Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom OBE (4 February 1915 – 4 October 2010) was an English comedian, singer-songwriter and actor best known for a series of comedy films produced between 1953 and 1966 featuring his hapless onscreen character Norman Pitkin. Charlie Chaplin famously referred to Wisdom as his “favourite clown”.
He later forged a career on Broadway and as a television actor, winning critical acclaim for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently in 1981. He was knighted in 2000 and spent much of his later life on the Isle of Man. Wisdom retired from acting at the age of 90 after his health declined.
Norman Joseph Wisdom was born in the Marylebone district of London. His parents were Frederick, a chauffeur and Maud Wisdom (née Targett), a dressmaker who often worked for West End theatres. The couple married in Marylebone on 15th July 1912. Norman Wisdom’s elder brother, Frederick Thomas “Fred” Wisdom (13 December 1912 – 1 July 1971). The family resided at 91 Fernhead Road, London W9, where they slept in one room.
At the outbreak of World War II Wisdom was sent to work in a communications centre in a command bunker in London where he connected telephone calls from war leaders to the prime minister. He met Winston Churchill on several occasions when asked for updates on incoming calls and once was disciplined for calling him Winnie. He then joined the Royal Corps of Signals and performed a similar function with a military unit based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. After a charity concert at the Cheltenham Town Hall, actor Rex Harrison came backstage and urged him to become a professional entertainer.
In 1941, Wisdom provided the lyrics for the popular Second World War song “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover”
Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store in 1953. This film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954.
Their cheerful, unpretentious appeal make them the direct descendants of the films made a generation earlier by George Formby. Never highly thought of by the critics, they were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom’s films were among Britain’s biggest box office successes of their day, and were successful in some unlikely overseas markets, helping Rank stay afloat financially when their more expensive film projects were unsuccessful.
The films usually involved the Gump character—Norman Pitkin—in some manual occupation, in which he is barely competent and in a junior position to a straight man, often played by Edward Chapman—Mr Grimsdale. They benefited from Wisdom’s capacity for physical slapstick comedy and his skill at creating a sense of the character’s helplessness. The series often contained a romantic subplot; the Gump’s inevitable awkwardness with women is a characteristic shared with the earlier Formby vehicles.
Despite a move to filming in colour, by the mid-1960s Wisdom’s commercial film appeal was in eclipse. The obvious incongruity of a fifty-year old man playing the prime minister’s grandson in Press for Time (1966) counted against him; Wisdom’s age was inaccurately reported for many years.
In 1966, Wisdom went to the United States to star in a Broadway production of the James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn musical comedy Walking Happy. His performance was nominated for a Tony Award.
On 31 December 1976, Wisdom performed his theme song Don’t Laugh At Me (Cause I’m a Fool) on BBC1′s A Jubilee Of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II’s impending Silver jubilee. Wisdom had performed in front of the Queen at many Royal Command Performances, the first being in 1952.
He also completed his first American film as a vaudeville comic in The Night They Raided Minsky’s. After a typical performance on the Ed Sullivan Show the opportunities which might have been in the United States were cut short when he had to return to London when his second wife left him. His subsequent career was largely confined to television and he toured the world with his successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play, Going Gently.
On 11 February 1987 Wisdom was the subject of Thames Television’s This Is Your Life for the second time. He became prominent again in the 1990s, helped by the young comedian Lee Evans, whose act was often compared to Wisdom’s work. His classic Rank films were playing to new audiences on television screens and DVD, with a growing number of new young fans in the UK and abroad. The highpoint of this new popularity was the knighthood he was awarded in 2000.
From 1995 until 2004 he appeared in the recurring role of Billy Ingleton in the long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine. The role was originally a one-off appearance, but proved so popular that he returned as the character on a number of occasions. In 1996, he became recipient of a Special Achievement Award from the London Film Critics.
Wisdom was a guest on a This Is Your Life special in the year 2000 for actor/director Todd Carty. He appeared as a half-time guest at the England vs Albania 2002 World Cup qualifier at St James’ Park, Newcastle upon Tyne and scored a penalty at the Leazes End.
In 2002 he filmed a small role as Winston the butler in the movie Alone in the Dark although this was not released until 2008 under the title Evil Calls: The Raven. In 2004, he made a cameo appearance in Coronation Street playing fitness fanatic pensioner Ernie Crabbe. In 2007 Wisdom came out of retirement to take a major role in a short film called Expresso
Wisdom was a cult icon in Albania, where he was the only Western actor whose films were allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. He was known as “Mr Pitkin” after the Gump character from his films. In 1995, he visited the post-Stalinist country, where to his surprise he was greeted by many appreciative fans including the then president of Albania, Sali Berisha. On a visit in 2001, which coincided with the England football team playing Albania in the city of Tirana (of which Norman was granted the freedom in 1995), his presence at the training ground eclipsed even that of David Beckham. He appeared on the pitch before the start of the Albania v England match wearing a half Albanian and half English football shirt. He was well received by the crowd especially when he performed one of his trade mark trips on his way out to the centre circle.
In his book and TV series One Hit Wonderland, Tony Hawks united with Wisdom and, along with Sir Tim Rice, released a single “Big In Albania” in an attempt to enter the Albanian pop charts. It reached number 18 in the Top Albania Radio chart. Wisdom’s fondness for Brighton & Hove Albion is renowned in Albania and consequently there are many “Seagulls” fans in Albania.
Wisdom married his second wife, Freda Isobel Simpson, a dancer, in October 1947; they had two children: Nicholas (born 1953) and Jacqueline (born 1954). The couple divorced in 1968, and Wisdom was granted full custody of the children. Freda Wisdom died in Brighton in 1992.
Wisdom was a lifelong supporter and a former board member of football team Brighton and Hove Albion F.C.. He enjoyed golf and was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats. Popular in the Isle of Man, he lived for 27 years in a house in Andreas named Ballylough (Manx for “House of Laughs”). He was an Honorary Member of the Winkle Club, a famous charity in Hastings, East Sussex.
A lover of cars, he owned a 1987 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and a Jaguar S-Type, until his age and declining mental health meant he failed a Department of Transport fitness to drive test, and they were sold in September 2005. A supporter of various charities including Mencap, in 2005 Wisdom starred in a video for the Manx girl group Twisted Angels for their single LA, in support of local charity Project 21.
Wisdom had suffered a series of strokes causing a decline in his health over the past six months. The death of Wisdom was reported by his son on 4 October 2010. He is reported to have passed away peacefully at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man.