Who makes a person laugh is an entirely subjective thing. Like taste in dogs, cars, colors, beautiful women or good-looking men, it is entirely a matter of individual taste. While the Three Stooges will almost always leave me hysterical with laughter, I know of others who view their antics stone-faced. Other will scream with joy at Jonathan Winters or Sid Caesar and neither has ever made me even snicker. With that in mind, I have always considered Benny Hill to be the most underrated comedian of all time.
This brilliant comedic genius was born Alfred Hawthorne Hill on January 24, 1924. After working as a milkman and a drummer, young Alfred drifted into various performing jobs at Masonic dinners and men's clubs before graduating to night clubs and theaters. He also made several appearance on British radio in the early years. Alfred soon changed his first name to "Benny" in honor of his favorite comedian, Jack Benny.
Hill's early roles were eclectic, sometimes as a comedian, and sometimes playing a straight man. He started appearing on British television in 1955 with the earliest version of The Benny Hill Show. The show made him famous in Britain, but this early show is like lukewarm tea compared to the wild later version of the show. After viewing (and loving) the famous Benny Hill shows of the 1970s and '80s, I was very surprised at how mild and tame these earlier shows were.
Benny also had a comedy anthology show Benny Hill (1962-63) in which he played a different role each week. Interestingly, Hill also did some Shakespeare, appearing as Bottom in 1964's TV version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hill made a few brief appearances in films, probably most notably in a relatively straight role at the toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968. A multi-faceted talent, Benny even had a #1 British single at Christmastime with "Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West."
In 1969, Benny's show switched from the ultra-conservative BBC network that had been carrying his show and made the movie to Thames television. It was this move that really gave birth to the incredible comic genius of Benny Hill. Probably the changing times had a lot to do with Benny and his creative freedom splurging in these classic '70s and '80s shows. The loosening of strict codes of morality and censorship enabled Benny to create these mini-masterpieces of comic brilliance.
Hill's show was chock-full of double entendres, sight gags, cross-dressing, and the scantily-clad beauties "Hill's Angels" that became his stock-in-trade. He also loved using slow-motion, speeded-up motion, and time-lapse sequences. It was with these classic shows of the '70s and '80s that Benny really hit his stride as a comic, and for these shows he will always be remembered.
Benny's show came to America in 1979 and quickly became a popular favorite (like the Three Stooges, his appeal was definitely more to male viewers than female). As The Benny Hill Show was carried in more and more countries, Benny's fame spread and he quickly became world famous. To this day, the show's theme song, "Yakety Sax," is known the world over as "The Benny Hill Theme."
His fans included Mickey Rooney, Burt Reynolds, Walter Cronkite, Michael Caine, and Bob Hope -in fact, Bob Hope wrote the forward to the 1989 book The Benny Hill Story.
In what may have been the most memorable moment of his life, in the 1970s, Benny was invited to Vevey, Switzerland, by the great Charlie Chaplin. He dined with the immortal Chaplin and was the first person, outside of family, to be invited to the Chaplin's private study. Once inside, Benny saw a complete collection of Benny Hill videotapes -it seems Chaplin was a huge Benny Hill fan and thought he was hilarious. Benny was touched and always treasured this memory.
Contrary to the boisterous, loud character he played on the small screen, Benny was a quiet, private man in real life. He lived in the same large double apartment, most of the time with his mother, for 26 years. When his mother died, he turned the apartment into a shrine, not changing anything. He lived alone in a rented apartment until his death, never owning a house -or a car. Despite his great wealth, Benny never wanted the responsibility of owning a home; he instead had a host of flats he used. Benny liked being by himself. He was one of those people who was "alone, but not lonely."
Benny was a huge Francophile, enjoying visits to France immensely (usually in Marseilles). Almost up until the '80s he could go to France and enjoy anonymity, riding local public transport and socializing with beautiful women. Highly intelligent, he was fluent in French and also knew some German, Dutch, and Italian.
Although he was to become world famous as the "dirty old man" who leered and cavorted with young women, in his private life, Hill had much less success with the ladies. He definitely liked women, enjoyed their company, and fell very deeply in love. Sadly, he proposed to three different women in his life and was turned down by all three.
According to a few of the beautiful "Hill's Angels," Benny loved taking them out on dates, but never made the first move or even tried to kiss them. Rumors circulated that Benny was gay, which he laughingly denied. The irony of TV's top woman-chaser being suspected as gay is almost too much to believe.
Who knows? Maybe he was, or maybe not. Maybe he was impotent, or maybe he was just extremely shy. Incredibly, there is a school of thought that Benny Hill may have died a virgin. Whatever secrets he had in the sexual facet of his life, Benny took to the grave with him.
By the 1990s, the hugely popular Benny Hill Show was being politely censored by influence from a new, highly influential nemesis: the feminists. The "femi-nazis" and the newest fad of the time, "political correctness" had raised its horrible, intimidating head. Benny found his once-popular show being canceled in several countries. The hard-hearted feminists couldn't stand seeing Benny running around with beautiful, young girls in their meager attire.
Baffled and depressed, Benny denied the loud outcry that his show was sexist. He answered the feminists by pointing out that he never actually chased the women on his show, it was always they who chased him. He also pointed out that it was old men on the show who truly looked foolish, not the girls.
"I use a pretty girl the way Henny Youngman used his violin -as a bridge between one laugh and the next," he said, truthfully. Nonetheless, politics ruled, and The Benny Hill Show began a not-so-gradual disappearing act. To this day, although we live in a world of hundreds of cable choices and selections, one is hard-pressed to find The Benny Hill Show anywhere on TV anymore.
Benny was sad and slightly shell-shocked. By the 1990s, his health was rapidly deteriorating. He was gaining weight at a rapid pace. On February 11, 1992, doctors warned him that he was overweight and recommended a heart bypass. Benny refused, and a week later suffered renal failure. Benny lacked confidence in the medical profession as a whole, and in a case of life imitating art, he entrusted his health to a gynecologist who had a pathological obsession for pinching women on their hindquarters.
By mid-April, some of Benny's neighbors complained about a pungent odor emanating from Benny's flat. They realized they hadn't seen the comedian for several days and phoned the police. Their fears were soon realized; Benny Hill had died very much as he had lived his life -alone. In front of his beloved television, he was slumped on the couch, surrounded by cardboard boxes, unwashed crockery, empty glasses, and piles of videotapes. Benny Hill had died of heart failure at the age of 67.
As we all know, none of us ever forgets the ones we loved in our lives. I also believe we never forget the ones who made us laugh. And Benny Hill certainly did that.
Luckily for us, it is easy to find and view the great Benny Hill on DVD and videotape or even on YouTube.