Tommy Cooper

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Tommy Cooper
Born Thomas Frederick Cooper
(1921-03-19)19 March 1921
Caerphilly, Wales
Died 15 April 1984(1984-04-15) (aged 63)
Her Majesty's Theatre, London, England
Cause of death
Heart attack
Resting place
Mortlake Crematorium
Occupation Prop comedian, stand-up comedian, magician
Years active 1948–1984
Parents Gertrude (née Wright) and Tom Cooper

Thomas Frederick "Tommy" Cooper (19 March 1921 – 15 April 1984) was a British prop comedian and magician.

Cooper was a member of The Magic Circle, and respected by traditional magicians. Famed for his red fez, his appearance was large and lumbering at 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and more than 15 stone (210 lb; 95 kg) in weight.[1]

On 15 April 1984, Cooper collapsed and soon after died from a heart attack in front of millions of television viewers, midway through his act on the London Weekend Television variety show Live From Her Majesty's, transmitted live from Her Majesty's Theatre. His stage persona required that his act intentionally go wrong for comic purposes, leading to some initial uncertainty about whether this collapse was real.


Born in Caerphilly, South Wales, at 19 Llwyn Onn Street, Trecenydd, Cooper was delivered by the woman who owned the house in which the family was lodging. His parents were Welsh-born army recruiting sergeant father Thomas H. (Tom) Cooper, and his English-born wife Gertrude (née Gertrude C. Wright) from Crediton, Devon.[2][3] In light of the heavily polluted air and the offer of a job for his father, the family moved to Exeter, Devon, when Cooper was three and gained the West Country accent that was part of his act.[4]

The family lived in the back of Haven Banks, where Cooper attended Mount Radford School for Boys, and helped his parents run their ice cream van, which attended fairs at the weekend. When he was eight an aunt bought Cooper a magic set and he spent hours perfecting the tricks.[5]

Magic ran in his family—his brother David (born 1930)[6] opened a magic shop in the 1960s in Slough High Street (then Buckinghamshire now Berkshire) called D. & Z. Cooper's Magic Shop.[7]

Cooper was influenced by Laurel and Hardy,[8] Max Miller,[8] Bob Hope,[8] and Robert Orben.[9]

World War II[edit]

After school, Cooper became a shipwright in Hythe, Hampshire, and in 1940 was called up as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards regiment of the British Army in World War II. He served initially in Montgomery's Desert Rats in Egypt. Cooper became part of the NAAFI entertainment party and developed an act around his magic tricks interspersed with comedy. One evening in Cairo, during a sketch in which he was supposed to be in a costume which required a pith helmet, having forgotten the prop, Cooper reached out and borrowed the fez from a passing waiter which got huge laughs.[10] It was from this incident that stemmed two of the attributes that were a hallmark of his later act: the ever-present fez hat and his aptitude for slapstick comedy.

Act development[edit]

When he was demobbed after seven years of military service, Cooper took up show business on Christmas Eve, 1947—he would later add a popular monologue about his military experience as "Cooper the Trooper". Cooper worked in variety theatres around the country and at London's Windmill Theatre, where he performed 52 shows per week.[10]

Cooper had developed his conjuring skills and was a member of The Magic Circle, but there are various versions as to where he developed his act delivery of "failed" magic tricks:[10]

  • Performing to his shipbuilding colleagues when everything went wrong. Devastated, Cooper still noted that the failed tricks got laughs.
  • During his British Army career.
  • At a post-war audition, at which his tricks went wrong, but which the panel thoroughly enjoyed.

To keep the audience on their toes, Cooper threw in the occasional trick that worked when it was least expected.


In 1947 Cooper got his big break with Miff Ferrie, at that time trombonist in a band called The Jackdaws, who booked him to appear as the second spot comedian in a show starring sand dance act "Marqueeze and the Dance of the Seven Veils". Cooper then began a two-year period of arduous performing. It included a tour of Europe and a stint in pantomime, playing one of Cinderella's ugly sisters. The period culminated in a season long booking at the Windmill Theatre where he doubled up doing cabarets; one week performing in 52 shows. Ferrie would remain Cooper's sole agent for the next 37 years, until Cooper's death in 1984. Cooper was supported by a variety of acts including the legendary vocal percussionist Frank Holder.

