Versatile comedic actor whose roles ranged from Carry On to Shakespeare
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