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Tommy Cooper

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Tommy Cooper
Cooper, c. 1982
Thomas Frederick Cooper

(1921-03-19)19 March 1921
Died15 April 1984(1984-04-15) (aged 63)
MonumentsOcklynge Cemetery, Eastbourne, East Sussex, England
  • Comedian
  • magician
Years active1947–1984
Height6 ft 4 in (1.93 m)
Gwen Henty
(m. 1947)
Children2, including Thomas

Thomas Frederick Cooper (19 March 1921 – 15 April 1984) was a Welsh[1][2] prop comedian and magician. As an entertainer, his appearance was large and lumbering at 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m),[3] and he habitually wore a red fez when performing. He served in the British Army for seven years, before developing his conjuring skills and becoming a member of The Magic Circle. Although he spent time on tour performing his magical act, which specialised on magic tricks that appeared to fail, he rose to international prominence when his career moved into television, with programmes for London Weekend Television and Thames Television.

By the end of the 1970s, Cooper was smoking and drinking heavily, which affected his career and his health, effectively ending offers to front new programmes and relegating him to performing as a guest star on other entertainment shows. On 15 April 1984, Cooper died at the age of 63 after suffering a heart attack on live television.[4]

Early life[edit]

Thomas Frederick Cooper was born on 19 March 1921 at 19, Llwyn-On Street in Caerphilly, Glamorgan.[5] He was delivered by the woman who owned the house in which the family were lodging. His parents were Thomas H. Cooper, a Welsh recruiting sergeant in the British Army and later coal miner, and Catherine Gertrude (née Wright), Thomas's English wife from Crediton, Devon.[5][6]

To change from his mining role in Caerphilly, that could have had implications for his health, his father accepted the offer of a new job and the family moved to Exeter, Devon, when Cooper was three. It was in Exeter that he acquired the West Country accent that became part of his act.[7] As an adult and on a visit to Wales to visit the house where he was born, Cooper was asked if he considered himself to be a Welshman, to which he answered, "Well yes, my father's Welsh... and my mother's from Devon. Actually I was in Caerphilly and left here when I was about a year old, I was getting very serious with a girl", much to the amusement of the BBC interviewer and himself.[2]

When he was eight years old an aunt bought him a magic set and he spent hours perfecting the tricks.[8] In the 1960s his brother David (born 1930)[9] opened D. & Z. Cooper's Magic Shop at 249 High Street in Slough, Buckinghamshire.[10][7] The shop later moved to Eastbourne, East Sussex and was run by David's daughter Sabrina.[11] After leaving school, Cooper became a shipwright in Southampton, Hampshire. In 1940 he was called up as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, serving for seven years. He joined Montgomery's Desert Rats in Egypt. Cooper became a member of a Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (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 that required a pith helmet, having forgotten the prop Cooper reached out and borrowed a fez from a passing waiter, which got huge laughs.[12] He wore a fez when performing after that, the prop later being described as "an icon of 20th-century comedy".[13]

Development of the act[edit]

Cooper was demobilised after seven years of military service and took up show business on Christmas Eve 1947. He later developed a popular monologue about his military experience as "Cooper the Trooper". He worked in variety theatres around the country and at many night spots in London, performing as many as 52 shows in one week.[14]

Cooper developed his conjuring skills and became a member of The Magic Circle, but there are various stories about how and when he developed his delivery of "failed" magic tricks:[12]

  • He was performing to his shipbuilding colleagues when everything went wrong, but he noticed that the failed tricks got laughs.
  • He started making "mistakes" on purpose when he was in the Army.
  • His tricks went wrong at a post-war audition, but the panel thoroughly enjoyed them anyway.

To keep the audience on their toes Cooper threw in an occasional trick that worked when it was least expected.[citation needed]


Cooper was influenced by Laurel and Hardy,[15] Will Hay,[16] Max Miller,[15] Bob Hope,[15] and Robert Orben.[17]

In 1947 Cooper was booked by Miff Ferrie, a musician, to appear in a show starring the sand dance act Marqueeze and the Dance of the Seven Veils. This was followed by a European tour and work in pantomime, and concluded with a season at the Windmill Theatre. Ferrie remained Cooper's sole agent for 37 years, until Cooper's death in 1984.