Cooper rapidly became a top-liner in variety with his turn as the conjurer whose tricks never succeeded, but it was his television work which raised him to national prominence. After his debut on the BBC talent show New to You in March 1948, he soon started starring in his own shows, and was popular with audiences for four decades, most notably through his work with London Weekend Television from 1968 to 1972 and with Thames Television from 1973 to 1980. Thanks to his many television shows during the mid 70s, he was one of the biggest and most recognizable comedians in the world.

Cooper was a heavy drinker and smoker, and experienced a decline in health during the late 1970s, suffering a heart attack in 1977 while in Rome, where he was performing a show. Three months later he was back on television in Night Out at the London Casino. By 1980, though, his drinking meant that Thames Television would not give him another starring series, and Cooper's Half Hour was his last. He did continue to guest on other television shows, however, and worked with Eric Sykes on two Thames productions in 1982:

John Fisher writes in Cooper's biography, "Everyone agrees that he was mean. Quite simply he was acknowledged as the tightest man in show business, with a pathological dread of reaching into his pocket." One of Cooper's stunts was to pay the exact taxi fare and when leaving the cab to slip something into the taxi driver's pocket saying, "Have a drink on me." That something would turn out to be a tea bag.[11]

By the mid-1970s, alcohol had started to erode Cooper's professionalism and club owners complained that he turned up late or rushed through his show in five minutes. In addition, he suffered chronic indigestion, lumbago, sciatica, bronchitis and severe circulation problems in his legs. When Cooper realised the extent of his injuries he cut down on his drinking and the energy and confidence returned to his act and some of his later television performances were a revelation. However, he never stopped drinking and could be fallible: on an otherwise triumphant appearance with Michael Parkinson he forgot to set the safety catch on the guillotine illusion into which he had cajoled Parkinson. Only a last-minute intervention by the floor manager saved Parkinson from serious injury or worse.[12]

Death on a live television show[edit]

On 15 April 1984, Cooper collapsed from a heart attack in front of millions of television viewers, midway through his act on the London Weekend Television variety show Live From Her Majesty's, transmitted live from Her Majesty's Theatre.[13]

An assistant had helped him put on a cloak for his sketch, while Jimmy Tarbuck, the host, was hiding behind the curtain waiting to pass him different props which he would then appear to pull from inside his gown.[13] The assistant smiled at him as he collapsed, believing that it was a part of the act.[14] Likewise, the audience laughed as he fell, until it became apparent he was seriously ill.[13] At this point the show's director, Alasdair MacMillan, cued the orchestra to play music for an unscripted commercial break (noticeable by several seconds of blank screen while LWT's master control contacted regional stations to start transmitting advertisements)[13] and Tarbuck's manager tried to pull Cooper back through the curtains. It was decided to continue with the show. Dustin Gee and Les Dennis were the act that had to follow Tommy Cooper, and other stars proceeded to present their acts in the limited space in front of the stage. For a long time, a rumour circulated that the size 13 feet from his 6' 4" frame protruded underneath the curtains. While the show continued, efforts were being made backstage to revive Cooper, not made easier by the darkness. It was not until a second commercial break that ambulancemen were able to move his body to Westminster Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. His death wasn't officially reported until the next morning, although the incident was the lead item on the news programme that followed the show. Cooper was cremated at Mortlake Crematorium in London.[15]

The video of Tommy Cooper suffering a heart attack on stage has been uploaded to numerous video sharing websites. YouTube drew criticism from a number of sources when footage of the incident was posted on their website in May 2009. John Beyer, of pressure group Mediawatch UK, said: "This is very poor taste. That the broadcasters have not repeated the incident shows they have a respect for him and I think that ought to apply also on YouTube."[14] On 28 December 2011, segments of the Live From Her Majesty's clip, including Cooper collapsing on stage, were screened on Channel 4 in the UK, on a programme titled "The Untold Tommy Cooper".

From 1967 until his death he had a relationship with his personal assistant, Mary Fieldhouse. [16] She wrote about it in her 1986 book For the Love of Tommy. [17]


Statue of Tommy Cooper, near the castle, in Caerphilly

A statue of Cooper was unveiled in his hometown of Caerphilly, Wales, in 2008 by fellow entertainer Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is patron of The Tommy Cooper Society. The statue was sculpted by James Done.[18] In 2009 for Red Nose Day, a charity Red Nose was put on the statue, but the nose was stolen.[18]

In a 2005 poll The Comedians' Comedian, Cooper was voted the sixth greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. He is commonly cited as one of the best comedians of all time, with several polls placing him at number one.[citation needed] He has been cited as an influence by Jason Manford[19] and John Lydon.[20]

