Bill Owen (actor)
|Born||William John Owen Rowbotham
14 March 1914
Acton, London, England
|Died||12 July 1999
Highgate, London, England
|Spouse(s)||Edith Stevenson (1946–64) (divorced)
Kathleen O'Donoghue (1977–99) (his death)
Born in London, Owen made his first film appearance in 1944, but did not achieve lasting fame until 1973, when he took the starring role of William "Compo" Simmonite in the long-running British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. Owen's character is a scruffy working-class pensioner, often exploited by the bossy characters played by Michael Bates, Brian Wilde, Michael Aldridge and Frank Thornton for dirty jobs, stunts and escapades, while their indomitably docile friend Norman Clegg, played by Peter Sallis, follows and watches with a smirk. He wore a woollen hat and spent much of his time lusting after dowdy housewife Nora Batty. As Compo, Owen saw off several co-stars. The series, starting in 1973 and finishing in 2010, is today the world's longest-running comedy series. Owen became an icon, a darling of its audience and central to its success and episodes for 26 years, right until his death. The threesome of Compo, Clegg and Foggy (this third character was initially Blamire, played by Michael Bates, and when Brian Wilde's Foggy took a hiatus, replaced by Michael Aldridge's Seymour Utterthwaite) remains the most popular group of three the show ever produced.
Owen served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps during World War II, where he was injured in an explosion during a battle training course. In 1958, Owen presented a music panel/programme titled Dad You're A Square for ATV. It ran for one series, and only one episode exists in the archive of ITV. In the series Floyd on TV - the one-series follower to Clive James on Television - Floyd showed viewers a clip from the show (leaving the audience to work out who the "to be" scruffy presenter was).
During the 1960s, Owen had a successful second career as a songwriter, with compositions including the hit "Marianne", recorded by Cliff Richard. At this time he also collaborated with songwriter Tony Russell on the musical The Matchgirls about the London matchgirls strike of 1888. He co-starred as Spike Milligan's straight man in the West End hit "Son of Oblomov" in 1964. Owen also recorded a novelty song with Kathy Staff in 1983, called "Nora Batty's Stockings".
Owen was a regular in the early Carry On films. He also had a cameo appearance in Brideshead Revisited (TV serial) as Lunt, Charles Ryder's scout during his days at the University of Oxford. He also featured in several Lindsay Anderson films including O Lucky Man! (1973) and In Celebration (1974).
Owen was an active supporter of the Labour Party; Peter Sallis has claimed that Owen's left-wing views contrasted so much with the right-wing opinions of Michael Bates that Last of the Summer Wine was almost not made because of their arguments. Owen was a founding member of the Keep Sunday Special campaign group. He was awarded the MBE in 1976.
While filming the Last Of The Summer Wine French special for the millennium of 2000, Owen fell ill but insisted on continuing despite being in pain; when he got back to England he was confirmed as having pancreatic and bowel cancer.
He continued working right up to his death from pancreatic cancer in Westminster, London, on 12 July 1999, coincidentally, the birthday of co-star Kathy Staff, who played his love interest Nora Batty on Last of the Summer Wine. Owen is buried in the churchyard of St John's Parish Church, Upperthong, near his beloved town of Holmfirth in Yorkshire, the home of Last of the Summer Wine.
Bill Owen was a major supporter of the Newhaven Boys Club in the 1960s; he wrote lots of plays and they toured the UK. He became friends with David King who was a youth leader at Newhaven. David King became Youth Leader at Heatham House Youth Centre in Twickenhaam London in 1968. There he started Heatham House Youth Theatre which Bill Owen was a great supporter attending most productions. The group was one of the first amateur groups to perform Bill's musical "Matchgirls" which he helped to direct and produce. He also wrote short plays for the group including The Laundresses by Degas based on the famous painting and The Beach Trouville by Monet where the painting's characters came to life. His son Tom Owen also directed a play for the group.
Selected television roles
|1963 to 1964||Taxi!||Fred Cuddell|
|1971||Coppers End||Sergeant Sam Short|
|1973 to 1974||Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?||George Chambers|
|1973 to 2000||Last of the Summer Wine||Compo Simmonite||(Last appearances)|
- The Way to the Stars (1945) - 'Nobby' Clarke (as Bill Rowbotham)
- Perfect Strangers (1945) - (uncredited)
- School for Secrets (1946) - Paratroop Sergeant (as Bill Rowbotham)
- Dancing with Crime (1947) - Dave Robinson (as Bill Rowbotham)
- Holiday Camp (1947) - Bit Role (uncredited)
- When the Bough Breaks (1947) - Bill Collins
- Easy Money (1948) - Mr. Lee
- Daybreak (1948) - Ron
- My Brother's Keeper (1948) - Syd Evans
- The Weaker Sex (1948) - Soldier with Chicken
- Once a Jolly Swagman (1949) - Lag Gibbon
- Trottie True (1949) - Joe Jugg
- Diamond City (1949) - Pinto
- The Girl Who Couldn't Quite (1950) - Tim
- The Astonished Heart (1950) - Mr. Burton (uncredited)
- Hotel Sahara (1951) - Private Binns
- The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952) - Stutely
- The Square Ring (1953) - Happy Burns
- A Day to Remember (1953) - Shorty Sharpe
- The Rainbow Jacket (1954) - Sam
- The Ship That Died of Shame (1955) - Birdie
- Not So Dusty (1956) - Dusty Grey
- Davy (1958) - Eric
- Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) - N.C.O. Instructor
- Carry On Sergeant (1958) - Corporal Bill Copping
- Carry On Nurse (1959) - Percy 'Perc' Hickson
- The Shakedown (1960) - David Spettigue
- The Hellfire Club (1961) - Martin
- Carry On Regardless (1961) - Mike Weston
- On the Fiddle (1961) - Corporal Gittens
- Carry On Cabby (1963) - Smiley Sims
- The Masque of the Red Death (1964) - Male Dancer (uncredited)
- The Secret of Blood Island (1964) - Bludgin
- Georgy Girl (1966) - Ted
- The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966) - Officer Powell
- Headline Hunters (1968) - Henry
- O Lucky Man! (1973) - Supt. Barlow / Insp. Carding
- In Celebration (1975) - Mr. Shaw
- The Comeback (1978) - Mr. B
- The Handmaid's Tale (1990) - T.V. Announcer #2