Late Obituaries

Category: Writers

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.

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.

Sam Simon

June 6, 1955 – March 8, 2015

American writer and producer who, with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, co-created The Simpsons. Initially an animator, Simon wrote for Taxi and Cheers. He served as The Simpsons’ first showrunner and was the true creative force behind the world, characters and humour of arguably the greatest show in history. He hired the show’s first team of writers, and designed characters like Mr. Burns, but left in 1993 over creative disputes (mainly that Groening got too much credit), negotiating a pay-off to the tune of tens of millions annually. He created The George Carlin Show and directed for The Drew Carey Show, but largely retired from TV work after The Simpsons. He won 9 Emmys throughout his career. Instead, he played poker to a professional standard, managed Lamon Brewster to the Heavyweight Championship, worked on Howard Stern’s radio show and was twice married, to Jennifer Tilly and Playboy’s Jami Ferrell. But for a man described by Groening and Carlin as unpleasant and mentally unstable, Simon spent much of life and fortune vociferously helping to free and care for animals, particularly dogs. After a long, public battle way beyond his original diagnosis, Simon died from colorectal cancer aged 59.