Ernie Wise, owner of legendary short, fat, hairy legs, dies at 73 Little Ern, butt of the best-loved gags on British television, dies

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ERNIE WISE, perhaps British comedy's greatest straight man, died of heart failure in hospital yesterday morning at the age of 73.

Wise, the second half of the hit comedy television show Morecambe and Wise, had been seriously ill since December when he suffered two heart attacks in one week. He had a triple heart bypass operation in Fort Lauderdale near his holiday home in Florida in January, and flew to Britain by air ambulance two weeks ago. He was in hospital near Slough, Berkshire, when complications from a chest infection and his operation caused heart failure at 7am.

His wife, Doreen, said: "He had recovered slightly and was well enough to come home from Florida. I phoned the hospital at 6.15 to check how he was and they said he was okay. Then they called back to say they were worried about his condition. I went to the hospital, but he had already died."

Leading figures from the entertainment world paid tribute to Wise's 40- year partnership with the man who called him "little Ern". "They both had an important part to play in their double act," said Bill Cotton, the former BBC1 controller who brought the duo to the BBC. "Ernie's role was equally important. If Ernie had died first, Eric would have been just as lost professionally as Ernie was without him."

Eric Morecambe died of a heart attack in 1984. Yesterday, a Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister was very saddened to hear about this." Glenda Jackson MP, who was one of many stars who appeared on the Morecambe and Wise show, said the double act was great fun: "We were always laughing during rehearsals and when filming. It wasn't that they were working at it, it was just that they were a joy to be around."

Des O'Connor, who for years was the butt of Eric and Ernie's jokes, said Wise had given more to the act than was realised: "Eric was the wit, but Ernie was the strength, the anchor. If Eric got lost, it was Ernie pulling him back and righting the boat."

Wise, born Ernie Wiseman in Leeds, was just 16 when he teamed up with Morecambe.They first worked on television in the early Sixties in a half-hour ITV show. Once they moved to longer programmes on BBC1, they became Britain's most popular entertainers. They were at their peak in the Seventies, with their Christmas Day programme as big a tradition as the Queen's broadcast.

Wise always rejected the idea he was the lesser partner in the team. He once said: "I am not the stooge; a stooge does not say anything, just stands there with his face painted. I was the song and dance man."

But with his "short, fat, hairy legs" and his willingness to have his fringe tugged - "you can't see the join, you know" - Ernie Wise gave more than a song and dance man ever could. He gave Eric Morecambe's talent a target.

Obituary, Review, page 6