By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - Eric Sykes, one of Britain's best-loved comedians who forged a career in entertainment by writing for others, has died, his manager said on Wednesday. He was 89.
In a career spanning over 50 years he was a regular collaborator on the popular 1950s radio comedy program "The Goon Show" and became a leading personality after starring in his own television series, "Sykes and a..." in the 1960s.
"Eric Sykes, 89, star of television, stage and film, died peacefully this morning after a short illness," his manager Norma Farnes told Reuters. "His family were with him."
Sykes was born in Oldham, northern England, in 1923, and was introduced to showbusiness while serving as a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force.
A chance meeting with wartime friend and actor Bill Fraser in 1940s London led to a breakthrough in comedy writing and his collaboration with comedian Frankie Howerd on the successful radio show "Variety Bandbox".
Further radio work followed for Sykes, including the groundbreaking 1950s Goon Show - partly to ease the workload of its co-creator Spike Milligan.
His early television projects included "The Howerd Crowd" and "The Tony Hancock Show", but his big breakthrough came in 1960 with the launch of "Sykes and a..." in which he starred alongside Hatti Jacques in a brother-sister act that struck a chord with viewers and attracted huge TV audiences.
Sykes took on a variety of supporting roles in feature films including "Heavens Above!" (1963), "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines" (1965) and "The Spy With A Cold Nose" (1966).
But he is best remembered by many for a virtually dialogue-free film called "The Plank" (1967) in which he and Tommy Cooper appeared as two workmen delivering planks to a building site.
Two years later he starred alongside Milligan in "Curry and Chips", a controversial sitcom that was criticised for being racist and taken off the air after only six episodes.
Co-creator Johnny Speight defended the series, saying it was specifically designed to highlight discrimination in society.
Sykes' television career subsequently faded, but he was still appearing on the stage well into his 70s, including in Alan Bennett's "Kafka's Dick".
His enduring success was all the more remarkable because he was almost totally deaf since his early 30s and blind from the early 1990s.
He is widely credited with introducing an offbeat tone to mainstream British comedy, and recalls a gentler age of humor that has been overshadowed by more aggressive, controversial performers.
"I'm proud of being a vaudevillian, the last of my line," he once said. "A lot of people think my entertainment is candy-floss. Well, entertainment is too aggressive these days, all in your face."
Actor Bernard Cribbins, who starred in a remake of The Plank, said Sykes would be sadly missed.
"I just wish him a lot of rest up there with all the other comics, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe," he added in remarks to British media. "They will all be up there, having a laugh together."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)