Barry Humphries dies, aged 89

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. (Photo Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia Commons)

Comedian, actor, and writer Barry Humphries, best known for his characters Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, died on Saturday in Sydney, aged 89.

Humphries’ seven decade career spanned film and television, theatre and books.

He died at St Vincent’s Hospital, having been admitted after complications from hip surgery.

“He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit,” a family statement said.

“With over 70 years on the stage, he was an entertainer to his core, touring up until the last year of his life and planning more shows that will sadly never be.

“His audiences were precious to him, and he never took them for granted. His passing leaves a void in so many lives.

“Although he may be best remembered for his work in theatre, he was a painter, author, poet, and a collector and lover of Art in all its forms. He was also a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather, and a friend and confidant to many.

“The characters he created, which brought laughter to millions, will live on.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese remembered McKenzie as “a great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind.”

“He was both gifted and a gift,” he said.

Humphries’ screen credits are numerous, including co-writing and starring in 1972’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. Directed by Bruce Beresford, it was the first Australian film to make more than $1 million at the box office. Edna Everage was made a dame by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.

Other film credits include Les Patterson Saves the WorldBedazzled, The Naked Bunyip, The Getting of Wisdom, Nicholas Nickleby, Spice World, Shock Treatment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Kath and Kimderella, Da Kath and Kim Code, Welcome to Woop Woop and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. He was also a frequent voice actor, including Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo, Wombo the Wombat in Blinky Bill and the narrator of Mary and Max.

In addition to his numerous TV specials and talk shows, Humphries was seen in on the small screen in series such as Ally McBeal, Jack Irish, Selling Hitler, Chickens and the Kangaroo Gang.

Humphries’ career began while studying at The University of Melbourne, writing and starring in revues. It was at uni that he also became a follower of the art movement Dada, and would mount pranks and performances around Melbourne. Dame Edna Everage – then Mrs Norman Everage – first debuted in 1955 uni revue Return Fare.

In 1959, Humphries moved to London where he got involved in the comedy scene, alongside the likes of Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Spike Milligan, and acted on the West End in plays such as Oliver! and The Demon Barber.

Humphries was recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and Commander of the British Empire (CBE). He was nominated for a BAFTA three times for An Audience With Dame Edna Everage, The Dame Edna Experience, and One More Audience With Dame Edna Everage, and won an AFI Award in 1975 for The Great MacArthy. In theatre, he won a Tony Award for his one-person show Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, which ran on Broadway. The British Comedy Awards honoured Humphries’ lifetime achievement in 1999.

Humphries was a founding patron of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and was the namesake of the Barry Award for best show from 2000 to 2019, when the festival stripped his name from the award due to his comments about transgender people. In 2016, in an interview with The Telegraph, Humphries described trans women as “mutilated” men. He also said in 2018 that being transgender is “a fashion”.

In recent years, Humphries has also been criticised for comments about race, including stating in a 2016 Radio Times interview that Downton Abbey was popular in the US “because there are no black people in it”. Asked about the comment in a Guardian interview in 2018, Humphries said: “Oh, I don’t really care. If people think it is racist, they’ll be sensitive to everything of that kind. You can’t pussyfoot around them. You just say what you think. I was being provocative.”

In 2012, Humphries stated his intention to retire from live performance. However, in 2019 Humphries staged as Dame Edna the My Gorgeous Life tour, and in 2022, did a one-man show, Man Behind the Mask in the UK.

Married four times, Humphries is survived by his wife Lizzie Spender, four children and 10 grandchildren.