Australian satirist Barry Humphries, known for his onstage and TV drag persona Edna Everage and for his character Sir Les Patterson, has died. He was 89.
The BBC reported that Humphries had been in hospital in Sydney, Australia, and had been suffering from complications following surgery in March.
“A great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind, he was both gifted and a gift,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said following the news of Humphries’ death.
“RIP Barry Humphries – one of the greatest ever Australians – and a comic genius who used his exuberant alter egos, Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, to say the otherwise unsayable. Also an infallibly brilliant Spectator contributor. What a loss,” said former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Twitter.
RIP Barry Humphries – one of the greatest ever Australians – and a comic genius who used his exuberant alter egos, Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, to say the otherwise unsayable. Also an infallibly brilliant Spectator contributor. What a loss.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) April 22, 2023
For his one-person show “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour,” which had a run on Broadway, Humphries received a Special Tony Award for a live theatrical presentation in 2000, and in 2014 “Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour — Eat, Pray, Laugh!” was nominated for an Olivier Award.
Variety panned “All About Me,” a Broadway show that awkwardly paired Humphries with song man Michael Feinstein in 2010, but declared, “It’s a joy to have Dame Edna Everage back on Broadway, regardless of the indignities she’s forced to suffer in ‘All About Me.’ After umpteen appearances, Barry Humphries’ monstrously funny incarnation of an Australian housewife run amok on fame and flattery still retains its savage wit.”
Edna Everage evolved slowly but got a big boost into the public consciousness of Australians with the release of Aussie cult films “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie” (1972) and 1974 follow-up “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own,” both directed by Bruce Beresford and written by Beresford and Humphries. In addition to the popular character of Barry McKenzie, played by Barry Crocker, the films featured Humphries playing Aunt Edna Everage among other characters.
He appeared as Edna on an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 and cameo’d as Edna in the 1978 film version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton.
The performer made many appearances on Australian and American television as Dame Edna, but it was in the solo stage revues in which Humphries appeared as Edna that he really shined, offering acerbic observations on popular culture and just about anything else. Over the years the character evolved from an ordinary housewife to an increasingly glamorous media diva.
Humphries appeared six times as Dame Edna on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” from 2001 to 2011. In recent years he had also appeared in the persona on “The View” (2004 and 2010), “Live With Kelly and Michael” and “The Tony Danza Show” (both 2005), “The Graham Norton Show” in 2008, “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” in 2009.
Humphries also appeared in or did voicework for films apart from his turns in his famous personae. In 1991 he played Rupert Murdoch in the miniseries “Selling Hitler,” about the faked Hitler diaries. He played Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich in the 1994 Beethoven biopic “Immortal Beloved,” appeared in 1997’s “Spice World” as Kevin McMaxford, had a small role in 2002’s “Nicholas Nickleby,” voiced Bruce in hit animated film “Finding Nemo” (2003), served as the narrator for the beloved 2009 animated feature “Mary and Max” and appeared as the Great Goblin in 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
The actor could boast that he played a fictional character playing a fictional character more than once. He voiced the kangaroo in the 1995 live-action children’s film “Napoleon” and he recurred on “Ally McBeal” in 2001-02 as eccentric lawyer Claire Otoms — in both cases he was credited as Dame Edna Everage.
His persona Les Patterson is described by Humphries as a “priapic and inebriated cultural attaché” who has “continued to bring worldwide discredit upon Australian arts and culture, while contributing as much to the Australian vernacular as he has borrowed from it.”
Humphries made a guest appearance as Sir Les on the arts documentary series “Omnibus” in 1982, and appeared in some of Humphries’ TV movies during the 1980s and ’90s, he appeared as both Edna and Les, as in 1987’s “Les Patterson Saves the World.” In 1997 came “Les Patterson and the Great Chinese Takeaway.”
From 1987-89 Humphries had his own satiric talk show on the U.K.’s ITV, “The Dame Edna Experience,” in which he occasionally appeared as Patterson.
John Barry Humphries was born in Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Often left to his own devices as a childhood, he played dressed up by himself. “Disguising myself as different characters and I had a whole box of dressing up clothes,” he once said, “Red Indian, sailor suit, Chinese costume, and I was very spoiled in that way … I also found that entertaining people gave me a great feeling of release, making people laugh was a very good way of befriending them. People couldn’t hit you if they were laughing.”
At Melbourne University, he began appearing in revues and doing impersonations. He first appeared as Mrs. Norm Everage in a stage sketch at the campus’ Union Theatre in December 1955. He revived the character for a performance at Philip Street Revue Theatre after moving to Sydney.
In September 1957 Humphries appeared as Estragon in Australia’s first production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at a Melbourne theater.
He made his screen debut in Australia on the ABC (Australia Broadcasting Corp.) program “Wild Life and Christmas Belles” but began his TV career in earnest after moving in 1959 to London. There he became friends with some of the most influential figures on the British comedy scene, including Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Spike Milligan.
Humphries was in the original West End production of Lionel Bart’s musical “Oliver!,” creating the role of Mr. Sowerberry and reprising it when the production moved to Broadway in 1963.
A still-early version of the Edna Everage persona was seen in 1966 on the BBC’s “The Late Show,” for which Humphries and future Monty Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote. Humphries also recurred on the BBC’s Dudley Moore-Peter Cook TV series “Not Only.. But Also” in the late ’60s. Humphries made an appearance as Edna Everage on David Frost talkshow “Frost on Sunday” in 1969.
In the 1967 film “Bedazzled,” a comic fantasy directed by Stanley Donen and starring Dudley Moore, Peter Cook (as the devil) and Raquel Welch (as Lust), Humphries played one of the embodied sins, Envy. (The film was remade in 2000 with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley.) The actor also had a supporting role the following year in the Shirley MacLaine vehicle “The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom.”
Humphries got his own, five-episode BBC show in 1970, “Barry Humphries Scandals,” in which he appeared as Mrs. Norm Everage as well as other characters.
In addition to Edna Everage and Les Patterson, Humphries also created the satirical character Barry McKenzie, a typical Australian bloke who started off as the hero of a comic strip about Australians in London (Nicholas Garland did the drawings) first published in Private Eye magazine. The jokes not infrequently centered on the consequences of drinking.
The actor was firmly set on his career path thanks to the two Australians films that centered on McKenzie as portrayed by Barry Crocker. In 1972’s “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie” and 1974 follow-up “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own,” both directed by a young Bruce Beresford and written by Beresford and Humphries, the actor played Aunt Edna Everage and other characters in what are enduring cult classics in Australia.
As a host of the Royal Pop Concert in Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2002, Humphries appeared as Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson and was privileged to announce Queen Elizabeth II.
He won a lifetime achievement award at the British Comedy Awards in 1999 and the Sir Peter Ustinov Award at the Banff Television Festival in 1997.
Among other honors in his native Australia, Humphries was depicted in a set of five 50¢ postage stamps in the Australian Legends series issued in January 2006. One stamp had a photograph of Humphries without makeup; the others depicted how his alter ego Edna Everage changed over the years.
Humphries was married four times, the first time to Brenda Wright from 1955-57, the second to Rosalind Tong from 1959-70, the third to Diane Millstead from 1979-89.
He is survived by fourth wife Lizzie Spender, to whom he had been married since 1990; two daughters from Tong, actress Tessa Humphries and Emily; and two sons from Millstead, journalist Oscar Humphries and Rupert Humphries.