Ten comedians who died on stage | ...as a new book chronicles performers who died with their boots on

Ten comedians who died on stage

...as a new book chronicles performers who died with their boots on

From the most famous – Tommy Cooper – to the most recent – Ian Cognito – comedians who die on stage hold a special fascination.

For some, it's said that's how they wanted to go, doing what they love and making people laugh. For others the story is more tragic.

In a new book released yesterday, two American authors offer the first comprehensive study performers, including comics, who died on the job. The Show Won't Go On tells dozens of stories, such as of the amateur thespian who expired during a play called The Art of Murder to the chat show guest who died after telling host Dick Cavett: 'I never felt better in my life'

Subtitled The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, the book covers almost every genre of entertainment, from vaudeville to social media.

The authors are Jeff Abraham, a public relations executive who's regarded as one of Hollywood's top comedy historians, and Burt Kearns, a TV and film producer, director, writer and journalist.

To mark the publication, here are ten stories of comedians who died on stage, starting with seven covered in the book – albeit in much greater depth than these extracts provide.


TOMMY COOPER

The most famous on-stage – and on-screen – death's was Tommy Cooper, at the age of 63. It was Sunday, April 15, 1984, when he was appearing at Live from Her Majesty's, broadcast on ITV live from the West End theatre of the same name.

He was scheduled to do his 'magic cloak' trick in which he pulled ever-larger props from beneath his gown – in reality passed to him by host Jimmy Tarbuck hiding behind the curtains. The punchline was to be Tarbuck walking on stage carrying a stepladder, complaining he couldn't fit it through Cooper's legs.

After magician's assistant Sandie Lawrence wrapped the cloak around Cooper he slumped to the floor, the audience still laughing. Behind the drapes, Tarbuck waited for his cue and although it was a long time coming, believed the comic was merely ad-libbing sone extra business.

Then Cooper fell backwards. The audience continued to laugh as his body twisted under the big cape, his legs twitching. But as the pause hung, the director realised something was wrong and cut to an unscheduled commercial break.

TV screens went blank and in the theatre Tarbuck and the crew struggled to move Cooper's 6ft 4in, 15-stone body behind the curtain and get him medical attention. But the TV broadcast and live show was to continue after the break.

Les Dennis and Dustin Gee were bundled on to the stage and tried to get laughs even as they could hear people battling to save Cooper behind them. Only after the TV broadcast ended did a news bulletin announce Cooper's death.

In a cruel coincidence, Gee, too was to die after collapsing during a show – while in panto in Southport on New Year's Day, 1986. While he and Dennis were changing costume backstage, he suffered a massive heart attack, and died in hospital two days later.

HARRY EINSTEIN

American comic Harry Einstein, father of future comedians Bob Einstein and Albert Brooks, was at a Friars Club gala in Hollywood on November 23, 1958, honouring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The 54-year-old went down a storm, and with applause ringing our he took his seat next to Milton Bearle – before suddenly slumping into his fellow comic's s lap. He was taken backstage where he was attended by five specialists, all in the room because Friars Club events are typically fundraisers for medical charities, but they could not save him.

AL KELLY

Vaudeville comediam Al Kelly also died at a Friars Club function after slaying the crowd. He was 69 years old and toasting comedian Joe E. Lewis at the organisation's New York HQ on September 7, 1966, 

He was 'the hit of the night' and returned to his seat amid gales of laughter. He rose to acknowledge a standing ovation. Seconds later, he collapsed. He was dragged to the bar where he was pronounced dead. Lewis said: 'If you have to go, that's the way to do it. Leave with the cheers ringing in your ears.'

KENNETH HORNE

The Round The Horne star died while presenting the Guild of Television Producers and Directors Awards on Valentine's Day, 1969, with Lord Mountbatten as his co-host. Horne had been prescribed an anticoagulant after a heart attack two years over but a faith healer had advised him not to take them, and he took that advice.

