For some reason, comedy tends to attract tragedy in the lives of performers. Whether it’s because of personal tragedy or terrible circumstance, some of those who have made us laugh the most have found themselves in the most melancholy of situations, and have seen their days end far too early.
With that said, here are six British comedy stars who tragically died at aged 50 or younger:
Born in Manchester as the son of the former Scottish heavyweight wrestling champion Bill MacDonald, Kenneth MacDonald first appeared on our TV screens in 1972 on Softly, Softly. Many people will be unaware that he also starred in Last of the Summer Wine for one episode in 1975.
In 1974, MacDonald was a regular feature on the hit TV show It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, which ran from January of that year until September of 1981. It wasn’t long after this that he made his debut in the role of Mike the pub landlord in Only Fools and Horses, appearing in the third series of the show in the episode, Who’s a Pretty Boy?
Initially, it was assumed that it was only meant to be a one episode-deal, given that previously in the show, there had never been a pronounced landlord in the Nag’s Head before Mike, and there had only ever been the occasional cameos of barmaids. As such, Ken at the time was thinking that his appearance was only going to be a single-show appearance, but little did he know that slowly but surely, he would become one of the most loved characters on the show.
Ken MacDonald became one of the most recognisable actors in the country, and made his last appearance on Only Fools and Horses on what was supposed to be the original final episode of the show over the Christmas period of 1996; before the show eventually came back for a second trilogy in 2001 until 2003.
During his time on Only Fools and Horses, Ken MacDonald also made appearances in other TV shows such as The Thin Blue Line, Brookside and The Last Detective.
However, he would not return for the 2001 Christmas special, as tragically the actor died shortly before midnight on 6th August 2001 at the age of 50. He had reportedly suffered a massive heart attack whilst he and his family were on holiday in Hawaii.
At the time of his death, his former co-stars expressed sadness at the loss of their friend, with Nicholas Lyndhurst stating: “It is a terrible shock. It like losing a member of the family, because he was one of the warmest, kindest people that I have had the good fortune to meet in my career.
“It was with the deepest shock and sadness that I learned the news about Ken.
“Anyone who met him will tell you of his sense of fun and almost perpetual laughter, but those of us who were lucky enough to have worked with him knew of his dedication as an actor, his impeccable timing and skilled performances.
“Ken was and will always be one of my favourite people. There are no words of comfort I can give to his wife and family, but I know that he will be missed by millions, mourned by a thousand friends and making angels laugh.”
John Sullivan, the writer of the show who tragically also died in 2011, said at the time: “Everyone on Only Fools And Horses is heartbroken at the devastating news of Ken MacDonald’s death.
“Ken was quite simply the nicest man that anyone could ever wish to meet. He was a great comedian who made every rehearsal and recording a pleasure for us all.
“He was a warm and lovely man and a stalwart of the show. He was loved by all of us, and his energy and enthusiasm will be irreplaceable. Our hearts go out to his wife Sheila and his two children William and Charlotte.”
As part of one of the most well-loved British sitcoms of all time, the nation took Richard Beckinsale into their hearts, as he starred alongside Ronnie Barker in the sitcom Porridge, which has been regarded as one of, if not the, best British sitcom of all time.
But Richard’s career goes back to the late 60s, as he acquired his first starring role on TV in 1970 as the character Geoffrey in the sitcom The Lovers, opposite a fellow newcomer onto the British comedy scene Paula Wilcox.
As well as a film version of the show that followed, the pair were thrown into the public eye and became instant stars, which was common practice with successful sitcoms at the time. He later went on to star in Rising Damp.
In 1977, he quit Rising Damp and in the same year, his role in Porridge came to an end when his character, Lenny Godber, was finally released from prison. From there, Beckinsale went on to star in the Porridge spin-off Going Straight, which saw the characters from the much-loved show try to manage their way through normal life, out of the prison walls.
In 1979, he also starred in the film version of Porridge, but sadly, this was to be the final completed credit in which he would take part.
Beckinsale had planned on taking part in other projects after the Porridge movie, and after signing on to film a new sitcom Bloomers, things started to take a turn for the worst when he complained about feeling unwell. A week later whilst filming, he was said to be looking ‘grey’ and began to feel pains in his arms.
On his last day of filming, he spoke of the fear of dying and being alone in his house. Later on in the week, Beckinsale tragically died during the night after suffering a massive heart attack. His passing is all the more tragic considering that he was only 31 years of age.