Cooper rapidly became a top-liner in variety with his turn as the conjurer whose tricks never succeeded, but it was his television work that raised him to national prominence. After his debut on the BBC talent show New to You in March 1948 he began starring in his own shows, and was popular with audiences for nearly 40 years, 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-1970s he was one of the most recognisable comedians in the world.

John Fisher writes in his biography of Cooper: "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 slip something into the taxi driver's pocket, saying, "Have a drink on me." That something would turn out to be a tea bag.[18]

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 from chronic indigestion, lumbago, sciatica, bronchitis and severe circulation problems in his legs. When Cooper realised the extent of his maladies he cut down on his drinking, and the energy and confidence returned to his act. 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, and only a last-minute intervention by the floor manager saved Parkinson from serious injury or worse.[19][better source needed]

Cooper was a heavy cigar smoker (up to 40 a day) as well as an excessive drinker.[20] Cooper suffered a heart attack on 22 April 1977 while performing a show in Rome.[21] Three months later he was back on television in Night Out at the London Casino.

By 1980 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 appear as a guest on other television shows, however, and worked with Eric Sykes on two Thames productions in 1982.


On 15 April 1984, Cooper collapsed from a heart attack in front of 12 million viewers,[22] midway through his act on the London Weekend Television variety show Live from Her Majesty's, transmitted live from Her Majesty's Theatre in Westminster, London.[23] An assistant had helped him put on a cloak for his sketch, while Jimmy Tarbuck, the host, was hiding behind the stage curtains waiting to pass him different props that he would then appear to pull from inside his gown.[23] His last words seemed to be "Thank you, love," to the assistant seconds before collapsing. The assistant smiled at him as he slumped down, believing that it was part of the act.[24] Likewise, the audience laughed as he fell backwards, as a hand (possibly Tarbuck's hand) briefly appeared from behind the curtain to reach out towards Cooper.[23]

As Cooper lay dying on the floor, the audience continued to laugh at him believing it was part of the act. Around this time, Jimmy Tarbuck, Alasdair MacMillan (the director of the television production), and the crew behind the curtain who witnessed the incident realised that what was happening to him was not part of the act. The laughter from the audience began to die down as they realised Cooper was unable to get back up.

In the wings, show producer David Bell asked Cooper's son if the fall was part of the act. He replied that his father had a bad back, and would be unable to get back up if he fell on purpose.[25] After it became apparent that Cooper was in trouble, Alasdair MacMillan cued the orchestra to play music for an unscripted commercial break (noticeable because of several seconds of blank screen while LWT's master control contacted regional stations to start transmitting advertisements)[23] 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 Cooper and performed in the limited space in front of the curtains. Two stools were positioned either side of the protrusion from behind the curtain where Cooper had collapsed, whilst efforts were being made to revive him. The following act, Howard Keel, performed as Cooper was moved (evident by the twitching of the curtains as he sang and the disappearance of the protrusion as he finished performing). After another commercial break, the curtain was removed, and he was taken by ambulance to Westminster Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. His death was not officially reported until the next morning, although the incident was the leading item on the news programme that followed the show.

Cooper's funeral was held at Mortlake Crematorium in London, and his son scattered his ashes in the back garden, over his father's favourite daffodils.[26][27][28] There are memorials to Cooper, his wife Gwen, and their son Thomas, on his wife's family grave at Ocklynge Cemetery, Eastbourne, East Sussex.[29]

The video of Cooper's 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 the website in May 2009. John Beyer of the 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."[24] On 28 December 2011, segments of the Live from Her Majesty's clip, including Cooper collapsing on stage, were included in the Channel 4 programme The Untold Tommy Cooper.[30][31]

Personal life[edit]

Cooper married Gwen Henty in Nicosia, Cyprus, on 24 February 1947. She died in 2002.[32] They had two children: Thomas, who was born in 1956, became an actor under the name Thomas Henty and died in 1988; and Victoria.

