Barry Humphries, creator of Dame Edna, dies at 89

Born in Melbourne, he was the son of a well-to-do builder who persuaded his parents to buy him an assortment of theatrical costumes to play dress up in

By Reuters

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Australian TV presenter Barry Humphries performs on stage as Dame Edna for the Farewell Tour at the London Palladium theatre on November 13, 2013. — AP file
Australian TV presenter Barry Humphries performs on stage as Dame Edna for the Farewell Tour at the London Palladium theatre on November 13, 2013. — AP file

Published: Sat 22 Apr 2023, 3:57 PM

Last updated: Sat 22 Apr 2023, 3:59 PM

Barry Humphries, the comedian best known for his character Dame Edna Everage who blossomed from an Australian suburban housewife into a self-described gigastar, died on Saturday. He was 89.

The Sydney Morning Herald said Humphries died at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, where he had been treated for various health issues.

"He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit,” his family said in a statement quoted by Australian media.

“His audiences were precious to him, and he never took them for granted. Although he may be best remembered for his work in theatre, he was a painter, author, poet, and a collector and lover of art in all its forms."

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to Humphries in a tweet, calling him a "great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind".

It was the character of Dame Edna who made Humphries famous. With coiffed lilac hair, oversized diamante glasses and an outlandish wardrobe, the instantly recognisable Edna would joyfully greet audiences with her trademark "Hello Possums!".

Describing her shows as a "monologue interrupted by strangers" and herself as blessed with "the ability to laugh at the misfortune of others", Edna would warmly skewer celebrities and audience members alike.

Australia's Barry Humphries poses after receiving his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire from the Queen at Buckingham Palace, London, on October 10, 2007. — Reuters file
Australia's Barry Humphries poses after receiving his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire from the Queen at Buckingham Palace, London, on October 10, 2007. — Reuters file

"Tim, I could talk to you and about you and behind your back for ages," the character once said in typical fashion as she was wrapping up a conversation with actor and comedian Tim Allen on one of her talkshows.

Edna's life as she told it would often leave stars in hysterics. She taught Mel Gibson drama, Julio Iglesias' father was her travelling gynaecologist and she spent the coronavirus pandemic hiding out with her new lover, the father of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, in Texas.

Born and raised in Melbourne, John Barry Humphries was the son of a well-to-do builder who persuaded his parents to buy him an assortment of theatrical costumes to play dress up in.

Sent to a conservative high school, he was described by a friend as a "spectacular misfit" who would turn his back on school football matches to knit.

The creation that would define his career came early: at 21, he was part of a travelling repertory company when he came up with a character of a snobbish, inadvertently offensive housewife. In 1955, he stepped onstage for the first time as "Mrs Norm Everage" from Moonee Ponds, admitting only decades later that she was based on his mother.

He developed a host of other Australian caricatures including the repulsive drunk diplomat Les Patterson and the more subtle Sandy Stone, a decrepit rambling senior.

PRANKS

Humphries was also an actor, painter, author and Dadaist performer of pranks.

In one such prank, he would sneak a can of Heinz Russian Salad on a plane, empty it into a passenger sick bag and pretend to vomit into the bag mid-flight before proceeding to eat the contents in front of bewildered passengers and crew.

Bored with his home city, Humphries moved to Britain in 1959, part of a wave of creative expatriates including humorist Clive James and artist Brett Whiteley, showcasing the Australian voice: earthy and irreverent but superficially polite.

"Edna has this way of doing things, it seems to take the curse off it," Humphries told Reuters in 1998. "I get no complaints."

Although a household name in Britain and Australia, the U.S. market proved hard to crack despite several attempts. That changed in 2000, when he was 66, and his "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour" on Broadway earned him a Tony award and role in the sitcom "Ally McBeal".

He also voiced the character of Bruce the Shark in "Finding Nemo", wrote a satirical advice column, as Edna, for Vanity Fair, and curated a cabaret festival where he rejected acts that involved swearing - a decision he said would encourage creativity.

For years Humphries struggled with alcoholism that destroyed his first marriage and nearly his life, but he gave up drinking in the early 70s.

His numerous honours included being awarded an Order of Australia in 1982, made a Commander of the British Empire in 2007 and featuring on Australian postage stamps.

But an outcry over a series of remarks that were widely seen as transphobic helped prompt the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to drop his name from its top award in 2019.

Humphries lived what he called a "chequered, dramatic" personal life, marrying four times. He is survived by his wife, the actress Lizzie Spender, and his four children.


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