Nationality: British. Born: Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens in London, 14 July 1911. Education: Attended Ardingly College. Family: Married 1) the dancer Ida Patlanskey, 1938 (divorced 1962); 2) Belinda Cunningham, 1963, sons: Tiger and Cushan. Career: 1930s—transport clerk, Smithfield Meat Market; also dancer, and ukelele player in band, The Rhythm Maniacs; cabaret work led to film debut as extra, 1936, and radio debut, 1938; 1941–46—served in Army, Signal Corps (won four military service medals); also Entertainments National Service Association; 1946—West End debut in Piccadilly Hayride; from 1951—TV performer; shows include How Do You View?, and Strictly T-T; 1970s—worked in Italy, then forced to stop work through ilness. Died: In Godalming, Surrey, of Parkinson's disease, 8 January 1990.
Films as Actor:
It's Love Again (Saville) (as extra); Rhythm in the Air (Woods); This'll Make You Whistle (Wilcox)
Rhythm Racketeer (Seymour)
For Freedom (Elvey); Under Your Hat (Elvey)
A Date with a Dream (Leeman) (as Terry); The Brass Monkey (Lucky Mascot) (Freeland)
Helter Skelter (Thomas) (as announcer); Melody Club (Berman) (as Freddy Forrester)
Cookery Nook (short); The Queen Steps Out (Henryson—short)
Private's Progress (Boulting) (as Major Hitchcock); The Green Man (Day) (as Boughtflower)
The Brothers in Law (Boulting) (as Alfred Green); Lucky Jim (Boulting) (as Bertrand Welch); Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (Launder) (as Captain Romney Carlton-Ricketts); The Naked Truth (Your Past Is Showing) (Zampi) (as Lord Mayley)
Happy Is the Bride (Boulting) (as PC); Tom Thumb (Pal) (as Ivan)
Too Many Crooks (Zampi) (as Billy Gordon); Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (Man in a Cocked Hat) (Boulting and Dell) (as Cadogan deVere Carlton-Browne); I'm All Right, Jack (Boulting) (as Major Hitchcock)
School for Scoundrels (Hamer) (as Raymond Delauney); Make Mine Mink (Asher) (as Major Albert Rayne)
His and Hers (Hurst) (as Reggie Blake); A Matter of Who (Chaffey) (as Archibald Bannister)
Operation Snatch (Day) (as Lt. Piggy Wigg); Bachelor Flat (Tashlin) (as Professor Bruce); Kill or Cure (Pollock) (as J. Barker-Rynde); The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (Levin and Pal) (as Ludwig)
The Mouse on the Moon (Lester) (as Spender); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (as J. Algernon Hawthorne); The Wild Affair (Krish) (as Godfrey Deane)
Strange Bedfellows (Frank) (as Assistant Mortician); How to Murder Your Wife (Quine) (as Charles)
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines; or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hrs and 11 Minutes (Annakin) (as Sir Percy Ware-Armitage); You Must Be Joking! (Winner) (as Major Foskett)
The Daydreamer (Bass) (as voice only); Our Man in Marrakesh (Bang, Bang, You're Dead) (Sharp) (as El Caid); The Sandwich Man (Hartford-Davis) (as Scoutmaster); Munster, Go Home (Bellamy) (as Freddie Munster); Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (Se tutte le donne del mondo) (Levin and Maiuri) (as Lord Aldric/James); Don't Look Now, We're Being Shot At (La Grande Vadrouille) (Oury) (as Reginald)
Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon (Those Fantastic Flying Fools) (Sharp) (as Sir Harry Washington-Smythe); A Guide for the Married Man (Kelly) (as Technical Adviser); Arabella (Bolognini) (as the Hotel Manager/the General/the Duke); Arriva Dorellik (de Steno); The Karate Killers (Shear) (as Constable); The Perils of Pauline (Leonard) (as Sten Martin); Top Crack (Russo); Diabolik (Danger: Diabolik) (Bava) (as Minister of Finance)
Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (Paris) (as H. William Homer); Uno scacco tutto matto (Fiz); Seven Times Seven (Lupo); How Sweet It Is (Paris) (as Gilbert Tilly); Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (Averback) (as Ladislau Walicheck)
Arthur, Arthur (Gallu); 2000 Years After (Tenzer) (as Charles Goodwyn); Monte Carlo or Bust! (Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies) (Annakin) (as Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage); Twelve Plus One (Thirteen; Una su tredici) (Gessner) (as Albert)
Le Mur de l'Atlantique (Camus); The Cherry Picker (Curran)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Fuest) (as Dr. Longstreet)
Gli eroi (The Heroes) (Tessari); Dr. Phibes Rises Again (Fuest) (as Lombardo)
The Vault of Horror (Tales from the Crypt II) (Baker) (as Critchit); Robin Hood (Reitherman) (voice only)
Side by Side (Beresford); The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (Owen); Spanish Fly (Kellett)
The Mysterious House of Dr. C (Kneeland) (voice only)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Morrissey) (as Dr. Mortimer); The Last Remake of Beau Geste (Feldman) (as Prison Governor)
Happy Birthday Harry! (Mattei)
By TERRY-THOMAS: books—
Filling the Gap, London, 1959.
