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Barry Humphries, the Australian entertainer whose gladioli-waving alter ego Dame Edna charmed and roasted celebrities, all with a Cheshire grin, outrageous eyewear, a “Hello, Possums!” greeting and a flurry of caustic wit, died Saturday. He was 89.
Humphries died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney of complications from hip surgery, his family announced.
“He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit,” they 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.”
He portrayed Dame Edna Everage — whom he called a “gauche, garrulous Melbourne housewife with a very shrill voice who was obsessed with interior decoration” — for more than six decades across cabarets, clubs, stage and screen as one of the world’s oldest continual comic creations.
“The fact that she changes still is encouraging to me,” he said in 2015. “She lives in a box, you see, and every now and then I open the box and she pops out different, with new interests, with new enthusiasms.”
At her glorious peak, Edna hosted her own variety talk show on Britain’s ITV network. With a greeting of “Hello, Possums!” she would descend a lavish staircase — after pausing for applause, of course — and sit beside a nervous celebrity primed for class snobbery.
The Dame Edna Experience ran from 1987-89 and bagged big names in Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli and Lauren Bacall. Next to Edna on the set was Madge Allsop (played by Emily Perry), the long-suffering bridesmaid of Edna who never spoke.
Humphries’ character also starred in several TV specials, including Dame Edna’s Hollywood, Dame Edna’s Work Experience, Edna Time and 2007’s The Dame Edna Treatment, which was set in a health spa frequented by guests including Sigourney Weaver, Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, K.D. Lang and future British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
A more substantive supporting role for Edna occurred earlier in the Aussie comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), which Humphries co-wrote with future Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford. Australian entertainer Barry Crocker played the title character, an uncouth Aussie traveling through England with a beer in hand and a constant eye on women.
McKenzie began life in a cartoon strip written by Humphries for English satirist Peter Cook’s 1960s magazine Private Eye. The cartoons were compiled into three publications but were initially banned in Australia because of indecency.
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie became the first Australian film to earn $1 million at the box office and spawned the sequel Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974). That film is notable for the surprise cameo in the final scene by then-Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who bestows the title of Dame on Edna Everage.
Edna also showed up on the big screen in the sex documentary The Naked Bunyip (1970), at the end of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), during an Academy Award sequence in Howling III (1987) and in a swimming pool in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016).
John Barry Humphries was born in Melbourne on Feb. 17, 1934. He grew up in Camberwell in the city and attended the prestigious schools of Camberwell Grammar and Melbourne Grammar, studying English and art.
He joined the Melbourne Theater Company in the early ’50s, and his Edna character began to evolve during tours to Australian country towns in 1955.
“The local bluestocking, or the woman who read a few books, would stand up and thank us for bringing culture to our little town,” he recalled. “On these long journeys, we would improvise, people would sing songs, recite poetry, and I was at the back of the bus and used to impersonate the provincial arts lady.”
He played Edna for the first time at a Melbourne University Revue show on Dec. 13, 1955, and later at the Philip Street Revue Theater in Sydney.
In 1956, when Melbourne hosted the Summer Olympics, Humphries masterfully positioned Edna to the press as a potential hostess for the athletes, so qualified, she said, because her home had wall-to-wall burgundy carpet.
Many assumed the Moonee Ponds lady was an exaggerated version of his mother, Louisa, but Humphries said most of the character came from a “composite of the women of that period and many women in Australia today.”
Despite suffering from stage fright, he brought Edna to Broadway in 1999, 2004 and 2010 — winning a Drama Desk Award in the process — and to the Fox show Ally McBeal.
Meanwhile, Humphries played two other recurring characters: the inebriated, politically incorrect diplomat Sir Les Patterson and the ruminative retired soldier Sandy Stone.
Patterson was conceived one evening during a visit by Humphries and Beresford to the Australian Consulate in London. Beresford remembered that “the consul was pulling drinks out of the fridge, and I could see Barry looking at him with these burning eyes … he was watching him like a hawk the whole evening.”
Humphries knew something about alcoholism, and it nearly killed him in the 1970s. He ended up receiving treatment at a private hospital and attending AA meetings and said he never drank again.
Patterson, though, was his most enjoyable character to inhabit, he said. “No story is too filthy, no gesture too lewd, no idea too racist that he cannot articulate it with his own special kind of joy,” he said.
While at the Philip Street Revue, he created Stone, an elderly gentleman full of respectability and pathos. His inspiration came from a Melbourne neighbor named Mr. Whittle, with whom he would often share a train ride.
Whittle, he said in 2013, represented Humphries’ parents’ generation delivering “monologues about his life, delivered in a sibilant voice thanks to an ill-fitting denture, that were so excruciatingly boring they had a poetic quality that transcended the tedium.”
In the ’60s, Humphries appeared with Spike Milligan on his Goon Show radio program and onstage in Treasure Island and The Bedsitting Room. Once, Milligan left at intermission and never returned, he recalled, and working with the comic was “the strangest and most exhilarating experience of my career.”
Humphries also appeared on Broadway in Oliver! (as Fagin) and on the West End in Maggie May and as other non-Edna characters in the 1994 Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved and Nicholas Nickleby (2002).
He narrated the Adam Elliott animation Mary and Max (2009) and voiced the bloated Great Goblin in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and the great white shark Bruce in Finding Nemo (2003).
Humphries also released two autobiographies — 1992’s More Please and 2002’s My Life as Me: A Memoir — and wrote fictitious biographies for Dame Edna and Sandy Stone.
Survivors include his fourth wife, Lizzie; children Tessa, Emily, Oscar and Rupert; and 10 grandchildren.
Alas, now Dame Edna is gone too, even though it often seemed she was a separate person, not a character Humphries created. “I’m talking as if I were in the wings and she’s onstage,” he once said, “and every now and then she says something extremely funny and I stand there and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.'”
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