In 2012 the British Heart Foundation ran a series of adverts featuring Tommy Cooper to raise awareness of heart conditions. These included posters bearing his image together with radio adverts featuring classic Cooper jokes.[21]

Jerome Flynn has toured with his own tribute show to Cooper called Just Like That. In February 2007, The Independent reported that Andy Harries, a producer of The Queen, was working on a dramatization about the last week of Tommy Cooper's life.[22] Harries described Cooper's death as "extraordinary" in that the whole thing was broadcast live on national television.[23] The film subsequently went into production over six years later as a television film for ITV. The role of Cooper will be played by David Threlfall.[24]

Being Tommy Cooper, a new play written by Tom Green and starring Damian Williams, will be produced by Franklin Productions and will tour the UK in 2013.[25]

Hip-hop duo dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip wrote the song "Tommy C", about Cooper's career and death, which appears on their 2008 album Angles.


  • "Don't Jump Off the Roof Dad" (1961), words and music by Cy Coben, single, Palette Records PG 9019 (reached Number 40 in the UK singles chart)
  • "Country Dreaming" - 12” LP
  • "Ginger" - 7” single
  • "Happy Tommy"- 7" single
  • "Just Like That" 7” single
  • "Masters of Comedy"- CD
  • "My Name Is Tommy" - 12” LP
  • "No Arms Will Ever Hold You" - 7” single
  • "Sweet Words Of Love" - 7" single
  • "Tommy Cooper Very Best Of" - CD, DVD
  • "Walkin' Home From School" - 7" single
  • "We'll Meet Again" - 7" single


  1. ^ The Times obituary 17 April 1984
  2. ^ GRO Register of Marriages: DEC 1919 11a 1538 PONTYPRIDD - Thomas H. Cooper = Gertrude C. Wright
  3. ^ Tommy Cooper
  4. ^ Anniversary of Tommy Cooper's death BBC Wales News - 16 April 2004
  5. ^ "Tommy Cooper - Biography". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  6. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1930 5b 60 ST THOMAS - David J. Cooper, mmn - Wright
  7. ^ 100 Club - Norman's story[dead link]
  8. ^ a b c John Fisher, Tommy Cooper: Always Leave Them Laughing, Harper Collins, 2006, p. 137
  9. ^ Fisher, Tommy Cooper, pp. 157–158
  10. ^ a b c Tommy Cooper: Just Like That! BBC News
  11. ^ "The Art of Tommy Cooper" at, first broadcast 14 September 2007, BBC Two Wales (anecdote retold by Barry Cryer)
  12. ^ The Secret Life of Tommy Cooper, The Independent, 24 September 2006
  13. ^ a b c d Nathan Bevan (12 April 2009). "Tommy Cooper's last act fooled us all, says Jimmy Tarbuck". Wales On Sunday. 
  14. ^ a b Kelly Miles (10 May 2009). "Tommy Cooper death video posted on YouTube". Wales On Sunday. 
  15. ^ Find-A-Grave profile for Tommy Cooper
  16. ^ "Marc Brodie: Cooper, Thomas Frederick [Tommy] (1921–1984)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press), retrieved 30 May 2013 
  17. ^ Fieldhouse, Mary (1986), For the Love of Tommy, London: Robson Books Ltd, ISBN 978-0860513872 
  18. ^ a b "Tommy Cooper statue is unveiled". BBC News. 2008-02-23. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  19. ^ WalesOnline. "I thought about retraining as a plasterer, says ex-One Show presenter Jason Manford". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  20. ^ "Metal box, P.I.L". 2011-02-11. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  21. ^ Parsons, Russell (1 June 2012). "BHF uses Tommy Cooper in latest ads". Marketing Week (Centaur Media Plc). Retrieved 4 June 2012. 
  22. ^ Akbar, Arifa; Brown, Jonathan (8 May 2007). "Just like that! Tommy Cooper's final days". The Independent (London). Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  23. ^ Harries, Andy (2007-04-27). Andy Harries, Coventry Conversations, 25 April (MP3). Coventry University Pod-casting Service. Retrieved 2008-03-02. 
  24. ^ Nissim, Mayer (23 May 2013). "'Shameless' David Threlfall to play Tommy Cooper in one-off ITV drama". Digital Spy. Retrieved 23 May 2013. 
  25. ^ "Being Tommy Cooper". Franklin Productions Ltd. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 

External links[edit]