Gary Olsen played father Ben Porter in 2 Point 4 Children – whose immature nature gave birth to the meaning behind the point 4 in the show’s title.
Olsen had a difficult start to life as he lived with and was raised by his auntie and uncle after his parents passed away when he was just a child.
After leaving school, he found an interest in acting and toured with a number of small youth groups as well as fringe theatre companies until late 1976. By the end of the 70s, he became immersed in punk rock and was even the lead singer of a short-lived group The Swanks.
He made some small appearances in films such as Party Party, Underworld and Rapid Fire but it was in 1991 that he gained the role that would bring him national fame. However, while his role in the hit sitcom 2point4 Children brought him and his co-stars acclaim and love, there was a tragedy to the show as the 90s unfolded.
The show was a true 90s sitcom, giving viewers at home the chance to watch the family grow and negotiate increasingly wacky scenarios right through the much-loved decade. It aired from 1991 right up until December 30th, 1999, with the finale being given the apt title of The Millennium Experience.
In terms of irreverent and sometimes surreal humour, it is up there with the likes of One Foot in the Grave and Father Ted, but despite the show’s success, there is a tragic side to the story of 2Point4 Children, and once you know what that is, it might give you an idea as to why the show has not been one of many 90s shows to make a comeback.
In 1999, Olsen was diagnosed with cancer, after which he moved to Australia. After battling the disease for ten months, he died at the age of 42 on September 12th 2000.
Imogen Hassall, appeared in a number of films, which soon led to her being known for her pin-up girl looks and celebrity lifestyle.
She most-notably starred in Carry On Loving in 1970, but she also appeared in films such as Incense for the Damned, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and White Cargo, alongside David Jason.
But despite receiving high acclaim during her life, Hassell faced a number of personal tragedies that caused her to spiral further and further into depression. Due to her failed relationships, the death of her child which took place just four days after she was born, her miscarriage and a general decline in her career, Hassall suffered greatly with her mental health.
After numerous suicide attempts, she took her own life and was found dead in her Wimbledon home in November of 1980. According to reports, she took her own life by taking an overdose of Tuinal. She was just 38 years old.
Dermot Morgan was not British of course, but starred in the Britsh award winning comedy Father Ted so it would be unfair to mention him. He was a late bloomer in comedy, but taking on the role of Father Ted in the hit 90s sitcom of the same name, he was on the cusp of stardom after helping to deliver one of the greatest sitcoms not just of the 90s, but of all time.
They say that it takes 15 years to become an overnight success, and in the case of Dermot Morgan, it seems that was indeed the case. Father Ted was equal parts genius and zany, irreverent, cheeky, and devilishly clever.
Morgan had a tireless work ethic to get where he was, however, it seemed to be that it was this grind that tragically spelled the end of one of the best comic actors in the country.
‘He basically worked himself into the grave. He never ever stopped,’ said Gerry Stembridge, a close friend and colleague.
A week before his death, Morgan said that after moving on from Father Ted, he was set on concentrating on solo projects, The show had given him both the professional and financial stability that he had always wanted after years of trying to make it with his comedic satire.
But sadly, he was never able to capitalise on his newfound success. And in the most bitter of ironic twists, he died of a massive heart attack during the party he held for the ending of the third award-winning series of Father Ted. Morgan’s passing was a tragic waste of talent as he died in 1998, at the age of 45.
Renowned for his melancholic catchphrase “stone me, what a life”, Tony Hancock was the unrivalled MVP of British comedy during his peak, and not only was he the most successful, the most loved and the most famous, he was also the highest paid.
His lasting impact on comedy is still felt in this country today, despite only having a relatively short career. Though his life ended too soon, he paved a way for comics who were inspired by him, such as Steve Coogan and Paul Merton.
After starting out on stage, his career truly took off when he hosted his own show, Hancock’s Half Hour, that started out on the radio and moved to TV when the medium was just beginning to replace radio as the dominant medium in this country.
He continued on with the radio show while Hancock’s Half Hour played on our TV screens from 1956 to 1959. However, despite his many successes, Hancock was a deeply troubled individual, with self-criticism hounding him every moment of the day. It was this harsh sense of self-evaluation that signalled the beginning of the ostracism of many of the figures from his life that contributed to his success.
Excessive drinking also blighted his later years and after continuous personal issues, and a growing dependency on alcohol, Hancock took his own life by a drug overdose while in Australia in June 1968.
In one of his notes, he wrote: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”
Spike Milligan commented in 1989: “Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.”