Terry-Thomas [Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens] (1911-1990) b. London, England.
Born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens in the London suburb of North Finchley, he was the fourth of five children and his father worked at as a provisions merchant at Smithfield meat market. He was educated at Ardingly College in West Sussex and later took up employment with his father at Smithfield. Despite his working class background, he changed his name to Terry-Thomas in 1938 and would become stereotyped as an upper-class cad. From the comic rotter school, he was particularly associated with the Boulting Brothers comedies in the 1950s and post-war British film comedy with its links back to radio and music hall. Terry-Thomas‘ type was a combination of the raffish World War II pilot and upper-class rogue who spent too much time at the racecourse, a type which exported well when he played the RAF pilot, alongside Bourvil and Louis de Funes, in Don’t Look Now … We’re Being Shot At (1963), one of the most popular French films ever.
His flamboyant moustache, his gap-tooth, his cigarette holder, his sports cars and his tendency to dress on the loud side were the familiar emblems of ‘class’ trying too hard to be ‘classy’. His popularity as a comic cad was ensured by his ultimate ineptitude and underlying innocence.
He was never a stand-up comic in the music hall sense, hut the super-refined twittish character he adopted had at least one foot planted squarely in vaudeville. He entered films as an extra, and after WWII service with the Royal Corps of Signals, he returned to film as a bit-part player in second features and was awarded his own show on the BBC’s Home Service. He film career took off when he was offered the memorable role of eternally scornful Major Hitchcock in the Boulting Brothers Private’s Progress (1956). He became a Boultings regular, and appeared diversely as a wide-boy defended by fledgling barrister Ian Carmichael in Brothers in Law (1957); an objectionable university duffer with literary aspirations in Lucky Jim (1957); an obstreperous policeman in Happy Is the Bride (1958); and the name part in Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959), a blundering diplomat sent to quell an uprising within a former colony precipitated by its unscrupulous prime minister Peter Sellers. He was the personnel manager of Dennis Price‘s factory in I’m All Right, Jack (1959), the Private’s Progress commanding officer now demobbed and floundering in the acrimonious world of modern-day industrial relations.
He was the titled victim, along with Sellers, of blackmailer-publisher Dennis Price in Mario Zampi’s The Naked Truth (1957), an in Launder and Gilliat’s Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957), Terry-Thomas was a crafty motor- coach proprietor who does a deal with local education official for the hire of two derelict old buses. He was at his caddish best when cast as Ian Carmichael nemesis in Robert Hamer’s sublime comedy of one-upmanship; School for Scoundrels (1960). T-T was a dastardly villain in the sparkling period comedy Those Magnificent in their Flying Machines (1965), aided in his scurrilous endeavours by insolent manservant Eric Sykes, sabotaging other competitors’ chances by spiking their drinks with a mild poison, and hacking bits off their fragile flying machines.
Terry-Thomas was one of only a handful of British movie eccentrics to achieve wide acceptance in America, and went on to film in Hollywood, hut here what was lacking most of the time was material tailored accurately enough — as the Boultings’ scripts had been — to his outsize personality. In Bachelor Flat (1962) he played a clownish English professor prone to losing his trousers; in How to Murder Your Wife (1965), he was Jack Lemmon’s very proper English butler, discreetly assisting Lemmon, a bachelor-type comic strip writer, to get rid of a foreign dolly-bird whom he has allegedly married whilst in a drunken daze; he played a mortician in Strange Bedfellows (1964), a marital mix-up comedy with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida; and was a villain along with Lionel Jeffries in Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967) — not very good and not very Jules Verne, either. About his role in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), an all-star manic compilation of stunts and slapstick that would have benefited from an occasional pause for breath. In 1971, at the age of 59, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, as his health gradually declined the offers of work began to dry up. After spending his final years in a nursing home, he passed away in 1990.