From the heights of Hollywood fame and fortune to poverty and illness, Terry-Thomas' life was as fascinating as some of his on-screen characters. Roz Paterson tells us more.
Terry-Thomas was the prototype upper-class buffoon, a heady mix of caddish scheming and Bertie Wooster-style tomfoolery, delivered in gentlemen’s club vowels, over a gold-plated cigarette holder.
And indeed, in real life, he lived the high old life, in dandyish finery, with homes in Beverley Hills and the Balearics, and with the unmistakable whiff of scandal trailing in his wake.
Yet this most consummate of actors, richly rewarded, feted by the famous, at the very top of his game, wound up isolated, sick and in woeful poverty.
Welcome to the mad, mad, mad, mad world of Terry-Thomas.
Born to the drabness of Finchley, on 14th July, 1911, Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens developed social aspirations almost from the get-go, trading in his London vowels for the rarified tones of the British aristocracy at the age of ten. Most kids would have been jeered out of it by their teens; not Thomas Terry, whose bravado and sheer ability brought him through any crisis.
Even a spell at Ardingly College, a minor public school, though way out of his depth in terms of wealth and social connections, left him only bolstered in his battle for upward mobility.
But it was the Second World War that provided, as for many comedians and actors of the period, the rocket boost to real fame and fortune.
He went from the bit-parts and stand-up of peacetime to being a stalwart of the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) and Stars in Battledress, touring Britain and much of non-occupied Europe.
Thus, when the war ended, he was offered a slot on the BBC Home Service, from thence working his way up to television and the pioneering sketch show, How Do You View?
This was 1949, and TV was so new, the paint wasn’t even dry.
Yet Terry-Thomas, as he now was, the hyphen supposedly representing the famous gap between his two front teeth, set to work with his usual gusto and attention to detail, studying magazines, TV shows, other actors, all in a bid to make the medium his own.
And he did.
Every show began with his face looming into view, filling the screen.
“How do you view? Are you frightfully well? You are? Oh, good show!”
Then the camera would zoom into the dental gap, and onwards, into the dark heart of comedy. Or the ‘darkness of Terry-Thomas himself’, as Laurence Marcus put it, in a review of the pioneering show, for website Television Heaven.
He wrote the first series himself, co-writing the second and third, and the sketches were often daring, and always hilarious, including such new concepts as bringing in real TV presenters to act as ‘straight men’ – a trick used to great effect by Morecambe and Wise several decades later.
The work was ground-breaking and his audience was wildly appreciative, yet his next move was across the Atlantic, to make films in Hollywood, where his brand of English caddishness was gold-dust.
The films, beginning with Bachelor Flat, and including Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and How To Murder Your Wife, made him rich and internationally celebrated.
He wore suits tailored in Savile Row, shirts from Jermyn Street, sported a cigarette holder set with 42 diamonds, despite being a non-smoker, and worked alongside the likes of Spencer Tracy, Buster Keaton, David Niven and Richard Attenborough.
It was a far cry from the career his father had mapped out for him, as a provisions manager at Smithfield Market. And that’s just how Terry-Thomas wanted it.
What distinguished him from the crowd, as well as his obvious talent and endless creativity, was his refusal to play the prima donna. As far as he was concerned, upstaging your co-stars was the last word in vulgar unprofessionalism. He was content to play the fool while others shone, if that was what made the show work. And for this, he was greatly appreciated, and admired.
He was also a generous-spirited man, who found time for people, and was always kind.
His was, undoubtedly, the good life.
Even his private life, following a disappointing first marriage to Ida Pattansky, began to liven up, with a string of beautiful girlfriends, followed by marriage to the lovely Belinda Cunningham, in 1963, a mere 21 to his 47.
She was to prove a devoted wife, and bore him two sons, Tiger and Cushan.
But then the fairytale took a nasty twist.
In 1971, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and by 1977, the tremors and slurred speech had forced him into early retirement.
The years that followed saw his glittering career reduced to a handful of dust.
They money flew out the door, on medical fees mostly. The houses were sold, his health declined, and his star faded.
This could be the end of the story – the weak, shrivelled man, living out his days in a charity flat in London, his anxious wife by his side. But it isn’t.
In 1989, a remarkable story appeared on the ITV news, recounting the sad fate of the all but forgotten film star.
His friends and admirers, shocked at his disintegration, rallied to the rescue, and a huge benefit concert was held at Drury Lane in London, raising in excess of £75,000, a quite unprecedented sum for the time.
It was, as he might have said himself, a frightfully good show.
This enabled Terry-Thomas to go into a nursing home, where he could be cared for properly. In 1990, he died, survived by his wife and sons, who remained close to him to the very end.
Other elderjuice.com articles you might enjoy