miniseries Spartacus: Blood and Sand. On the surface an absurd excuse to cram as much blood and as many breasts as possible into an hour, it was at heart a compelling, well-shot series, with Whitfield’s measured performance the standout part. Production on a second season was delayed after Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leading to Gods of the Arena, a prequel in which Whitfield had only a vocal cameo. Whitfield made an apparently full recovery, but his disease soon returned aggressively. He was replaced in the role by Liam McIntyre, and died in September 2011, aged 39.

Basil Soper

c1938 – June 1, 2013

British actor of numerous theatrical roles, best known for presenting the dour, low-budget Personal Injury Helpline adverts, and thus becoming the inspiration for Peter Serafinowicz’s bumbling character Brian Butterfield. Was also the voice-over narrator of the surprisingly funny and self-aware CBBC revival of The Basil Brush Show from 2002 to 2007, as well as numerous documentaries and videos. Soper died aged 75 in 2013.

Margaret Thatcher

13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013

British Prime Minister (1979-1990) and the most divisive figure of modern British history. Adored by some, despised by others, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham entered history simply for rising through the Conservative Party’s ranks, serving under Ted Heath as Education Secretary, to become Britain’s first female leader, but with an uncompromising style, the “Iron Lady” was intent on doing so much more. She introduced a widespread programme of New Right economic reforms, focusing on free market capitalism, monetarism and enterprise in a bid to reverse Britain’s decline throughout the 1970s. Because, or in spite, of these policies, Britain entered a new boom period, but not without deep rooted societal costs. The loss of Britain’s great industrial base and the now unemployed communities at their heart became the focus of much anger, with the privatisation of the state owned industries, the closure of the coal mines and crushing of the trade unions leaving Britain a totally changed place. She supported President Reagan closely in his Cold War efforts and narrowly survived assassination by the IRA when they bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton. The successful repelling of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 is arguably the most uniformly good thing she did, but that is not without its critics. After three election victories, Thatcher’s unyielding focus brought her downfall. The disastrous Community Charge (or poll tax) and her obdurate views on Europe saw the iconic resignation of her closest ally Geoffrey Howe, leading to a leadership challenge from Michael Hesseltine and then her resignation. She retired to the House of Lords, and then from public life altogether as strokes and dementia took her health. She died in 2013, aged 87, from a stroke at the Ritz.

Nigel Stepney

14 November 1958 – 2 May 2014

British Formula One mechanic for Shadow, Lotus, Benetton and chiefly Ferrari during their dominant period with Michael Schumacher in the early 2000s, holding several technical roles with the Scuderia, including chief mechanic and technical manager. His limelight moments were restricted to several pitlane mishaps: being struck by a detached wheel from Michele Alboreto’s Minardi in one of the undercard incidents of the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and being dragged along the pitlane after Schumacher bolted before the refuelling rig was withdrawn at the 2000 Spanish Grand Prix. This all changed, however, in 2007, when he became the focus of the ‘spygate’ scandal, being sacked by Ferrari and later convicted of a variety of crimes for passing over 800 pages of sensitive technical information to McLaren and attempting to sabotage Kimi Raikonnen’s car, all apparently as part of a petty revenge attempt for not being promoted. McLaren were fined €100 million and disqualified from that year’s Constructers Championship. The true extent of Stepney’s involvement was never clearly established. Stepney never worked in F1 again, but did manage the JRM Racing team in the World Endurance Championships. He died in 2014, aged 55, after being hit by a lorry on the M20 in Kent.

Mark Speight

6 August 1965 – 7 April 2008

British artist, actor and TV presenter, the perpetually energetic host of CBBC art show SMart for 14 years, from its inception in 1994, till shortly before his death. A talented cartoonist with natural charm, humour and a constant grin, he was the most engaging children’s presenter of his generation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was truly devoted to his job and did not seek to use it as a springboard for ‘grown-up’ TV success. Speight, alongside co-host Jay Burridge, conceived all of the show’s art content, frequently utilizing his fondness for ‘speed lines’ to convey motion in his cartoons. As the show went on, Speight and new co-host Kirsten O’Brien formed its most iconic partnership. He presented, often in character, numerous other shows including Saturday morning show Scratchy and Co, Name that Toon, Timmy Towers and most notably played the King in the educationally-focused See It, Saw It. Adult presenting work did follow on This Morning and The Heaven and Earth Show and he also participated in Rolf on Art and Celebrity Wrestling, but was never his focus. Speight’s death came in tragic contrast to his life. In January 2008, Speight’s fiancée Natasha Collins died from a cocaine overdose; several months later, unable to cope without her, aged 42, he committed suicide by hanging.

Phil Hartman

September 24, 1948 – May 28, 1998

Hartman as Chick Hazard, circa 1978, courtesy of his brother John

Hartman as Chick Hazard, circa 1978, courtesy of his brother John

Canadian-American actor and writer, exceptionally talented and dedicated to his craft, yet somewhat underrated in his lifetime, now recognized for his irreplaceable comedic brilliance. An immensely private man, even at times to his family, Hartman was a performer. Originally a graphic artist who designed album covers for Poco and America, Hartman switched focus and joined the improv group The Groundlings. There, with Paul Reubens, he created the character Pee-Wee Herman and co-wrote Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Film and TV roles followed before he hit the big time, joining the cast of NBC’s variety series Saturday Night Live in 1986. Hartman stayed for 8 years, and was at the forefront of the show’s revival, becoming known as ‘the Glue’ for his modesty, ability to hold sketches together, excel however minor his roles, and support his fellow cast off-screen. His impressions, particularly then-President Bill Clinton, were acclaimed. He won an Emmy for his writing on the show. Hartman starred as absurdly pompous radio anchor Bill McNeal in the sitcom NewsRadio for four seasons, from 1995 till his death in 1998, which got him an Emmy nomination. He excelled at playing jerks, with stand-out supporting roles in films like Houseguest, Sgt. Bilko, Jingle All the Way, Small Soldiers and as Jiji the cat in the English dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service. His voice work on 52 episodes of The Simpsons, as shambolic shyster Lionel Hutz and pathetically washed-up actor Troy McClure, as well as one-time roles like monorail conman Lyle Lanley, stole episodes and re-defined jokes becoming his best and most enduring legacy.  One of the nicest guys in Hollywood, his life came to a shocking end in 1998 when he was murdered, aged 49, by his deranged wife Brynn, who committed suicide hours later. His death denied us a live-action Troy McClure film, Hartman in the role of Zapp Brannigan in Futurama and numerous other potential projects.