Sunday 18 November 2018

Remembering John Bluthal

As reported yesterday, the actor John Bluthal very sadly passed away at the age of 89 on 15 November. John was a very interesting actor who lived a very interesting life and appeared in all manner of productions during a long and successful career. Probably best remembered  to modern audiences as Frank Pickle in the Dawn French BBC comedy, The Vicar of Dibley from the 1990s, Bluthal had a career on stage and screen dating back to the 1950s and he was still working earlier this year.

I remember being somewhat surprised to see a familiar British comedy face in the 2016 big budget Hollywood film, Hail Caesar, which starred none other than George Clooney. Yes, John was there, aged 85, playing Professor Marcuse in the Coen Brothers' epic. I shouldn't have been surprised as John's career included working with the very best, wherever they happened to be. Born in Poland in August 1929, the young John relocated to Australia in 1938, as Europe stood on the ominous brink of war. Growing up in Australia, it was here John made his first steps towards life as an actor. He would continue to appear on stage, television and film in Australia throughout his career and spent much of his time there.

Indeed one of his earliest links to Britain was founded in Australia when he first worked with Spike Milligan, who would become a regular co-star, on the 1958 television special The Gladys Half Hour. Once settled in Britain, John would go on to work with Spike on television and radio, probably most famously on Spike's show, Q. 

On stage, John Bluthal was active as soon as he arrived in the UK. He played Fagin in Oliver!, replacing Ron Moody in 1960. He also worked a great deal at the National Theatre in London. John appeared in such productions as The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter's Tale,  The Tempest and Peter Hall's Antony and Cleopatra, which starred Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench. 

Of course John also became a familiar face on the big screen as I've already mentioned. There were three supporting roles in the Carry Ons of course - he first joined the series in 1964 when he played the Head Waiter at the Cafe Mozart in Carry On Spying. John, known for his amazing range of voices, also dubbed Judith Furse's performance as the fiendish Dr Crow. Three years later John played Corporal Clotski, second in command to Phil Silvers in Follow That Camel. And finally, Bluthal had an uncredited cameo as the Royal Tailor in the 1970 film Carry On Henry. Bluthal also made small appearances in two of Betty Box's Doctor films - see if you can spot him in Doctor in Distress (1963) and Doctor in Trouble (1970). 

John teamed up with his Camel co-star Phil Silvers once more, in the 1967 musical comedy film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which also featured Peter Butterworth. And in 1973 he played Jerry in the Jim Dale/Angela Douglas children's film adventure, Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World. Other films included The Beatles' film Help (1965), Casino Royale (1967), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), Superman III (1983), Labyrinth (1987), The Fifth Element (1997) and Love's Brother (2004). 

On the small screen, one of Bluthal's earliest roles in the UK was in the 1960 series CItizen James. He appeared in five episodes as Charlie, alongside Sid James and Liz Fraser. He went on to appear with Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques in their BBC sitcom, Sykes And A … in 1961, starring in the episode Sykes And A … Bath. He returned the same year for Sykes And A …Mission and also appeared in the colour series in 1974. Also in 1961, John appeared alongside Tony Hancock in The Radio Ham in the TV series, Hancock. Other appearances included guest spots on a whole host of series such as The Avengers, Bergerac, The Saint, 'Allo 'Allo, Minder and Inspector Morse. Probably his best remembered role from his early television work was as Manny Cohen, the Jewish tailor in the long running ITV sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width. A total of 40 episodes were made between 1967 and 1971. It even led to a film spin off in 1973. 

Bluthal found a new level of fame as Frank Pickle in the Dawn French ensemble comedy The Vicar of Dibley, which ran on BBC1 between 1994 and 1998, returning for a whole host of specials right up to 2013. The cast featured the likes of Gary Waldhorn, Trevor Peacock and Liz Smith. Bluthal appeared in all twenty episodes. French paid a warm, loving tribute to John on Twitter yesterday, remembering all their happy times together on set. John continued to act until earlier this year, with recent appearances including the already mentioned Hail, Caesar, a film called Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe, released last year and his final work, a short film called By Any Other Name.

Rather touchingly, John's final appearance saw him working with his daughter, Lisa. By Any Other Name is a whimsical take on an old man's life with Alzheimer's Disease, and how his daughter copes with his illness, by singing songs from musical theatre. John plays Bernie Berman and his daughter Lisa plays his screen daughter Rose. Lisa also wrote and directed the film. 

We have seen several well loved actors with Carry On connections leave the stage this year, from Bill Maynard and Peter Byrne to Liz Fraser, Fenella Fielding and now John Bluthal. It's always extremely sad to lose another link to past glories and we all cherish their many fantastic performances over the years. The one comforting thing about all these names is that they lived, without exception, long and full lives. Yes, we are sad they are gone, but thankfully we have many wonderful films and television shows to remember them by.

Rest in peace John Bluthal. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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