Tony Award-winning comedian Barry Humphries, internationally renowned for his garish stage persona Dame Edna Everage, a condescending and imperfectly-veiled snob whose evolving character has delighted audiences over seven decades, has died. He was 89.
His death in a Sydney, Australia, hospital, where he spent several days with complications following hip surgery, was confirmed by his family.
“He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit,” a family statement said. “With over 70 years on the stage, he was an entertainer to his core, touring up until the last year of his life and planning more shows that will sadly never be.”
Humphries had lived in London for decades and returned to native Australia in December for Christmas.
He told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper last month that his physiotherapy had been “agony” following his fall and hip replacement.
“It was the most ridiculous thing, like all domestic incidents are,” Humphries said of his fall. “I was reaching for a book, my foot got caught on a rug or something, and down I went.”
Humphries has remained an active entertainer, touring Britain last year with his one-man show “The Man Behind the Mask.”
Dame Edna’s roots
The character of Dame Edna began as a dowdy Mrs. Norm Everage, who first took to the stage in Humphries’ hometown of Melbourne in the mid-1950s. She reflected a postwar suburban inertia and cultural blandness that Humphries found stifling.
Edna is one of Humphries’ several enduring characters. The next most famous is Sir Les Patterson, an ever-drunk, disheveled and lecherous Australian cultural attache.
Patterson reflected a perception of Australia as a Western cultural wasteland that drove Humphries along with many leading Australian intellectuals to London.
Humphries, a law school dropout, found major success as an actor, writer and entertainer in Britain in the 1970s, but the United States was an ambition that he found stubbornly elusive.
A high point in the United States was a Tony Award in 2000 for his Broadway show “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.”
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to the celebrated comedian.
“For 89 years, Barry Humphries entertained us through a galaxy of personas, from Dame Edna to Sandy Stone,” Albanese tweeted, referring to the melancholic and rambling Stone, one of Humphries’ most enduring characters. “But the brightest star in that galaxy was always Barry. A great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind, he was both gifted and a gift.”
British comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted: “Farewell, Barry Humphries, you comedy genius.”
Piers Morgan, British television personality, tweeted: “One of the funniest people I’ve ever met.”
“A wondrously intelligent, entertaining, daring, provocative, mischievous comedy Genius,” Morgan added.
Actor, writer, painter
The multi-talented Humphries was also a respected character actor with many stage and screen credits, an author of novels and an autobiography, and an accomplished landscape painter.
John Barry Humphries was born in Melbourne on Feb. 17, 1934. His parents were comfortable, loving and strait-laced, and must have wondered about their eldest son, whom they called Sunny Sam. His mother used to tell him to stop drawing attention to himself.
Before he had finished at the prestigious Melbourne Grammar School, Humphries was more interested in art and secondhand bookshops than football. At 16, his favorite author was Kafka and later said he “felt a little foreign.”
He spent two years at Melbourne University, where he embraced Dadaism — the subversive, anarchic and absurdist European art movement.
His contributions included “Pus In Boots,” waterproof rubber boots filled with custard, and on the performance art side, getting on a tram with an apparently blind accomplice whom Humphries would kick in the shins while yelling “Get out of my way, you disgusting blind person.”
In 1959, he settled in London and was soon working in Peter Cook’s comedy venue The Establishment. He played Sowerberry in the original London production of “Oliver!” in 1960 and repeated the role on Broadway. He appeared with Spike Milligan and William Rushton in “Treasure Island.”
Humphries, with New Zealand artist Nicholas Garland, created the Barry McKenzie comic strip for the satirical magazine Private Eye in 1964.
When the strips came out as a book, the Australian government banned it because it “relied on indecency for its humor.” Humphries professed delight at the publicity and implored authorities not to lift the ban.
By then Humphries’ drinking was out of control. In Melbourne in late 1970, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly. He finally admitted himself to a hospital specializing in alcoholism for the treatment that would turn him into a lifelong abstainer.
In 1972 came the first Barry McKenzie film — financially supported by the Australian government, despite the earlier ban. It was savaged by the critics, largely because they trembled at what the world’s first film to feature beer induced vomiting would do to Australia’s image overseas.
But it was a popular success and a sequel two years later included then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam knighting Edna, who was McKenzie’s aunt.
Married four times, Humphries is survived by his wife Lizzie Spender, four children and 10 grandchildren.