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‘A true gent’: TV star Des O’Connor dies aged 88

Written by on 15 November 2020

TV star Des O’Connor has died at the age of 88 following a fall at his home.

The all-round entertainer achieved a rare feat in the often fickle world of showbiz, heading up his own prime time TV shows for over 45 years and forging a successful musical career to boot.

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Des O’Connor – comedian, chat show host and singer – hosted several top rated shows and national British prime time television.

O’Connor had been isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, but had received visits, albeit from outside a window, from some of his children.

His agent Pat Lake-Smith said in a statement: “It is with great sorrow that I confirm that Des O’Connor passed away yesterday.

“He had been admitted to hospital just over a week ago, following a fall at his home in Buckinghamshire.

“He was recovering well and had been in great spirits, visited by his family – in accordance with hospital lockdown regulations – and looking forward to going home.

“Unfortunately, yesterday evening his condition suddenly deteriorated and he drifted peacefully away in his sleep.

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O'Connor with daughters Samantha and Tracy in the 1960d
Image:
O’Connor with daughters Samantha and Tracy in the 1960s

“Des, who was 88, was so well loved by absolutely everyone. He was a joy to work with – he was talented, fun, positive, enthusiastic, kind and a total professional. He loved life, and considered enthusiasm almost as important as oxygen.

“He adored his family – they were everything to him. He is survived by his wife Jodie, their son Adam and his four daughters, Karin, TJ, Samantha and Kristina.

Tributes to 'giggler', 'national hero' and 'ultimate entertainer' Des O'Connor

Tributes to ‘giggler’, ‘national hero’ and ‘ultimate entertainer’ Des O’Connor

“Jodie’s world is shattered, she and Adam and Des’s daughters are hurting more than you could possibly imagine.

“Des was the ultimate entertainer. He loved being on stage – entertaining a live audience. He always said the sound of laughter was like the sound of heavenly music.

O'Connor with his wife Jodie Brooke Wilson. Pic: Dave M Benett
Image:
O’Connor with his wife Jodie Brooke Wilson. Pic: Dave M Benett

“He had a fabulous international TV career, presenting his own prime time TV shows for over 45 years. On stage he starred at almost every leading venue throughout the world.”

A host of celebrities quickly paid tribute to O’Connor, including his co-host of four years on the Today With Des And Mel show Melanie Sykes, who said working with him was one of the highlights of her career.

Along with a picture of the pair together, she wrote: “Des had the softest hands of anyone I ever met and the kindest of hearts. He had talent in every fibre of his being and was stubborn as a mule.

“He was the full ticket as a friend and colleague. When he chose me to be his co host on the Today daytime show it was one of the greatest days of my professional life. It was an education and a privilege to work with him for the years that followed.

“We worked long hours but always laughed lots, not least because when it was showtime he would always tell me I looked like robbers dog! These years I will never forget and nor will I forget him. Darling Des you will be forever missed. Melanie x”

Carol Vorderman, who appeared on Countdown at the same time as the star, called O’Connor “a joy to work with” and “a king”, adding that he “will surely be entertaining the angels now”.

Dictionary corner expert Susie Dent also paid tribute to her former colleague on Twitter, writing: “We have lost a true gent, one who was never more than a note away from a song or a laugh, and who never failed to say ‘piddle, bum, and stocking tops’ if any of us fluffed a line. Countdown audiences adored him – and so did we. Sing on, Des.”

Top Gear presenter Paddy McGuinness tweeted: “Such sad news. Des O’Connor was never afraid to laugh at himself and that was part of his charm.

“Whether it was Eric Morecambe ridiculing him, or Freddie Starr smashing his studio set up, Des always laughed along. Another part of my childhood telly viewing gone. RIP Des O’Connor”.

Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “So sorry to hear of the death of entertainer, comedian and all round lovely man Des O’Connor.

“Des was the entertainer l saw most on telly when l was a kid growing up, l send my deepest condolences to the Family and Friends of Des. R.I.P.”

Born in Stepney, east London, on 12 January 1932 to a Jewish mother and Irish father, the comedian joked that he was the only O’Connor who ever had a bar mitzvah.

As a young man, O’Connor briefly flirted with football as a career, playing professionally with Northampton Town, before serving his national service in the Royal Air Force, and then joining Butlin’s holiday camp as a redcoat.

He went on to perform in theatre variety shows in the mid 1950s, before getting his big screen break in 1963, when The Des O’Connor Show was commissioned on ITV.

O'Connor is visited in hospital by Eric Morecambe after breaking his leg
Image:
O’Connor is visited in hospital by Eric Morecambe after breaking his leg

Other bespoke shows followed, including Des O’Connor Tonight, An Audience With Des O’Connor and Today With Des And Mel.

He also fronted several well-known game shows including Take Your Pick and Countdown.

Aside from his TV career, O’Connor regularly returned to his variety theatre roots, performing live in international venues including the Sydney Opera House, MGM Grand and over a thousand solo appearances at the London Palladium.

Today With Des And Mel ran on weekdays for four years
Image:
Today With Des And Mel ran on weekdays for four years

In 1969, he was surprised live on the Palladium stage by This Is Your Life, which paid tribute to his successful career.

A regular guest on the Morecambe and Wise Show in the 1970s, he showcased his ability to laugh at himself as the fall guy to many of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise’s disparaging jokes.

Little did the audience suspect that O’Connor wrote many of the insulting gags himself.

In 1970, a TV deal brought The Des O’Connor Show to the US, winning him an international audience, and live appearances in Las Vegas.

Playing the titular wizard in The Wizard Of Oz
Image:
Playing the titular wizard in The Wizard Of Oz

O’Connor also had a successful musical career, recording 36 albums and achieving four top 10 singles, including number one hit I Pretend.

He toured with Buddy Holly when the rock and roll star came to the UK in 1958, and showcased his musical talents on Top Of The Pops in 1967.

In later life, O’Connor also performed in musical theatre roles in the West End including the wizard in The Wizard Of Oz and multiple roles in Dreamboats And Petticoats.

O'Connor on Top Of The Pops in 1967
Image:
O’Connor on Top Of The Pops in 1967

O’Connor toured venues around the UK with his one-man show until 2019.

In 2008, O’Connor was made a CBE for his services to entertainment and broadcasting in the Queen’s birthday honours.

Married four times, O’Connor leaves behind his wife Jodie, one son and four daughters.