From 1967 until his death, Cooper also had a relationship with his personal assistant, Mary Fieldhouse, who wrote about it in her book, For the Love of Tommy (1986).[33]

Cooper's will was proved via probate on 29 August 1984, at £327,272.[34]

On Christmas Day 2018, the documentary Tommy Cooper: In His Own Words was broadcast on Channel 5. The programme featured Cooper's daughter, Vicky, who gave her first television interview following years of abstaining "because of the grief".[35]

Legacy and honours[edit]

Statue of Cooper near Caerphilly Castle

A statue of Cooper was unveiled in his birthplace, Caerphilly, in 2008 by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is patron of the Tommy Cooper Society.[36] The statue, which cost £45,000, was sculpted by James Done.[37] In 2009, for Red Nose Day, a charity Red Nose was put on the statue, but the nose was stolen.[38]

Cooper was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats.[39]

In a 2005 poll, The Comedians' Comedian, comedians and comedy insiders voted Cooper the sixth greatest comedy act ever.[40] He has been cited as an influence by Jason Manford[41] and John Lydon.[42] 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 dramatisation of the last week of Cooper's life.[43] Harries described Cooper's death as "extraordinary" in that the whole thing was broadcast live on national television.[44] The film subsequently went into production over six years later as a television drama for ITV. From a screenplay by Simon Nye, Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This was directed by Benjamin Caron and the title role was played by David Threlfall. It was broadcast 21 April 2014.[45]

In 2010 Cooper was portrayed by Clive Mantle in a stage show, Jus' Like That! A Night Out with Tommy Cooper, at the Edinburgh Festival. To train for the role Mantle mastered many of Cooper's magic tricks, studying under Geoffrey Durham for several months.[46]

In 2012 the British Heart Foundation ran a series of advertisements featuring Cooper to raise awareness of heart conditions. These included posters bearing his image together with radio commercials featuring classic Cooper jokes.[47]

Being Tommy Cooper, a new play written by Tom Green and starring Damian Williams, was produced by Franklin Productions and toured the UK in 2013.[48][49]

In 2014, with the support of The Tommy Cooper Estate and Cooper's daughter Victoria, a new tribute show, Just Like That! The Tommy Cooper Show, commemorating 30 years since the comedian's death was produced by Hambledon Productions. The production moved to the Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, London, from September 2014 and continues to tour extensively throughout the UK.[50][51]

In May 2016, a blue plaque in memory of Cooper was unveiled at his former home in Barrowgate Road, Chiswick. It was announced in August that the Victoria and Albert Museum had acquired 116 boxes of Cooper's papers and props, including his "gag file", in which the museum said he had used a system to store his jokes alphabetically "with the meticulousness of an archivist".[52]

On 5 March 2021, BBC One aired the 30-minute documentary Tommy Cooper at the BBC, looking at his best performances, including his appearance on the Parkinson show where he almost killed Michael Parkinson with a trick guillotine. The programme, which celebrated the centenary of his birth, was presented by Sir Lenny Henry.[53]


Year Title[54][55][56] TV company Episodes
1948 New To You BBC 1
1948 Comedy Capers BBC 1
1952 It's Magic BBC 8
1953–1979 The Royal Variety Performance BBC / ATV 7
1955 Sunday Night at the London Palladium ATV 1
1957 Cooper / Life With Tommy A-RTV 12
1957 The Tommy Cooper Hour ATV 1
1958 The Stars Rise in the West TWW 1
1958 Cooper's Capers ATV 6
1959 After Hours ABC 1
1960 And the Same to You Film 1
1963 The Cool Mikado Film 1
1966 Cooperama ABC 7
1966–1969 Life With Cooper ABC / Thames 19
1967 The Plank Film 1
1967 Spotlight ATV 1
1967 Sykes Versus ITV ABC 1
1968 Cooper King-Size Thames 1
1968 Cooper At Large Thames 1
1969–1971 Tommy Cooper / It's Tommy Cooper LWT 13
1973–1975 The Tommy Cooper Hour Thames 9
1975 Cooper Thames 6
1976 Tommy Cooper's Guest Night Thames 1
1977 Night Out at the London Casino Thames 1
1977 The Silver Jubilee Royal Variety Gala ATV 1
1977 30 Years ... Just Like That! Thames 1
1978–1979 London Night Out Thames 2
1978 The Tommy Cooper Show Thames 1
1978 Cooper – Just Like That Thames 6
1978 Must Wear Tights Thames 1
1979 Parkinson at Christmas BBC 1
1980 Cooper's Half Hour Thames 6
1982 It's Your Move Thames 1
1982 The Eric Sykes 1990 Show Thames 1
1983 This Is Your Lunch BBC 1
1983 The Bob Monkhouse Show BBC 1
1984 Live from Her Majesty's LWT 1


