On December 28, 2008, comedy fans throughout Britain tuned to Sky News were greeted with the sad news that Norman Wisdom had died. Problem was, he was still very much alive, if a somewhat diminished figure from his the peak of his showbiz career in the fifties and sixties.
Wisdom probably would have had a laugh at the gaffe, but at this stage of his life he was in poor health and his memory was failing. He suffered from vascular dementia, the 2nd most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s, and was living in a care home following the sale of his Isle of Man home.
All of this was well known to the British public, thanks to his family’s courageous participation in the documentary Wonderland: The Secret Life of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and ¾, which showed their struggle in deciding how best to care for their aging parent.
Of course, he wasn’t just any nonagenarian, but a comedic actor who none other than Charlie Chaplin had once declared his “favorite clown.” Born to a chauffeur father and dressmaker mother in London, Wisdom was sent to a children’s home at age nine when his parents separated. The job titles on his early résumé belie a youth spent trying to eke out an existence, working as he did as a page boy, errand boy, cabin boy and drummer boy (he also worked as a waiter and coal miner). Wisdom joined the Merchant Marines and later the British Army. During the war, he worked as a telephone operator in a London command center, and was once disciplined for addressing Winston Churchill as “Winnie.”
After the war, he joined the Royal Corps of Signals and it was while stationed in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, that he was discovered by actor Rex Harrison, who urged Wisdom to pursue a career in showbiz. Despite already being 31 years old, Wisdom wisely followed Harrison’s advice.
Two years later, he’d become a West End star and was making his television debut.
It’s not surprising that Chaplin appreciated Wisdom’s comic persona, as in many ways it was similar to his own – a slight chap in ill fitting clothing, an irrepressible innocent bumbling his way through a world seemed turned against him. With its slapstick physicality, Wisdom’s comedy harkened back to a previous era, and in the bleakness of post-war England, many found his music hall aesthetic comforting. For nine years beginning in 1955, he was Britain’s biggest box office draw, beating out even Sean Connery.
Britain was not even the country where his star shone brightest. That honor would go, strangely, to Albania, where the Communist authorities had banned virtually all Western films. But in the plucky Mr. Pitkin, as his characters were all known there, dictator Enver Hoxha believed he had found a working class hero, and so allowed Wisdom’s films to be shown. He became hugely popular, and when visiting the country in 2001 for a World Cup qualifier between England and Albania, found himself a bigger draw than David Beckham. Big crowds also attended a round-the-clock Wisdom retrospective screening Hong Kong, proving physical comedy knows no cultural bounds.
"My comedy is for children from three to 93," he once told the BBC News by way of explaining his popularity. "You do need a slightly childish sense of humour and if you haven't got that, it's very sad."
The passing of Norman Wisdom marks a very sad occasion for children from three to 93 the world over.