Terry-Thomas, Gap-Toothed Comedy Actor, Dies at 78

From a Times Staff Writer

Terry-Thomas, the English comedy actor whose trademarks were the hyphen in his name and the gap between his two front teeth, died Monday in a nursing home in England.

The man who brought gales of laughter to millions in the English-speaking world through his portrayals of sneering cads, died disabled and impoverished after a years-long, expensive battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 78.

An announcement from the Parkinson’s Disease Society said he died of complications of that illness at a nursing home in Godalming, Surrey.


One of the most popular screen personalities in his own country, Terry-Thomas also was a tremendous hit in the United States in several successful British comedies of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

He specialized in raffish, snobbish bureaucratic buffoons--both military and civilian--in “Man in a Cocked Heart,” “I’m All Right, Jack” and “School for Scoundrels,” British social comedies of the late ‘50s, and such larger scale American films of the ‘60s as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.”

His signature was a cigarette-holder, a military-style mustache and lines that usually included “jolly good show.”

Terry-Thomas was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, the son of upper-middle-class parents. As a boy, he preferred the ukulele to books, and played in school jazz bands before dropping out to become a clerk and later a meat salesman.

His regular wardrobe as a salesman included a cigarette holder, silver-topped cane, suede shoes, yellow leather gloves, green porkpie hat and a carnation in his lapel.

Said Terry-Thomas years later in his autobiography “Filling the Gap,” which he titled in deference to the space between his teeth: “I felt that my impeccable appearance more than compensated for my habitual late arrival at the office.” Perhaps it did, but his superiors were mostly reluctant to fire the young man because he had become a leading player in the company’s drama society.


A few years of meat sales was more than enough and what he termed “a compulsion to act in a funny manner” drove Stevens into show business. He began his career touring with a band he had organized called the Rhythm Maniacs, then did some professional dancing and dance instruction.

He toured the vaudeville circuit, impersonating such diverse singers as Al Jolson and Paul Robeson. By 1935, he was working in films as an extra and bit player. He searched for a stage name. He played around with Mot Snevets (his given name spelled backward), thought that a wee too frivolous, and then experimented with Thomas Terry. The problem there was that people confused him with the famous Terry theatrical family.

He settled on simply reversing the two names and became Terry Thomas. He later threw in the hyphen as an afterthought.

Terry-Thomas served in the Army in World War II, rising from private to sergeant and, by all accounts, took the war rather seriously, even developing a duodenal ulcer. After his term in the service, Terry-Thomas played the provinces for a time and was spotted by producer Sid Fields, who cast him in the London stage play “Piccadilly Circus.” Critics lauded him as a new comic discovery.

In late 1946, Terry-Thomas appeared at a Royal Command Variety Performance in London and in prominent nightclubs in Paris and New York. He had his own radio show in the early 1950s in London and two television shows there.

Meanwhile, he had several small roles in postwar films before being introduced to American audiences in “Private’s Progress” (1956). A whole series of increasingly successful appearances in small but funny British movies followed.


He played Boughtflower, a philanderer in a seashore hotel in “The Green Man” (1957); a bus driver hauling a group of school girls to Rome in “Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s” (1958); and the unlovable son of a professor in “Lucky Jim” (1958).

By 1960, Terry-Thomas was a certified star of comedy. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, in reviewing “Too Many Crooks” (1959), that “Terry-Thomas’ skill is exercised in demonstrating how completely a mad-cap comedian can blow his top. His eyes flash, his lips curl; his sibilants whistle and he glares like a maniac.”

He also shone in the 1960 film “Man in a Cocked Hat,” as the slack-jawed bumbler Carlton-Browne.

That same year’s “I’m All Right, Jack” featured Terry-Thomas opposite Peter Sellers and playing a labor relations specialist in a munitions plant with labor problems. In retrospect, “Man in a Cocked Hat” and “I’m All Right, Jack” probably were his finest films, but a long series of featured roles in satiric comedies--many of them American-made--followed.

Among them were “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” (1962), “The Mouse on the Moon” (1963), “How to Murder Your Wife” (1965), “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967), “Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies” (1969), “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971), “The Last Remake of Beau Geste” (1977) and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1978).

In his later years, Terry-Thomas battled several rounds of illnesses. He was hospitalized in 1976 with heart problems and pneumonia, then again in 1982 with Parkinson’s disease. He could often be seen, when healthy, horseback riding in London’s Hyde Park.


A tall, vibrant man (6 feet, 195 pounds) before he fell ill, Terry-Thomas was married twice--to dancer Ida Patlansky in the 1930s and, in 1963, to Belinda Cunningham, by whom he had two sons.

In 1983 he said: “Parkinson’s disease, apart from being hell to live with, has almost busted me financially. It frightens me just how much it has cost. And it has been very tough on Belinda. She has no life of her own--absolutely none.”

In 1984 the couple were forced to sell their Mediterranean villa and return to London because of the financial strain of his disease.

“You ask me how it (his disease) feels,” he said at the time. “There is a whole plethora of symptoms. Now I have said that . . . other times I cannot say the simplest possible word, like lavatory paper.”

Last April, British entertainment figures staged a benefit performance for the ailing actor after newspapers published photographs showing him huddled in a blanket in a run-down charity apartment in London.

He was too ill to attend.