Farewell, possum! Barry Humphries, the comedian best known for his character Dame Edna Everage who blossomed from an Australian suburban housewife into a self-described “gigastar,” died today, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. He was 89.
The paper said Humphries died at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, where he had been treated for various health issues.
With coiffed lilac hair, oversized diamanté glasses, and an outlandish wardrobe, the instantly recognizable Dame Edna would greet audiences with her trademark “Hello possums!”.
Describing her shows somewhat accurately as a “monologue interrupted by strangers” and herself as blessed with “the ability to laugh at the misfortune of others,” Edna would warmly skewer celebrities and audience members alike.
Born and raised in Melbourne, John Barry Humphries was the son of a well-to-do builder who persuaded his parents to buy him an assortment of theatrical costumes to play dress-up in.
Sent to a conservative high school, he was described by a friend as a “spectacular misfit” who would turn his back on school football matches to knit.
The creation that would define his career came early: at 21, he was part of a traveling repertory company when he came up with a character of a snobbish, inadvertently offensive housewife.
In 1955, he stepped onstage for the first time as Mrs. Norm Everage from Moonee Ponds, admitting only decades later that she was based on his mother.
He developed a host of other Australian caricatures, including the repulsive drunkard diplomat Les Patterson and the more subtle Sandy Stone, a decrepit rambling senior. Humphries was also an actor, painter, author, and Dadaist performer of pranks.
Humphries moved to Britain in 1959, part of a wave of creative expatriates showcasing the Australian voice: earthy and irreverent but superficially polite.
Although a household name in Britain, Ireland, and Australia, the US market proved hard to crack despite several attempts.
That changed in 2000 when he was 66, and his Dame Edna: The Royal Tour on Broadway earned him a Tony award and a role in the sitcom Ally McBeal.
He also voiced the character of Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo; wrote a satirical advice column, as Edna, for Vanity Fair; and curated a cabaret festival where he rejected acts that involved swearing – a decision he said would encourage creativity.
For years Humphries struggled with alcoholism that destroyed his first marriage and nearly his life, but he gave up drinking in the early 1970s.
His numerous honors included being awarded an Order of Australia in 1982, being made a Commander of the British Empire in 2007, and featuring on Australian postage stamps. However, an outcry over a series of remarks widely seen as transphobic prompted the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to drop his name from its top award in 2019.