Benny Hill was a British actor, comedian and entertainer, considered the "King of British Comedy" in the 70s and 80s.
He was born Alfred Hawthorne Hill on January 21, 1924 in Southampton on the south coast of England. Both his father, Alfred, and grandfather, Henry, had both been circus clowns with his father, known as the "Captain," later running a drug store and surgical appliance store. Benny's relatives also reputedly included uncles who were detectives that pursued Jack the Ripper. On his mother's side, Hill was related to pioneering dentists, who pulled teeth in a loft above a corn store. He had also a brother and a sister, and in his youth, worked at a Woolworths store, later taking jobs as a milkman, a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer. His comedy was shaped by the comedians of his youth, Jack Benny (his namesake), Charlie Chaplin, Charley Chase, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. He started out as an assistant stage manager and ended up in a touring review, cut short by his military draft. In the army, he trained as a mechanic and worked as a truck driver and searchlight operator in Normandy, later getting transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the end of the war.
After the war, Hill worked as a performer on radio, later producing a list of comedy sketches to the BBC who gave him his first television series. His first series, "The Benny Hill Show," ran from 1962 to 1963, in which he played a different character in each episode. In 1964, he played Nick Bottom in an TV film production of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He also had a radio program called "Benny Hill Time," on BBC Radio's Light Programme, which ran from 1964 to 1966 and featured some of his best characters, such as Harry Hill and Fred Scuttle. Recurring players on his show during the BBC years included Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Hawk, Peter Vernon, Ronnie Brody, and his co-writer from the early 1950s to early 1960s, Dave Freeman.
Hill's audio recordings include "Gather in the Mushrooms," "Pepys' Diary," "Transistor Radio," "Harvest of Love" and "Ernie - The Fastest Milkman in the West," which was the UK Singles Chart Christmas number one single in 1971. In 1986, he also appeared in the video of the song "Anything She Does" by the band, Genesis.
Hill's success lead to movie roles in "Who Done It?," "The Italian Job" with Michael Caine, "Light Up the Sky!," "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," and in 1968, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" with Dick Van Dyke. While Hill had struggled on stage and had uneven success in radio, he excelled on television and was acquired by Thames Television, where he had complete control of his show. "The Benny Hill Show" had a music hall-derived format combining live on-stage comedy with overtures of vaudeville and burlesque and filmed segments on location; his humor relied on slapstick, innuendo and parody that rivaled the work of Mel Brooks and David and Jerry Zucker of "Airplane!" fame. His cast included regular cast members like public host Nicholas Parsons, stooge Bob Todd, short, bald Jackie Wright, straight-man Henry McGee, dancer and comedienne Sue Upton, singer and entertainer Louise English and a bevy of regular beautiful and talented female singers, dancers and entertainers known as the Hill's Angels. In 1974, he produced a clip-show film spin-off of his early Thames TV shows as a film called "The Best of Benny Hill," a theatrically released compilation of Benny Hill Show episodes.
"The Benny Hill Show" showcased Hill's talents as an imaginative writer, comic performer and impressionist. Privately, he was a very personal and frugal person who never tried living beyond his means even though "The Benny Hill Show" made him very wealthy. He never married or had children. He never purchased a car, although he traveled between seasons, writing scripts on pads of paper or anything he found which he sent to Dennis Kirkland, his friend and producer. He could also speak French fluently and also knew German, Dutch and Italian.
