Dudley Moore

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The Independent Online

Dudley Stuart John Moore, actor and composer: born Dagenham, Essex 19 April 1935; CBE 2001; married 1958 Suzy Kendall (marriage dissolved), 1975 Tuesday Weld (one son; marriage dissolved), 1988 Brogan Lane (marriage dissolved), 1994 Nicole Rothschild (one son; marriage dissolved 1998); died Plainfield, New Jersey 27 March 2002.

When I was researching a biography of Peter Cook, an acquaintance of mine in his early twenties took me aside to ask who on earth this Peter Cook chap actually was. A comedian, I explained, who had been part of a marvellous double act with Dudley Moore. His eyes lit up at once. "Ah, Dudley Moore," he pronounced warmly. "One of my favourite film stars."

For many in Britain, if not in America, the enduring success of Dudley Moore presented a baffling dilemma. How to explain the apparent fact that, of the duo that dominated British comedy from 1965 to 1978, the clever, cultivated and good-looking one seemed to have dissolved into a drunken haze, while his club-footed, nervous, undersized and supposedly less talented partner had gone on to become a massive international star?

But such appraisals of Cook and Moore, however pervasive, however widespread, are misleading. Dudley Moore was not only supremely talented but multi-talented and possessed – despite his crippling lack of self-confidence – of enough drive and ambition to make it to the very top of his many professions. Ultimately, however, his time at the top of the Hollywood tree was to prove short-lived: his remarkable facility for extracting sympathy and laughs from an audience in equal measure was matched only by his inability to choose the scripts that could best help him to capitalise on this talent.

Moore's compulsion to entertain concealed an almost ruthless desire to be loved. Whether it was a fair assessment or not, he always believed that he had grown up in an emotional vacuum. He was born in 1935 to Jock Moore, a taciturn Scots railwayman, and his wife, Ada. They were elderly parents for the times: Dudley was intended as a late replacement for Billy, a much-loved elder son who had died of a tropical disease while working as a missionary in Africa. The new arrival was sickly and stunted, his left leg withered; according to Moore's biographer Barbra Paskin, his mother shrieked, "This isn't my baby! This isn't my baby!", when she held him for the first time.

Moore spent much of his first seven years in hospital undergoing a series of operations, the only child in a ward full of badly wounded soldiers. The only moment of tenderness he could later recall was a goodnight kiss from a kindly nurse. "In many ways my entire life is based on recapturing that single moment of affection," he confessed later.

To avoid bullying at school on account of his stature, he turned to comedy. His natural musical talent was also prodigious. The combination of humour, musical skill and his need to be loved was to prove a highly compelling mix.

Moore won a music scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1954. After graduating he was a couple of years into a career as a jobbing jazz musician when the invitation came in 1960 to take part in a professional Edinburgh revue called Beyond the Fringe. His collaborators, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, were all – in their different ways – dazzling. Moore had been selected as an amusing pianist who could contribute a line or two, and he was miserably aware of the fact: "I felt totally constricted and overpowered. I was completely mute in front of these intellectual giants."

Beyond the Fringe swept all before, demolishing traditional variety theatre in both London and New York, and catapulting Moore almost by default to international renown. The Queen, Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy were among those who came to pay homage. When boredom and claustrophobia finally undermined the partnership in 1964 it was Moore who was plucked out and selected for television stardom by the BBC. The corporation's old-fashioned philosophy had briefly bent but never buckled under the hurricane blast of Beyond the Fringe – they wanted Moore because, of the fashionable quartet, he was the one who could smile and sing.

But a curious thing had happened during the final year of The Fringe. While Miller and Bennett had quietly endured their on-stage boredom, confining themselves to the occasional green-room squabble, Cook and Moore had begun jointly to improvise their way around ennui, creating variations on the script that frequently left their frustrated colleagues saddled with now meaningless next lines. The Cook-Moore relationship had gradually developed, prospered, knitted and, finally, begun to verge on the symbiotic. Offered a pilot for his own television series in early 1965, Moore felt unable to go ahead without Cook.

Thus was born Not Only . . . But Also, the most successful sketch show of its age, if not of all time. Every sketch was memorable, but none more so than the Pete and Dud dialogues, semi-improvised conversations between the cloth-capped, working-class Cockney alter egos of the two performers. Cook played the stupid one who thought he knew what he was talking about, who set out to educate Moore, the even stupider one. The scripts were transcribed from rehearsal improvisations, led mainly by Cook. The Dagenham milieu was entirely autobiographical, and was furnished by Moore. The whole country seemed transfixed by the duo's brilliance.

The two dove-tailed as neatly as Jack Sprat and his wife. Cook presented an icy calm, Moore was fidgety and often helpless with laughter; Cook's humour was mainly verbal, Moore's principally visual; Cook on screen was aloof, even cold, while Moore attracted the audience sympathy his partner couldn't, coming across as eager, anxious and warm; Cook was well-bred, Moore wasn't; Cook was tall, Moore was short. Perhaps most important of all, Cook was a natural leader and Moore was a natural follower, an aspect of their relationship that was as significant in real life as it was on screen.

