Born Thomas Frederick Cooper in Caerphilly on 19 March 1921, Tommy Cooper served as a member of Field Marshal Montgomery’s Desert Rats in Egypt during WWII – which is where he originally picked up his trademark fez.
Following seven years of active service as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, Cooper turned to professional entertaining in 1948. He made his television debut on New To You and secured a season at London’s Windmill Theatre.
By the end of the 1950s, Cooper had topped the bill at the London Palladium and played King Napoleon the Ninth in Emile Litter’s All-Star Laughter Pantomime: Puss in Boots at the Pavilion, Bournemouth.
The 1960s saw the full flowering of the gifted comedian, peppering his monologue of one-liners and conjuring catastrophes with the occasional successful illusion. He was a vibrant member of the Magic Circle, but it was clear that people laughed loudest when his magic tricks went wrong.
He moved successfully to television, winning a run of his own series, including Cooper – Life With Tommy, Cooper’s Capers, Cooperama, Life With Cooper, Cooper At Large, The Tommy Cooper Hour, Cooper King-Size and Cooper – Just Like That!
Cooperama, a sketch show for ABC, was a comedic peek into his surreal world and naturally morphed into Life With Cooper, in which his misadventures with everyday objects and occurrences proved popular enough for three series’ to be made.
It’s Tommy Cooper for London Weekend Television and The Tommy Cooper Hour for Thames Television saw him at the peak of his powers, indulging Cooper’s passion for silly quips and ever more outrageous prop comedy – the duck trick; the wicker basket full of hats; the table with human legs and spoon-jar/jar-spoon – which have all passed into light entertainment legend.
Unfortunately, a dogged commitment to variety theatre dates and a tireless dedication to show business charity the Grand Order of Water Rats took its toll and by the end of the 1970s, Cooper’s love of a drink and a smoke had wrecked his health and caused concern at Thames Television.
In 1980, Cooper’s Half Hour was his last regular television series. Thereafter he would baffle, bamboozle and barnstorm other people’s shows.
Cooper’s death onstage in 1984 was witnessed by millions as it occurred during transmission of the ITV programme Live From Her Majesty’s.
Towards the end of his routine, Cooper slumped to the stage and succumbed to a massive heart attack, with audience laughter ringing in his ears (most audience members and viewers initially thought it was part of his act).
In 2008, actor Sir Anthony Hopkins (one of the world’s most dedicated students and impersonators of Tommy Cooper) unveiled a statue of the great man just outside Caerphilly Castle.