One of the most instantly recognisable figures in the annals of British screen comedy, Terry-Thomas was born on 10 July 1911 and Cinema Paradiso celebrates his birthday with an appreciation of his distinctive gifts and his finest performances.
Although he was famed for playing upper-class cads, Thomas Terry Hoar-Stevens was the son of a Smithfield Market butcher. He started performing as a child in an effort to stop his alcoholic parents arguing and was bitten by the acting bug during his frequent visits to the Golders Green Hippodrome. Modelling his plummy accent on matinee idol Owen Nares and his natty dress sense on silent superstar Douglas Fairbanks, the young Tom played the ukulele in the school band at Ardingly College before appearing before an adult audience for the first time in the role of Lord Trench in an amateur production of The Dover Road.
Extra to ENSA
On leaving school, Tom so impressed his workmates at a Smithfield cold storage company with his impersonations and comic monologues involving such self-created characters as Colonel Featherstonehaugh-Bumleigh and Cora Chessington-Crabbe that he was invited to do a comic turn at the Union of Electric Railwayman's Dining Club in South Kensington. Delighted to be paid for fooling around, Thos Stevens (as he was billed) moved into a flat with a friend who worked as a movie extra and made his uncredited screen bow in Alexander Korda's Oscar winner, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Over the next eight years, he took 15 more walk-ons, although a plunge into the Elstree water tank while making This'll Make You Whistle (1936) permanently damaged his hearing.
Now part of a comedy dancing act with his South African wife, Pat Patlanski, Terry Thomas enhanced his reputation entertaining the troops with ENSA and the Stars in Battledress troupe during the Second World War. His reward was a slot in the hit revue, Piccadilly Hayride (1946-48), in which he performed his famous 'Technical Hitch' sketch, as a BBC radio announcer who has to improvise while having problems with some records. During the course of the West End run, he decided to call himself Terry-Thomas and joked that the hyphen bridged the trademark 1/3-inch gap between his two front teeth. Not that anyone got to see this diastema, while he was fronting the BBC radio show, To Town With Terry. But they became as familiar as the monocle, cigarette holder and raffish waistcoats that he sported at this time, when he was hired to present the first comedy series on British television, How Do You View? (1949-52).
The Face Behind the Voice
Over the next few years, Terry-Thomas became a fixture on radio and television, as well as in cabaret and pantomime. Moreover, he took another crack at the cinema and teamed with Patlanski and a young Norman Wisdom in Date With a Dream (1948). Eight years were to pass before his big breakthrough, however, when he followed a scene-stealing turn as an assassin's mistaken target in Robert Day's The Green Man with the part of a crooked army officer in the Boulting brothers classic, Private's Progress (both 1956). Raspingly dismissing his charges as 'an absolute shower', Terry-Thomas would reprise the role of Major Hitchcock in I'm All Right, Jack (1959) and further reunite with co-star Ian Carmichael as a spiv with a nose for a legal loophole in Roy Boulting's Brothers in Law (1957). However, he was still learning his trade and needed 107 takes to complete one scene set in a crowded pub.
Having tipped his cap at PC Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) as Romney Carlton-Ricketts in Launder and Gilliat's Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957), Terry-Thomas earned his first and only BAFTA nomination for his work as Ivan opposite Peter Sellers in George Pal's Tom Thumb (1958). But, following a string of iconic performances (many of which feature in Cinema Paradiso's Top 10), he somewhat missed his step as World Health Organisation detective Archibald Bannister in Don Chaffey's A Matter of WHO (1961) and decided to try his luck in Hollywood.
Rather playing against type as an anthropology professor who proves irresistible to women in Frank Tashlin's Bachelor Flat (1961), Terry-Thomas found himself playing British bounders in madcap ensemble pictures like Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Ken Annakin's Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969). Yet it was his performance as bungling spy Maurice Spender in Richard Lester's The Mouse on the Moon (1963) that earned him a Golden Globe nomination and Terry-Thomas continued to return to Blighty in between assignments like Earl Bellamy's Munster, Go Home! (1966), Gene Kelly's A Guide for the Married Man (1967) and Hy Averback's Doris Day vehicle, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968).
Uninspired by Kelly's lethargic direction and Day's controlling egotism, Terry-Thomas opted to cut his losses and juggled UK projects like Robert Asher's Make Mine Mink (1960), Michael Winner's You Must Be Joking! (1965) and Don Sharp's Rocket to the Moon (1967) with amusing guest slots in such continental co-productions as Mauro Bolognini's Arabella (1967) and Mario Bava's cult comic-strip caper, Danger: Diabolik (1968). Steering clear of the Carry Ons (even though they were written by his former TV scribe, Talbot Rothwell), Terry-Thomas also cropped up in a clutch of comic horrors. Robert Fuest cast him as Longstreet, a doctor who is interrupted while watching a saucy belly-dancing movie by Vincent Price and his evil daughter in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), and also as a pompous shipping agent named Lombardo in the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). More ghoulishly, he comes to regret asking trophy wife Glynis Johns why she can't do anything neatly in an incisive segment in Roy Ward Baker's portmanteau chiller, The Vault of Horror (1973).
But, shortly after becoming the first-ever guest on Michael Parkinson's chat show in 1970, Terry-Thomas was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. He tried to hide the effects while making such scattershot comedies as Bob Kellett's Spanish Fly (1976), Marty Feldman's The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) and Paul Morrisey's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978), which starred Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But he was forced to turn down Derek Jarman's offer to appear in The Tempest (1979) and fell on such hard times in his later years that a benefit concert was staged in 1989 to raise funds for him to move into the Busbridge Hall nursing home in Godalming, where he died at the age of 78 on 8 January 1990. Among the many tributes, Jack Lemmon called him 'a consummate professional' who made everything look easy, while Lionel Jeffries dubbed him 'the last of the great gentlemen of the cinema'. Quite simply, he was the King of Knaves and a master of his craft.
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