Cook was a creative loner with a strong idea of what he wanted, so only someone prepared to defer to him could have stayed the course successfully. "I followed him around like some sort of chihuahua," Moore admitted later. This deference extended into Moore's private life: when Cook and his mistress once sought refuge at Moore's new home in the middle of the night, fleeing her irate husband, they were amazed to discover that it was a replica of Cook's own house – right down to the William Morris wallpaper.

The jump to film, which both men wanted to make, proved problematic. After a series of cameos in unsatisfactory light comedies, Cook caused a bitter row by excluding Moore from the writing of Bedazzled (1968), their first and best big-screen vehicle. In fact, it was Cook who was holding Moore back; his shortcomings as an actor were reflected in poor box-office takings and their joint film career stalled.

A corresponding crisis in Cook's personal life prompted him to take refuge in the bottle and the security of a five-year world tour, Moore as always meekly following in tow. Some nights Moore would literally have to hold his partner up on stage; off-stage, alternating taunts and tears began to supplant the camaraderie they had once shared. Finally, Moore's dogged loyalty became strained to breaking point. When the tour lurched to its end in California in 1975 he broke up the partnership, determined to stay on in Hollywood and have a further crack at the film industry.

Eighteen months of frustrating Californian unemployment followed, so when Cook, bereft, alone and unable to work, in 1976 released Derek and Clive – a three-year-old private tape which gave the old Pete and Dud characters a scatological dimension – Moore had little choice but to fall in with its success. As it turned out, though, his return to England was brief. The two subsequent Derek and Clive LPs were shadows of the first – drunken, nasty affairs, during which Cook relentlessly goaded his partner. Moore walked out midway through the second recording, never to return. He headed for Hollywood again, to try his luck for a third time; and this time his luck was in.

In December 1978 Blake Edwards – whom Moore had encountered in psychoanalysis – was writing and directing 10, a comedy about a libidinous middle-aged musician, when his star, George Segal, walked out on the first day of shooting. In need of a replacement at 24 hours' notice, he virtually yanked Dudley Moore into the studio. Moore had his lucky break, and this time he took advantage expertly. On its release in 1979, the film made 1,000 per cent profit, and its star was voted "Sex Symbol of the Year" by the Hollywood Women's Press Club.

After the minor glitch of Wholly Moses (1980), a failed biblical comedy, he struck gold again with Arthur (1981), playing a wealthy drunk opposite Sir John Gielgud's urbane butler. In the space of a few years, he had become one of the biggest film stars in the world.

In the wake of fame and money came women, which was in many ways the point of the exercise. Moore had always courted an inordinate number of girlfriends; in the first flush of his early Sixties success he had romanced women over his piano keys, before taking them back to his shabby flat to seduce them on a mattress under an old coat. Two unsuccessful marriages to actresses had followed, as first Suzy Kendall then Tuesday Weld tried and failed to tie him down.

Revelling in the new-found stardom which followed his split with Cook, Moore immersed himself in a succession of leggy, towering American models, many of them curiously similar in physique to his erstwhile comedy partner. Most notably, Susan Anton and Brogan Lane (later to become his third wife) were installed in his Marina del Rey mansion. But, no matter how happy he claimed to be, Moore's craving for adoration always drove him to move on. He was, said Anton, "addicted to the thrill of falling in love". In 1983, he chatted up the woman who was to become his fourth wife, Nicole Rothschild, when she walked in front of his car as he waited at a set of traffic lights.

As it turned out, Moore had hit (and passed) his peak quickly. There were only ever to be two successful Dudley Moore films. However winning his performances, his choice of projects was simply hopeless. Who can now remember Six Weeks (1982, lachrymose tale of man and woman brought together by her dying daughter), Lovesick (1983, psychoanalyst falls for patient), Romantic Comedy (1983, two writers of romantic comedies fall in love), Unfaithfully Yours (1984, middle-aged musician mistakenly thinks another musician is having an affair with his wife), Blame It on the Bellboy (1992, estate agent mistaken for mafia hit-man), or Crazy People (1990, ad-man goes mad, is committed, and enlists asylum inmates in brilliant ad campaign)? Who, alternatively, can forget the hideous Santa Claus (1985, Moore as lovable elf makes a series of interminable elf-health puns)?

Towards the end of his life, as his career shrank via cable television to no more than a tiny white dot on the screen, Moore finally resigned himself to that unhappiness and depression which had once gripped his partner, Peter Cook. His marriage to Nicole Rothschild lay in tatters, destroyed by claims and counter-claims of violence, promiscuity and hard-drug abuse. His fortune, much diminished, had in large part been spent by his wife. When I met him in Los Angeles in March 1996 he was actually afraid to go home to her.

On that occasion, I was struck by the unnatural and substantial gaps in his memory. Remembering friends and colleagues was not a problem, but placing events in time seemed impossible for him. He frequently got the 1960s and 1970s confused. At the time I put it down to the effect of drugs, uncharitably as it turned out. In 1997, Moore was diagnosed as having suffered a series of tiny but persistent strokes over the preceding years, which were destroying his concentration. Two years later he was rediagnosed as suffering from a rare and debilitating neurological disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy, which was eventually to claim his life.

Harry Thompson

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