  • "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)[57]
  • "Ginger" – 7" single
  • "Happy Tommy" – 7" single
  • "Just Like That" 7" single
  • "Masters of Comedy" – CD
  • "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

UK VHS/DVD releases[edit]

VHS title Release date
A Tribute to Tommy Cooper (TV9936) 3 November 1986
The Magic of Tommy Cooper - Tribute to a Comedy Genius (TV8091) 4 June 1990
The Best of Tommy Cooper (TV8141) 19 August 1991
Tommy Cooper - "Not Like That" (TV8160) 1 June 1992
Tommy Cooper - Solid Gold (TV8169) 5 October 1992
The Magic of Tommy Cooper - Tribute to a Comedy Genius (LC0012) 1 March 1993
The Magic Lives of Tommy Cooper (TV8182) 11 October 1993
Tommy Cooper - The Magic Touch (TV8184) 7 March 1994
The Very Best of Tommy Cooper (TV8198) 6 March 1995
Tommy Cooper - The Missing Pieces (TV8211) 2 October 1995
The Feztastic Tommy Cooper 6 May 1996
Tommy Cooper - The Golden Years (TV8261) 3 November 1997
A Feztival of Fun With Tommy Cooper (B00005M1YE) 16 September 2002


  • Cooper, Tommy (1975). just like that!. Jupiter Books (London) Limited. ISBN 0904041301.


