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The extraordinary story of how Dudley Moore fled Hollywood (and four wives) to find happiness in a modest house full of music – and love
FIFTEEN years have passed since Dudley Moore died, aged just 66, but the mere mention of his name is still guaranteed to raise a smile. Yes, Peter Cook cracked the best jokes in their BBC comedy series Not Only... But Also. But it was Dudley’s clowning that made Pete and Dud irresistible.
Everyone loved Cuddly Dudley, the 5ft 2in Dagenham ‘sex thimble’, which is why the story of his final years seems so cruel. His fourth marriage had broken down, the film offers had dried up and he contracted a degenerative disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PNP), which eventually killed him.
The great consolation of his last decade was his friendship with a kind couple, Rena Fruchter and Brian Dallow, who helped revive his musical career and eventually nursed him.
Rena and Brian are both classical musicians. Rena studied in London at the Royal College of Music before returning to the US. Brian was born in Surrey, went to America on a graduate scholarship and never came back.
They met at university in Massachusetts and had four children.
I first met them in 2002, not long after Dudley died. Peter’s widow, Lin Cook, had asked me to compile a book of her late husband’s best sketches.
A lot of Peter’s great sketches were written with Dudley, and I soon learnt that Dudley had left the copyrights to these works in Rena’s care. He had done this to help fund the charity Rena runs with Brian, Music For All Seasons, which takes music into places including prisons and hospitals.
Because we worked together on that book and its sequel, I got to know Rena and Brian pretty well.
Rena first met Dudley 30 years ago when she was working as a music columnist for the New York Times. Dudley was giving a piano recital with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She had been sent to interview him.
DUDLEY had always been a brilliant pianist but, since he became a star in the Oxbridge sketch show Beyond The Fringe, music had taken second place. Now he was trying to revive his classical career.
He had some catching up to do, but Rena enjoyed the concert. Dudley liked Rena’s article. They stayed in touch and became good friends. They never discussed Dudley’s personal life — all they talked about was music.
Raised on a council estate in Dagenham, East London, Dudley, who was born with club feet, had gone on to win an organ scholarship to Oxford University.
He was working as a jazz musician when, in 1960, he was booked to appear in Beyond The Fringe. A satirical show that was scheduled for a brief run at the Edinburgh Festival transferred to the West End, then Broadway. Out of that show evolved his partnership with Peter Cook, on TV and in films, and then Dudley’s years as an unlikely Hollywood sex symbol.
Now, with his movie career on the wane, he was returning to his first love, classical music. For him, Rena’s interest in his musicianship was a breath of fresh air.
Dudley’s relationship with Rena was platonic, and Brian soon became an equally close friend.
When Rena set up Music For All Seasons, Dudley suggested playing the Grieg piano concerto as a fundraiser, at Carnegie Hall in New York. Rena travelled to Dudley’s home in Los Angeles to rehearse with him, playing the orchestral part on one of his three grand pianos.
After years of neglect, his classical technique was rusty. Rena helped him make up for lost time.
‘He pulled it off,’ she says. ‘He was determined.’
The concert led to lots more bookings. They toured the US and Australia together.
Around this time, he started experiencing a strange stiffness in one of his fingers. He was also becoming unsteady on his feet.
The media assumed he had a drink problem (though he wasn’t a big drinker), inviting comparisons with Peter Cook, who had died in 1995 of a haemorrhage brought on by heavy drinking.
No one could work out what was wrong with Dudley, and he found no respite in his domestic life. He had been married four times, initially to the actress Suzy Kendall, then Tuesday Weld — with whom he had a son — and Brogan Lane. His fourth marriage, to Nicole Rothschild, who was half his age, was stormy. Now things had gone from bad to worse.
In 1997, Dudley asked Rena and Brian if he could come to stay for a month or two, to sort out his health problems and get away from Nicole for a while.
He ended up living with them for two years. ‘He didn’t have many close friends,’ says Rena. ‘He was part of our family by then.’
Dudley loved spending time with Rena and Brian’s children and grandchildren. He had never been that close to his two sons. Here, he was like a favourite uncle.
But his medical problems prevailed. It took more than a year to find out what was wrong, but eventually PSP was diagnosed.
There was no cure, nor even any effective treatment. He would lose his co-ordination, then his motor skills, then his speech. Finally, PSP would impair his breathing, resulting in pneumonia. At best, he might live for another eight years. He lasted four.
Dudley spent the next year living with Rena and Brian in Plainfield, a New Jersey town. He felt more at home there than in LA.
THE area reminded him a little bit of England, Brian says. His home life in LA had been superficial and chaotic. Rena and Brian’s home life was more humdrum but far more nurturing and rooted.
Dudley’s co-ordination grew worse and worse. One day, he lost his balance and toppled over the banisters. He could no longer manage the stairs. Luckily, the same day, a bungalow next door came up for sale. Dudley moved in straight away, with his pianos.
He still came round for meals, until his illness rendered him housebound. He died in his New Jersey home in 2002, surrounded by his adoptive family, and was buried in their local cemetery.
Rena and Brian still live in the same house today, with Dudley’s pianos in the living room.
So what sort of a man was Dudley? What was he really like?
‘He was a deep thinker,’ says Rena. ‘He liked discussing serious topics.’ According to Brian, if celebrity hadn’t intervened, he would probably would have ended up as a music professor.
But would he have been any happier? Rena is not so sure.
‘He liked a lot of variety,’ she says. ‘He was up for adventure.’
OA VERSION of this article appears in the current issue of The Oldie. William Cook is the author of One Leg Too Few — The Adventures Of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (Random House).
Friends: Rena and Dudley, top. Above, Dudley’s bungalow