Christopher Hewett

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The Independent Online

Christopher Hewett, actor: born Worthing, West Sussex 5 April 1921; died Los Angeles 3 August 2001.

Tall and commanding, with a special flair for roles that required a waspish wit and suave urbanity, the British actor-director Christopher Hewett had a career on stage, television and film both in Britain and in the United States, to where he emigrated in 1955.

A versatile performer, he appeared in many London revues and played a leading role in the hit musical Wish You Were Here. On Broadway, he was one of the original cast in My Fair Lady. Later he became a favourite with American television audiences in his own series, Mr Belvedere, but he will probably be best remembered for his outrageously camp portrayal of the cross-dressing director Roger De Bris in Mel Brooks's film The Producers.

Born in Worthing, West Sussex, in 1921, Hewett was educated at Beaumont College, Old Windsor, but made his stage début in Dublin at the age of seven in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I had no lines, but lots of lovely costumes," he said many years later. When he was 16 he joined the Royal Air Force, but left the service in 1940 and joined the Oxford Repertory Company. Later he recalled appearing there in over a hundred plays, some of which were punctuated by the sounds of bombs exploding during the Second World War. "Shows were often interrupted by the heavy bombing, but I don't remember that we ever stopped," he said. "We would pause for a minute during the air raid alarm so that anyone who wanted to leave could do so."

Hewett made his West End début in 1943 playing Khadja in a revival of The Merry Widow at His Majesty's Theatre, and, though he occasionally played straight roles (he was the Prosecuting Counsel in The Rest is Silence, 1944), most of his work was in musicals and revues. He took over from Bonar Colleano in the revue Sweeter and Lower (1944), was featured in the subsequent revues Sweetest and Lowest (1946) and Slings and Arrows (1948), and appeared in several late-night revues at the Watergate Theatre Club. On screen, he had small roles in the films Pool of London (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).

He starred as Fred Graham in the touring version of Kiss Me Kate (1952), having great fun with the flamboyant show-stopper "Where is the Life that Late I Led?", and the following year had one of his best roles in the West End, the flirtatious Pinky Harris in Jack Hylton's production of the Broadway hit Wish You Were Here, a musical which created a sensation by having a full swimming pool on the stage.

Described as "a small masterpiece" by the critic Kenneth Tynan, it was adapted by Joshua Logan from a play by Arthur Kober, Having Wonderful Time (filmed as a vehicle for Ginger Rogers in 1938), and it told of a group of city folk looking for romance at a summer camp. Hewett was given two of the Harold Rome songs. He led the company in one of the show's most catchy tunes, the lilting "Summer Afternoon", and later tried to make love to the heroine (Elizabeth Larner) with the seductive duet "Relax".

In 1954 he was the assistant director of the revue Cockles and Champagne, and the following year he went to New York to direct sketches in another revue, Almost Crazy. He made his Broadway acting début when he was cast in the original production of My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. He played two roles in the enormously successful musical. In the opening scene set in Covent Garden market, he was the bystander who warns Eliza that a "bloke" is standing behind a pillar taking down everything she says. Near the conclusion of the first Act he played Zoltan Karpathy, the bewhiskered language expert who presents a threat to the plan to pass off cockney Eliza as an aristocrat but who concludes she is a Hungarian of royal birth.

In the touring version of another musical, Meredith Willson's The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), he was ideally cast as the acerbic society columnist who, when he first sees the predominantly red interior of the Browns' mansion and is asked what period he would say it was, replies, "I'd say it was Reign of Terror." He returned to Broadway to play Barnaby, supporting actor to Edmund Kean (Alfred Drake) in the George Wright-Robert Forrest musical Kean (1961), and in 1963 he directed a successful revival of Rodgers and Hart's musical The Boys from Syracuse at a small off-Broadway theatre. Later that year he returned to London to direct the same show at Drury Lane, but the effect on the theatre's vast stage was not the same, and it was not well-received.

He worked often in regional theatre as both director and actor, performed a cabaret act, and made many appearances on radio and television, but it was his role in the film The Producers (1968) which brought him the greatest acclaim and notoriety. As the director hired by a producer (Zero Mostel) determined to put on the worst show of all time, he created a memorable impression from the moment his statuesque figure emerged from behind a screen, prompting Mostel's partner (Gene Wilder) to incredulously whisper, "He's wearing a dress!" Scathingly addressing his assistant as "Wicked Witch of the West", enthusing over the play Springtime for Hitler ("I never knew the Third Reich meant Germany"), and advising that they change the third Act ("They're losing the war!"), he made the most of Mel Brooks's hilarious dialogue. (A stage musical version of The Producers is currently a hit on Broadway, and the actor playing De Bris won this year's Tony Award as best supporting actor.)

On television, Hewett had a recurring role in the series Fantasy Island (1983/84), but had his greatest hit with Mr Belvedere (1985-90), in which he starred as the memorably eccentric character created by the novelist Gwen Davenport in her book Belvedere and on screen by Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty (1948) and its two sequels. Belvedere was a witty, debonair English housekeeper who had previously worked for Winston Churchill and was hired by a dysfunctional American family. He not only proves to be a wizard in the kitchen but, between the wisecracks and sarcasm, displays a perceptive knowledge of how to understand children, solving the problems they encounter as they grow up and ending each episode by writing the lessons of the day in his diary.

Tom Vallance

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