Terry-Thomas Tells Tales, with Terry Daum, London, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993.
By TERRY-THOMAS: article—
Interview in Films Illustrated (London), September 1976.
On TERRY-THOMAS: articles—
Current Biography 1961, New York, 1961.
Films and Filming (London), February 1985.
Ciné Revue (Paris), June 1989.
TV Times (London), 28 October 1989.
Obituary in New York Times, 9 January 1990
Obituary in Variety (New York), 17 January 1990.
* * *
Terry-Thomas began his 1990 autobiography with some of the descriptions offered by critics through his career: "Terry-Thomas with his permanent air of caddish disdain . . . bounder . . . aristocratic rogue . . . upper-class English twit . . . genuine English eccentric . . . one of the last real gentlemen . . . wet, genteel Englishman . . . high-bred idiot . . . cheeky blighter . . . camel-haired cad . . . amiable buffoon . . . pompous Englishman . . . twentieth-century dandy . . . stinker . . . king of the cads . . . ." Such phrases instantly conjure up one of the most easily recognizable of film stars, whose gap-toothed smile, military moustache, florid accent and dapper dress sense cropped up in (and too often propped up) so many films in the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet Terry-Thomas, while invariably playing himself, managed to create a persona whose appeal to film audiences in the 1950s was based on more than just his well-polished comic ability. In those dour days, with its rationing and its collapsing empire, Britain welcomed the fruity humor of Terry-Thomas, with his loud waistcoats, exaggerated vowels, and overfamiliar manner. He was the comic incarnation of the sort of ex-minor-public-schoolboys whose shady dealings were such a feature of postwar British culture.
Though sometimes seen as aristocratic, Terry-Thomas, as British audiences (rather than American ones) may have suspected, was not quite the genuine article. To his own disgust, he was born and raised in Finchley, a suburb of London which was, at most, respectable. As he himself said, "I've cashed in on playing the lower-middle-class pretending to be upper-class." Though educated privately, he was unable subsequently to join the British Army, despite being his school's star cadet officer, since an officer at that time needed an independent income. Instead he took a rather less glamorous job as a transport clerk at Smithfield Meat Market. Though he remained there six years, he made a mark less with his abilities as a clerk than with his regular attire of a boutonniere, a silver-topped Malacca cane and slip-on suede shoes.
He developed his show-business career in the early 1930s through organizing and playing the ukelele with a band called The Rhythm Maniacs, through dancing as a professional at the Cricklewood Palais, and by impersonating well-known singers on the cabaret circuit. In World War II he served in the army, rising to the rank of sergeant. His success in ENSA, the Forces Entertainment wing, ensured that, like many of his colleagues, he then went on to the London stage. His popularity with British audiences was consolidated by radio work and by his own television show, How Do You View?, in 1951.
It is for his film appearances that Terry-Thomas will be remembered, as new generations, seeing his work reshown on television, relish his improbably plummy drawl, and his inevitable catch-phrases. As Major Hitchcock in the Boulting brothers' Private's Progress, he described his troops, memorably, as "a shower! An absolute shower!" Similarly, the lecherous charm underlying the apparently innocent enquiry, "How do you do?" delighted audiences then and now. Yet his film work in the late 1950s, from his pseudointellectual in Lucky Jim to his crooked personnel manager in I'm All Right, Jack, and from his bumbling diplomat in Carleton-Browne of the F.O. to the hilariously bumptious cad in School for Scoundrels, showed Terry-Thomas carrying off subtly different, yet similarly priceless studies of fraudulent Englishmen, with a talent whose depth was perhaps never fully tapped.
By 1960, he was a genuine star, if only as a cameo performer, and inevitably Hollywood beckoned. By happy coincidence, a shift in English culture was occurring which threatened to make his brand of humour an anachronism. Some excellent work (opposite Jack Lemmon in How to Murder Your Wife, for example), was almost overshadowed by a series of cameo roles in less-than-challenging, though financially rewarding, projects. Struck by the amount of money available merely for reproducing what Americans saw as an archetypal Britisher on film, Terry-Thomas was able to finance an extravagant lifestyle without ever extending or developing his considerable comic talents. Although he was never less than watchable, the projects became more obscure and his career waned.
His unusual name was the result of several experiments. Disliking his given name, Tom Stevens, he decided to spell it backwards. But Mot Snevets gave way to Thomas Terry, until confusion with the Terry acting family prompted the adoption of Terry Thomas. The subsequent hyphen, he would often point out, matched the trademark gap between his front teeth. Later, he was delighted when his name was adopted by the field of orthopedic surgery, to describe the gap produced by a disruption of the ligaments in the carpal bones of the wrist.
In the mid-1970s he was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease, and spent the later years of his life struggling to pay for medical treatment. In the late 1980s, a picture in the British press, showing this once immaculately turned out bon vivant huddled in a blanket, almost unrecognizable and all too clearly stricken by his illness, prompted a charity show from fellow British entertainers. It is to be hoped that he was, at the last, aware of the tremendous affection in which he was held.