Barry Humphries, renowned actor behind Dame Edna Everage, dead at 89


Tony Award-winning comedian Barry Humphries, internationally renowned for his garish stage persona Dame Edna Everage, a condescending and imperfectly veiled snob whose evolving character has delighted audiences over seven decades, has died. He was 89. 

His death in the Sydney hospital, where he spent several days with complications following hip surgery, was confirmed by his family. 

“He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit,” a family statement 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.”

Humphries accepts the Wizard of Oz award for his fictional character Sir Les Patterson at the Oldie Of The Year Awards 2021 at The Savoy Hotel in London on Oct. 19, 2021. (Chris Jackson/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo)

Humphries had lived in London for decades and returned to native Australia in December for Christmas. 

He told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper last month that his physiotherapy had been “agony” following his fall and hip replacement.

“It was the most ridiculous thing, like all domestic incidents are. I was reaching for a book, my foot got caught on a rug or something, and down I went,” Humphries said.

He has remained an active entertainer, touring Britain last year with his one-man show The Man Behind the Mask.

The character of Dame Edna began as a dowdy Mrs. Norm Everage, who first took to the stage in Humphries’ hometown of Melbourne in the mid-1950s. She reflected a postwar suburban inertia and cultural blandness that Humphries found stifling.

Edna is one of Humphries’ several enduring characters. The next most famous is Sir Les Patterson, an ever-drunk, dishevelled and lecherous Australian cultural attaché.

A man holds his hand to his nose and makes a face at a large painting of a woman.
Barry Humphries, in his role as cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson, examines a portrait of his other incarnation, Dame Edna, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on March 16, 1999. (Reuters)

Patterson reflected a perception of Australia as a Western cultural wasteland that drove Humphries along with many leading Australian intellectuals to London.

Humphries, a law school dropout, found major success as an actor, writer and entertainer in Britain in the 1970s, but the United States was an ambition that he found stubbornly elusive.

A high point in the United States was a Tony Award in 2000 for his Broadway show Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to the celebrated comedian.

“For 89 years, Barry Humphries entertained us through a galaxy of personas, from Dame Edna to Sandy Stone,” Albanese tweeted, referring to the melancholic and rambling Stone, one of Humphries most enduring characters. “But the brightest star in that galaxy was always Barry. A great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind, he was both gifted and a gift.” 

Piers Morgan, British television personality, also paid tribute. “One of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” Morgan tweeted.

“A wondrously intelligent, entertaining, daring, provocative, mischievous comedy Genius,” Morgan added. 

A life of comedy

John Barry Humphries was born in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 17, 1934. His parents were comfortable, loving and strait-laced, and must have wondered about their eldest son, whom they called Sunny Sam. His mother used to tell him to stop drawing attention to himself.

Before he’d finished at the prestigious Melbourne Grammar School, Humphries was more interested in art and second-hand bookshops than football. At 16, his favourite author was Kafka and later said he “felt a little foreign.” He spent two years at Melbourne University, where he embraced Dadaism.

In 1959, he settled in London and was soon working in Peter Cook’s comedy venue The Establishment. He played Sowerberry in the original London production of Oliver! in 1960 and repeated the role on Broadway. He appeared with Spike Milligan and William Rushton in Treasure Island.

Humphries, with New Zealand artist Nicholas Garland, created the Barry McKenzie comic strip for the satirical magazine Private Eye in 1964. When the strips came out as a book, the Australian government banned it because it “relied on indecency for its humour.” Humphries professed delight at the publicity and implored authorities not to lift the ban.

By then, his drinking was out of control. In Melbourne in late 1970, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly. He finally admitted himself to a hospital specializing in alcoholism for the treatment that would turn him into a lifelong abstainer.

The Dame Edna character first appeared in the 1970s in Aussie cult films, in which she appeared as the Barry McKenzie’s aunt. Former Australian Gough Whitlam knighted Edna in one of them. 

Married four times, Humphries is survived by his wife Lizzie Spender, four children and 10 grandchildren.

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