As he prepared to give an award, he fell 3ft off the podium, and crashed on to the ballroom floor. He was carried to a separate room where BBC chairman Lord Hill – a former doctor – tried to revive him, but in vain.

Mountbatten continued with the ceremony, which also aired on TV later that as scheduled, with the collapse edited out and an announcer saying: 'Mr Horne was taken ill at this point and has since died,' before the continuing with the broadcast. The post-ceremony dancing went on as normal, too, with just a five-minute break in Horne's memory.

EMILE HASDA

The comedian was the star of a Berlin theatre company touring Poland with a production of Ludwig Fulda's comedy Twin Sister in 1904. When they played the Municipal Theatre in Nimph, Poland, they got six curtain calls and Hasda took his bows to the greatest ovation.

But on the final time, he pulled a revolver out of his pocket, raised the gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and blew out his brains in full view of the audience. The reason? An actress in the troupe had turned down his romantic advances.

SID JAMES

Sid James ended his days on a miserable tour of a farce called The Mating Season. On April 16, 1976, at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland, about 400 people came to opening night in a venue that held 2,200.

About 15 minutes in, a co-star had to spray a perfume bottle under Sid's nose. He gasped for breath and fell backwards onto a sofa. The audience laughed. Even the cast thought he was doing it all for show.

He said his next line, but then his head had slumped and his eyes went back into his head. His co-stars thought it was a joke but eventually twigged something was wrong and the curtain came down. The cry went up 'Is there a doctor in the house?' There was, but James cold not be saved

DICK SHAWN

Unpredictable US comic Dick Shawn often used to pretend to die on stage, which was to prove unfortunate. On April 17, 1987, he was performing at the University of California when he went down on a knee, and then fell forward on his face 'and a little bit hard', according to his son Adam, who was also the show's technical director.

The audience thought the faceplant was part of the show, given it fitted the routine and had been part of his act for decades. The crew didn't know whether to interfere or whether he was signalling it was time for the interval.

The audience laughed and clapped. Someone yelled out, 'Take his wallet!' More laughter. Then a stage hand went to check if he was OK and failed to get a response, So let out the cry: 'Is there a doctor in the house?' There were several, as there was a hospital attached to the campus, but they could not save him.

And three not in the book…

IAN COGNITO

When Ian Cognito sat down on a stool and started breathing heavily during his set at the The Atic bar in Bicester on April 11 this year, the audience thought it was all part of the act. After all, the 60-year-old stand-up had been joking about his health during his set, telling the audience: 'Imagine if I died in front of you lot here.' But compere Andrew Bird realised something might be wrong and went on stage to check if his fellow comedian was OK. 'I was expecting him to say "boo",' Bird recalled… but he got no response. Two off-duty A&E nurses and a police officer began chest compressions and an ambulance was called, but in vain. Bird said that was the way Cognito, whose real name was Paul Barbieri, 'would have wanted to go…. except he'd want more money and a bigger venue'.

FRANK FONTAINE

American TV and radio comedian Frank Fontaine died just coming off stage (as indeed did Eric Morecambe, just six weeks after Tommy Cooper), In Fontaine's case he was struck by a fatal heart attack on August 4, 1978, just after a show in Spokane, Washington. But with some grim irony, it was at a benefit show, and he had just been given $25,000 which he planned to donate for heart research.

JOE E ROSS

The American burlesque comedian, who went on to play henpecked Ritzik in The Phil Silvers Show, was down on his luck in later life and struggled to get work. His last engagement was on August 13, 1982, when at the age of 68, he was offered just $100 to tell old jokes in the common room of his apartment building in Burbank, California. While on stage he keeled over, having suffered a fatal heart attack. According to the – probably apocryphal – story his widow later went to collect his pay, but was only given $50. Because, the organisers figured, he had only done half the show.

• The Show Won't Go On by Jeff Abraham and Bert Kearns is out now, priced £16.99. Click here to order from Foyles..

Published: 4 Sep 2019

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