  1. ^ Carradice, Phil (22 September 2011). "Tommy Cooper, a great Welsh comedian". BBC. Retrieved 22 February 2022.
  2. ^ a b Fez-tival: Tommy Cooper interview, retrieved 22 February 2022
  3. ^ Cavendish, Dominic (5 April 2003). "Just like Tommy". The Telegraph. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
  4. ^ "Obituary: Tommy Cooper". The Times. 17 April 1984.
  5. ^ a b "Tommy Cooper". ExeterMemories.co.uk. 22 January 2008. Archived from the original on 12 January 2012.
  6. ^ GRO Register of Marriages: Dec 1919 11a 1538 Pontypridd – Thomas H. Cooper = Gertrude C. Wright.
  7. ^ a b "Anniversary of Tommy Cooper's death". BBC News. 16 April 2004. Archived from the original on 25 April 2009. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  8. ^ "Tommy Cooper Biography". BiographyOnline.net. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  9. ^ GRO Register of Births: Se 1930 5b 60 St Thomas – David J. Cooper, mmn – Wright
  10. ^ Harrison, Reg. "Shops along High Street, Slough, 1979". SoPSE.org.uk.
  11. ^ "End of an era as Eastbourne magic shop to disappear forever". Sussex World. 25 April 2017.
  12. ^ a b "Edited Guide Entry: Tommy Cooper – Just Like That". h2g2. BBC. 23 January 2004. Guide ID: A2116496. Archived from the original on 16 September 2004. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  13. ^ Logan, Brian (5 December 2016). "Just like hat! Why Tommy Cooper's fez was much more than a prop". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  14. ^ Roy Busby (1976). British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who's Who from 1850 to the Present Day. ISBN 023640053-3.
  15. ^ a b c John Fisher, Tommy Cooper: Always Leave Them Laughing, Harper Collins, 2006, p. 137
  16. ^ Strongman, Phil (25 May 2015). "Will Hay: Britain's bumbling star of the screen and skies". The Register. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  17. ^ Fisher, Tommy Cooper, pp. 157–158
  18. ^ "BBC Two - The Art of Tommy Cooper". Bbc.co.uk. 20 April 2014. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  19. ^ Randall, David (24 September 2006). "The secret life of Tommy Cooper". The Independent. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  20. ^ "Tags: 762".
  21. ^ The Guardian 25 Apr 1977 - Page 5.
  22. ^ McPhee, Rod (19 April 2014). "Tommy Cooper's dark side: 'I'd see the bruises on my mum... He threw her across a room'". Irish Mirror.
  23. ^ a b c d Baven, Nathan (12 April 2009). "Tommy Cooper's last act fooled us all, says Jimmy Tarbuck". Wales on Sunday.
  24. ^ a b "Tommy Cooper death video posted on YouTube". Wales on Sunday. 10 May 2009.
  25. ^ Price, Tom (host) (23 June 2021). "Les Dennis talks about the night Tommy Cooper died". My Mate Bought A Toaster. Season 3. Episode 12. Podcast. Retrieved 15 August 2023 – via YouTube.
  26. ^ "Tommy Cooper | Comedian | Blue Plaques". English Heritage. Retrieved 23 January 2023.
  27. ^ "Mortlake Crematorium Celebrates 75 Years". Lodge Brothers Funeral Directors. 11 June 2014. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  28. ^ Dyduch, Amy (8 June 2014). "Mortlake Crematorium marks 75 years". Richmond and Twickenham Times.
  29. ^ https://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3153430705082466305
  30. ^ Allen, Shane (13 September 2011). "Channel 4 reveals the Untold Tommy Cooper". Channel 4.
  31. ^ "TV review: The Untold Tommy Cooper; Ben Hur". TheGuardian.com. 28 December 2011.
  32. ^ Dyer, Michael (23 September 2004). "Cooper, Thomas Frederick [Tommy] (1921–1984)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-861411-1. Retrieved 15 August 2023.
  33. ^ Fieldhouse, Mary (1986). For the Love of Tommy. London: Robson Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0860513872.
  34. ^ Court of Great Lambeth Law England and Wales (CGPLA)
  35. ^ "Tommy Cooper: Star's daughter breaks silence 34 YEARS after his death". Express.co.uk. 24 December 2018. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  36. ^ "Tommy Cooper - Almost a Magician - Statue". tommycooper.homesteadcloud.com. Archived from the original on 27 December 2018. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  37. ^ "Tommy Cooper statue is unveiled". BBC News. 23 February 2008. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  38. ^ Rhys, Steffan (30 January 2009). "Tommy Cooper statue's red nose gone just like that". Wales News. WalesOnline. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  39. ^ "Roll of Honour". Grand Order of Water Rats. 17 April 2017.
  40. ^ "Cook Tops Poll of Comedy Greats". 2 January 2005. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  41. ^ "I thought about retraining as a plasterer, says ex-One Show presenter Jason Manford". Walesonline.co.uk. 22 March 2013. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  42. ^ "Metal box, P.I.L". Observer.guardian.co.uk. 11 February 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  43. ^ Akbar, Arifa; Brown, Jonathan (8 May 2007). "Just like that! Tommy Cooper's final days". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 20 February 2010. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  44. ^ Harries, Andy (27 April 2007). Andy Harries, Coventry Conversations, 25 April. Coventry University Pod-casting Service. Archived from the original (MP3) on 13 July 2012. Retrieved 2 March 2008.
  45. ^ Nissim, Mayer (23 May 2013). "'Shameless' David Threlfall to play Tommy Cooper in one-off ITV drama". Digital Spy. Archived from the original on 9 June 2013. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
  46. ^ "Jus' like that! Legendary Welsh-born comic Tommy Cooper is the subject of a new stage show starring actor Clive Mantle". South Wales Echo. 13 April 2010.[dead link]
  47. ^ Parsons, Russell (1 June 2012). "BHF uses Tommy Cooper in latest ads". Marketing Week. Centaur Media Plc. Retrieved 4 June 2012.
  48. ^ "Being Tommy Cooper". Franklin Productions Ltd. Archived from the original on 9 April 2013. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  49. ^ "Tommy Cooper" (PDF). TOMMY COOPER: NOT LIKE THAT, LIKE THIS. UK: ITV. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 September 2015. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  50. ^ "Lincolnshire-based professional theatre company". Hambledon Productions. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  51. ^ "Home". Museum of Comedy. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  52. ^ "Tommy Cooper's 'gag file' to be preserved by Victoria & Albert museum". BBC News. 26 August 2016.
  53. ^ "BBC One - Tommy Cooper at the BBC". BBC.
  54. ^ "Tommy Cooper". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 26 May 2022.
  55. ^ "Tommy Cooper". BFI. British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 23 April 2019. Retrieved 26 May 2022.
  56. ^ "Tommy Cooper". BBC Programme Index. Retrieved 14 September 2023.
  57. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 120. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.


  • Fieldhouse, Mary (1986). For the Love of Tommy: a personal portrait of Tommy Cooper.
  • Fisher, John (1973). Funny way to be a hero.
  • Cooper, Tommy (1994). Just Like That (3rd ed.).
  • Nathan, David (1971). The laughtermakers: a quest for comedy.
  • Vahimagi, Tise (1996). British Television, an illustrated guide (2nd ed.).

External links[edit]