Digby Wolfe: Writer and actor best known for 'Laugh-In'
Wednesday 16 May 2012
Although the humour in the 1960s TV series Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In seemed particularly American, much of its content depended on the British actor and scriptwriter, Digby Wolfe, who had also named the show. That was his defining moment, as Wolfe was a journeyman in the broadcasting arts, being able to turn his hand to most things, but usually with limited success.
Digby Wolfe was born to British parents in Norway in 1925. His father was an international banker and his mother an artist on Vogue magazine; his mother named him after a character in Beau Geste. When he was four, his father died after being hit by a golf ball and he was brought up by his mother in Felixstowe.
She wanted him to be a doctor but he left school at 15 to become a stage designer. Being a personable and good-looking young man, he compered jazz shows in the West End clubs and appeared regular on the television magazine programme, Camera One.
Wolfe first appeared in the West End in 1947 and he had small roles in several British films including The Weaker Sex (1948), with Ursula Jeans and Cecil Parker, and Worm's Eye View (1951) with Ronald Shiner and Diana Dors. In 1956 he starred in a 12-week ATV series, Wolfe At The Door, with Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey. He compered variety shows on television and in the theatre and sometimes provided the links for Edmundo Ros and his Orchestra.
He also developed an amusing double act with Ronnie Corbett in The Yana Show (1957), which was advanced in his next project, Sheep's Clothing. He and Derek Scott wrote "I Need You", a Decca single for the singer, Lita Roza.
Again playing with his surname in Sheep's Clothing, he played a workshy ne'er-do-well in this sitcom for the BBC in 1957, written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. It co-starred Roza, who told me, "Oh, he was a lover of mine. He would keep sending me roses and we became very friendly. He was a writer and comedian and he wanted me to do this series and I thought it was dreadful. I did one episode and then I said I wasn't going to do any more. The BBC producer was so angry that I had a hard time getting any more telly."
In October 1959 he was a panel member for the programme Juke Box Jury, presented by David Jacobs. His knowledge of popular music was woefully lacking: he was unaware that Buddy Holly had died. Nevertheless, in April 1960, when Jacobs had chickenpox, he became the host at short notice.
Wolfe thought he might have more success in Australia, where he created a satirical show, Revue 61, but having speeding convictions and losing his driving licence, he moved to Los Angeles. He had small roles in several series including The Munsters, The Monkees and I Dream Of Jeannie and became a regular panelist for the US version of What's My Line. He sang "Pass Me By" over the credits of the Cary Grant film, Father Goose (1964) and he copied John Lennon's voice for a vulture in the animated feature, The Jungle Book (1967) in which he also sang "That's What Friends Are For".
In 1967 he helped to develop Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In, choosing the title as a comic nod to the love-ins and sit-ins of the day. He brought British actors into the cast, including Judy Carne and Jeremy Lloyd, and he recruited the British writer, Barry Took. He also recognised that Tiny Tim would be good for the show. He only stayed for the first series, however, after which he developed a rival show, Turn-On, which was dropped after one programme. In 1976 he returned to Australia to host This Is Your Life.
He maintained his friendship with Goldie Hawn from Laugh-In and he wrote a TV special for her and George Burns in 1978. He also wrote routines for Cher and John Denver. He was back in the UK in 1982, writing a British sitcom for Granada about a travelling repertory company, Rep, with Iain Cuthbertson and Stephen Lewis. After a period as a sports columnist in Australia, Wolfe returned to America, where he presided over writers' workshops and ran a writing programme for the University of New Mexico.
Digby Wolfe actor, broadcaster and scriptwriter: born Norway 4 June 1925; married; died Albuquerque, New Mexico 2 May 2012.
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