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In many respects he was not a nice man. He was a chronic alcoholic, an unfaithful husband, a wife batterer and, for a wealthy man, notoriously mean. It sounds cruel but as he lay dying people laughed and cheered. With every spasm of his dying body the laughter increased. Yet this poor specimen of humanity, in some respects, was one of the world’s greatest comedians. In his heydays he only had to stand on stage to raise howls of laughter.

Tommy Cooper was a big man. He was 6’4” tall with large clumsy limbs and size 13 feet. He weighed over 15 stone. His strong facial features were crowned by a fine head of dark hair. Apart from the suit and collar and tie that he always wore, his trademark was a red, Moroccan fez.

In theory, Tommy came on stage to perform magic tricks but more often than not his tricks went astray due to his apparent awkwardness and ineptitude. Consequently, his audience often waited, not for him to pull off the magic trick, but to bumble it. He made a living from this ineptitude, from not being a good magician. However, every now and then he would surprise them by carrying out some very clever magic tricks just to show that he could do it.

He was also a master of one-liners which he delivered throughout his performances as he was setting up his magic tricks: “I’m on a whiskey diet… I’ve lost 3 days already” or “Gambling has brought my family closer together.. We had to move to a smaller house.”

While moving objects about he would deliver a series of quips like “I said to the Doctor: ‘can you give me something for my liver’? He gave me a pound of onions.”  On another occasion he recalled: “I said to my doctor ‘it hurts when I lift my arm’. In that case, the Doctor said: ‘don’t lift it’. As with a lot of British comedians his wife was often the butt of his jokes. “When my wife went to the same Doctor, he examined her and said: ‘you have a bad back’. She said ‘In that case, I want a second opinion’. ‘All right’, he said ‘you’re ugly as well’.

Though born in Caerphilly in Wales in 1921, to a Welsh soldier father and an English mother, Tommy Cooper was brought up in Devon. When he was 8 his Aunt Lucy gave him a magic set for his birthday and he would spend hours perfecting his tricks, a fascination with magic that lasted for his entire life. When the war came in 1939, he joined the Royal Horse Troop and was stationed in Egypt. After he was wounded, he began entertaining the troops. One night he lost the pith helmet he was supposed to be wearing and borrowed a fez from a waiter. The audience loved it and he used it as a trademark for the rest of his life.

Back in England after the war Tommy moved around the variety circuit performing magic tricks and comedy. He quickly realised that far from being upset when his magic tricks failed that his audience loved it. His first break in TV came in 1952 when he appeared in the BBC series: “It’s Magic”. Later he would appear in many ITV shows. One of his favourite catch phrases when performing a magic trick was to say “just like that” in a slightly slurred voice. In 1969 he was voted “ITV Personality of the Year”.

Initially, Tommy drank to overcome his nervousness and insecurity because it took him a long time to establish himself. However, in time, his drinking habits increased so much that they had a devastating effect on his family and nearly ruined his career. The alcohol also led to scenes of childish tantrums and domestic violence as husband and wife physically and verbally abused each other in private and in public. Despite his success and wealth, he was notoriously mean never buying his round for example. One day after paying his taxi driver the exact fair he stuck something in his pocket and said “Have a drink on me”. The something turned out to be a teabag.

In 1967 he began an adulterous affair with Mary Kay, his road manager and it continued until his death. By the 1980’s his health was in serious decline due to his excessive drinking and smoking. He often smoked 40 cigars a day and suffered from sciatica, lumbago, bronchitis and poor circulation. He was frequently warned by his doctors that he had to change his lifestyle but to no avail.

On April 15th 1984 he took part in a variety show called “Live from Her Majesty’s Theatre” which was being filmed and broadcast simultaneously on London Weekend Television. He took his place on stage and told a few jokes. Then a girl arrived to help him put on a large cloak as part of his act. He was standing in front of a secondary curtain and as the girl walked off, he slowly sank to the floor. Assuming this was part of the act the audience clapped and cheered. As he lay on the floor he began groaning and twitching so they laughed even more. Unknown to them, Cooper was in the throes of a massive heart attack that would kill him within minutes. When the stage hands realised that there was something wrong, he was pulled behind the curtain while the show continued at the front of the stage because the show must always go on – especially if it is a live TV broadcast.

This wonderful comedian who brought laughter and joy to millions of people, despite his insecure and unhappy personal life, was only 63 when he passed away in 1984, “just like that”.


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