Actor Harry H Corbett OBE, best known for his starring role in the long-running television sitcom Steptoe and Son, died on 21 March, 1982, aged 57.
Mr Corbett, who had a reputation as the actor’s actor and was described by writer Alan Simpson as the ‘English Marlon Brando’ , was, ironically, performing the lead role in a Shakespeare tragedy when he was approached to play Harold Steptoe.
Although Steptoe and Son made Mr Corbett a star, it subsequently ended the development of his acting career as he became permanently associated with the character of Steptoe in the public eye.
Harry Corbett was born on 28 February, 1925, in Burma (now Myanmar) while it was still a British colony. His father was an officer in the British Army who was stationed in the country as part of the colonial defence forces. When Harry was three, his mother died and he was sent to England to be raised by an aunt in Wythenshawe, Manchester.
Mr Corbett joined the military himself, serving in the Royal Marines during the Second World War and, following his discharge, trained as a radiographer. He went on, however, to take up an acting career, initially in repertory theatre.
In the early 1950s he added the middle initial ‘H’ to his name to avoid confusion with the then-popular television entertainer Harry Corbett, who was well known for his act with the puppet, Sooty. He would often joke that the ‘H’ stood for "h’anything".
From 1958, he began to appear regularly in films and first came to public attention as a very serious, intense performer in contrast to the reputation he would later gain as a sitcom actor. He also made guest appearances regularly in television dramas such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Police Surgeon.
A chance meeting with writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were at the time basking in the success of their groundbreaking project, Hancock’s Half Hour, was to change Mr Corbett’s life. He later said: "I had met Galton and Simpson and told them how much I admired their work ... I never envisaged in a thousand years going into light entertainment.
"I looked at what was on television and the only thing making any social comment was the Hancocks, the Eric Sykes, this kind of half-hour comedy programme … I did envy them. Anyway, they remembered this conversation, clearly, and this thing about the rag and bone men thumped through the door. I read it, and immediately wired back: 'Delicious, delighted, can't wait to work on it'."
Production of the series was made stressful by his strained relationship with his co-star, Wilfrid Brambell, whose alcoholism caused him to be ill-prepared for rehearsals. By the end of their time on the series, they were not on speaking terms outside of takes and a subsequent tour.
Although at first fame and regular work must have been welcome, Mr Corbett soon became frustrated by the lack of acting opportunities he now had. He found that any additional work tended to be bawdy comedy roles or loose parodies of his now alter-ego, Harold Steptoe. When he tried again to play Shakespeare roles, all the audience could see him as was Steptoe and it failed to work.
Mr Corbett’s later work included pantomime and stage plays, some comedy films, including Carry on Screaming in 1966 and Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky in 1977. As with many other British comedy programmes of the era, two Steptoe and Son films were also released. In 1972 he was awarded an OBE for services to entertainment.
Within two days of being discharged from hospital after suffering his first heart attack in 1979, Mr Corbett appeared in pantomime at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley, Kent. He was then badly hurt in a serious car accident but still appeared shortly afterwards in the BBC detective series, Shoestring, with his facial injuries still obvious. His final role was in an episode of the drama series The Mole, which was transmitted two months after his death.
Mr Corbett married twice; firstly to the actress Sheila Steafel and then to Maureen Blott who bore him two children. His daughter Susan Corbett is an actress, best known for the role of Ellie Pascoe in the BBC television adaptation of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe detective novels.
Mr Corbett died of a massive heart attack in Hastings, Sussex, and was buried in the Churchyard at Penthurst, East Sussex.
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