The success of "The Benny Hill Show" resulted in the series being shown in over 80 countries worldwide. Hill's idol, Charlie Chaplin, was a fan of Hill's work, a fact Hill had discovered when he was awarded the Charlie Chaplin International Award for Comedy at the 1991 Festival of Comedy in Vevey, Switzerland and was invited by Chaplin's family to visit the family home. In the United States, Johnny Carson tried several times to get Hill to come to Los Angeles and be a guest on "The Tonight Show," but Hill always resisted the invitation. Other fans included Burt Reynolds, Dom Deluise, Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney, Walter Cronkite and Phyllis Diller (with whom he reportedly corresponded via letters) among others,
Despite his success, Hill was often criticized for being sexist and demeaning to women because of how women were objectified in the series, but his supporters often pointed out it was the male characters who were being exploited. His later shows toned down the scantly clad costumes of his female co-stars while featuring "Hill's Little Angels," a group of cute children from the families of Dennis Kirkland, Sue Upton and former co-stars, but Benny's personal life remained almost borderline autistic, barely straying from a routine and lifestyle with which he was comfortable. He had pretty much consigned himself to being eternally single, not thinking himself worthy of marriage, although he had pretty much adopted Upton's family as his own.
In June 1989, John Howard Davies, the new Head of Light Entertainment for Thames Television, invited Hill and Kirkland in for a meeting. They had just returned from a triumphant Cannes TV festival, and Hill assumed that they were to discuss details of a new series. Davies instead declared he was ceasing production on the show, citing costs, the declining ratings and Hill looking a little tired. The cancellation was devastating for Hill and his health began to decline afterward. To add insult to injury, Davies reported in the press that Hill wanted to quit, but a few days later, the actual truth came out that he had been "sacked."
Eventually, Donald Taffner, who handled the syndication rights for the show, pitched a new format for the series that became Benny Hill's World Tour: New York!. Sadly, after already one heartattack, Hill passed away in his Southampton home on April 20, 1992. His body was discovered by Kirkland after neighbors heard Benny's television running non-stop for two days.
Unofficially, Hill reportedly left his estate to his TV family, such as Sue Upton, Dennis Kirkland, Bob Todd, Louise English and Henry McGee, but his will was never signed or witnessed, and as a result, it had no legal standing. The only will that Hill had established dated to 1961, and it left everything to his parents, but since they had long since died, his brother, Leonard, and sister, Diana, became his heirs, and Benny's estate, worth ₤7.5 million, went to his seven nieces and nephews.
Hill was buried at Hollybrook Cemetery near his birthplace in Southampton on April 26, 1992. In October 1992, vandals desecrated his grave looking for valuables. Cemetery staff had the grave refilled and covered it with a half-ton concrete slab. Years later, officials at Thames Television reported that the dismissal of Benny Hill was "one of the worst mistakes they ever made."
- The European Song Contest
- Is This Your Life?
- Tommy Tupper in Tupper-Time
- The Sound of Frankenstein
- The Underwater World of Jacques Custard
- Opportunity's Knocking
- Top of the Tops
- Undercover Sanitary Inspector
- Cinema: The Vintage Years
- Fun in the Kitchen with Johnny and Cranny Faddock
- News at Ten with Reginald Boozenquet
- Benny's All-Star Finale
- Down Memory Lane
- The Common Market Square Dance
- Jackie Wright's Holiday
- The Dalton Abbott Railway Choir
- Spot Black
- The Great British Dancing Finals
- Film Time at the National Film Theater
- Gavin Blod - The Man and his Music
- Great Mysteries with Orson Buggy
- Tex Cymbal: Golden Boy
- Jack and Jill
- The World of Sport
- Murder on the Oregon Express
- Sale of the Half-Century
- The Bionic Baby
- Villain of the Year
- A Packed Program
- Benny Hill: Down Under
- The South Blank Show
- Friday Night Fever
- Leprechaun TV
- The Police Raid in Waterloo Station
- Women's Lib TV
- Butch Cafferty and the Fundance Kid
- Name That Tune
- WonderGran Meets Dr. Jackal and Mr. Hyde
- A Tribute to the Lower Tidmarsh Volunteer Fire Brigade
- Big Poppa
- The Monte Carbolic Show
- Talking Point
- The Hot Shoe Show
- The B-Team
- Forever Love
- R. Dibble: Handyman
- The Herd
- Cagney and Lacey
- The Halitosis Kid
- Club Chicago-Go
- The Crook Report
- Holding Out for a Hero
- Pepy's Diary
- Benny Hill's World Tour: New York