Sir Norman Wisdom, the British comedian whose career stretched from the old traditional music halls to a string of immensely popular film farces in the ’50s and ’60s, has died according to the Guardian. He was 95 years old. Wisdom was once called a rival to Charlie Chaplin by no less an authority than Chaplin himself, who also said Wisdom was his favorite clown. Like Chaplin, Wisdom was the crying-on-the-inside kind, epitomized by his signature song, “Don’t Laugh At Me ‘Cause I’m A Fool.”
He overcame the severe poverty of his youth to become a regular presence on the 1940s variety show circuit, breaking out nearly overnight as a comedian, singer, and dancer known for his combination of slapstick physical comedy and heartstring-tugging sentimentality. Wisdom was also famously known as The Gump or Norman Pitkin, the loveable man-child character he played in a string of successful movies, where Wisdom would star as a hapless working-class incompetent who made life difficult for his superiors, like Edward Chapman’s “Mr. Grimsdale,” and had awkward romances with the ladies. Many of these, like One Good Turn, The Square Peg, and The Bulldog Breed were commercial smashes (if critically derided), and they made him one of the most reliable draws of the 1950s: At his height, Wisdom’s movies earned more than the James Bond films.
As he got older, the man-child shtick became more awkward, and Wisdom attempted to transition to different roles, including journeying to Hollywood to co-star in 1968’s early-vaudeville tale The Night They Raided Minksy’s opposite Jason Robards. Like most clowns turned serious actors, it didn’t catch on, and Wisdom’s film career finally stalled after the 1969 sex romp What’s Good For The Goose. Wisdom retreated to touring his one-man stage show for the next couple of decades, but made a successful return to film with the 1981 BBC drama Going Gently, in which he played a dramatic role as a salesman dying of cancer, earning a BAFTA award for his performance. He made various TV appearances throughout the ’00s, turning up on shows like Coronation Street and Last Of The Summer Wine, before officially retiring in 2005. In recent years, he had been suffering from dementia, and it was said that he could no longer even recognize himself in his own films.
Wisdom was knighted in 2000, and had a cult following the world over—most notably in Albania, where he was called the “official national comedy hero.” For more on Wisdom’s life and far-reaching impact, The Guardian has write-ups here and here that are well worth reading.