John Bluthal

Ver­sa­tile comedic ac­tor whose roles ranged from Carry On to Shake­speare

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITS - GLO­RIA TESSLER

DE­SPITE A 60 year suc­cess story play­ing such char­ac­ters as Frank Pick­les in the Vicar of Di­b­ley, and star­ring along­side Spike Mil­li­gan in The Mil­li­gan Papers, ac­tor John Bluthal, who has died aged 89, drew deeply on his Jewish roots and his ex­pe­ri­ences with Mel­bourne’s Yid­dish The­atre. Per­haps less re­mem­bered is his ver­sa­til­ity; his reper­toire also in­cluded Shake­speare at the Na­tional The­atre.Thames TV’s late 1960s Never Mind the Qual­ity Feel the Width rag-trade farce, pit­ted him as Jewish tai­lor Manny Co­hen against his Ir­ish-Catholic coun­ter­part Joe Lynch, draw­ing hi­lar­ity and in­ter­na­tional ac­claim at a time when Jewish East me­mories were still close to the sur­face. Hav­ing stud­ied act­ing in the Yid­dish the­atre, work­ing with lead­ing di­rec­tors of the Vilna Jewish the­atri­cal world, who were mostly refugees from Nazism, it was no sur­prise that he to­tally owned this part. The show was so suc­cess­ful it ran to six se­ries be­tween 1967 and 1971.

More re­cently Bluthal was noted for his role as Frank Pickle in the BBC sit­com The Vicar of Di­b­ley, play­ing a dull Parish func­tionary whose an­nounce­ment that he was gay fell on bored, deaf ears. He was Spike Mil­li­gan’s reg­u­lar comedic part­ner, a fa­mil­iar face dur­ing the 60s and 70s, when these British films were at the height of their pop­u­lar­ity.

Born Isaac Bluthal in the south­ern Pol­ish town of Jezierzany, Gali­cia, to Is­rael, who worked in the fam­ily wheat mill, and Rachel née Ber­man, the nine year old Bluthal reached Aus­tralia with his par­ents and sis­ter Nina in 1938, a year be­fore the Nazi in­va­sion. Many other close fam­ily died in the Holo­caust.

In Aus­tralia he be­came John. He was ed­u­cated at Univer­sity High School Mel­bourne where his early tal­ent for clown­ing and for ac­cents would de­fine his fu­ture ca­reer. He joined David Her­man’s Yid­dish The­atre and in 1947 went on to train in speech and drama at the Mel­bourne Con­ser­va­to­rium. Two years later he ap­peared in the Bu­dapest youth fes­ti­val be­fore mov­ing to Lon­don to per­form in va­ri­ety and plays at the Unity The­atre, work­ing with Al­fie Bass and War­ren Mitchell. He said later that this rep­re­sented his “red pe­riod.”

His life for the next 10 years was split be­tween Lon­don and Mel­bourne. Dur­ing the 1950s he built his the­atri­cal rep­u­ta­tion in Aus­tralia – in re­vues and come­dies such as Col­ored Rhap­sody with Michael Ben­tine and The Rain­maker in with fel­low Aus­tralian Leon McKern. His first foray with Spike Mil­li­gan was in the 1958 TV spe­cial, The Gla­dys Half Hour and the first two se­ries of The Idiot Weekly on ra­dio.

Mov­ing to Bri­tain in 1959, a Jewish – if con­tro­ver­sial – role loomed. He took over from Ron Moody as Fa­gin in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! whch pre­ceded Shake­spear­ian roles at the Na­tional The­atre, in­clud­ing a Peter Hall pro­duc­tion of Antony and Cleopa­tra, star­ring Judi Dench and An­thony Hop­kins. He was noted for his comic tim­ing when he ap­peared with Eric Sykes and Hat­tie Jac­ques in Sykes and a Bath in 1961.

He co-starred with Ben­tine in 1961 and 1963 in two se­ries of It’s a Square World and with Peter Cooke and Dud­ley Moore in Not Only – But Also in 1964. As a new gen­er­a­tion of comedic writ­ers emerged he felt his metier most strongly with Spike Mil­li­gan, who he had sup­ported since their Aus­tralian days, ap­pear­ing with him in a string of ra­dio pro­grammes from the Omar Khayam Show and The Mil­li­gan Papers be­tween 1964 and 1967. He also starred in the sur­real TV se­ries Q (1969-80) and its se­quel There’s a Lot of it About. He played roles in such se­ries as Allo Allo! And Last of the Sum­mer Wine.

Fur­ther satires with Mil­li­gan in­cluded The Bed­sit­ting Room (1963) and The Great McGon­a­gall (1974). Yet their re­la­tion­ship, though af­fec­tion­ate, was likely to have been tem­pes­tu­ous -- based on Bluthal’s de­scrip­tion of Mil­li­gan as “im­petu­ous and chaotic”.

No stranger to the film world, Bluthal ap­peared in Carry On and Pink Pan­ther films and two fea­ture films star­ring The Bea­tles, in­clud­ing Richard Lis­ter’s A Hard Day’s Night. He did sev­eral voice-overs for TV and his last fea­ture film role, in 2016, was his first in Hol­ly­wood, play­ing a Marx­ist pro­fes­sor op­po­site Ge­orge Clooney in the Coen Broth­ers’ Hail Cae­sar. He was in his 80s by then.

In 1999 Bluthal re­turned to Aus­tralia, his adop­tive home­land, to be closer to his fam­ily. He had mar­ried ac­tor-singer Judyth Bar­ron in 1956; they later sep­a­rated but re­mained good friends. Their two daugh­ters, Nava, a singer and Lisa, an ac­tor and singer, sur­vive him. Judyth died in 2016.

John Bluthal: Born Au­gust 12, 1929. Died Novem­ber 15, 2018

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