Born: 20 January, 1922, in Wallasey, Merseyside. Died: 29 October, 2013, in London, aged 91
With his rubbery, lived-in face Graham Stark had a career on screen that lasted for more than half a century. With a canny understanding, he played supporting roles that made a very definite impact but never detracted from the star. He owed many of his film roles to his friendship with Peter Sellers, whom he met when they were in the RAF and then as struggling comedians after the war. From The Goon Show to the Pink Panther films Stark and Sellers remained close and Stark was best man at four of Sellers’ weddings.
Stark also had a successful career as a photographer – taking his camera into studios to snap stars such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor relaxing.
One of his first jobs in straight theatre was in a memorable production at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival. He appeared in a shortened version of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which was performed on the same evening as Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
They were given in the Kings Theatre and both directed by the renowned Carl Ebert. One critic wrote: “The play was a thing of constant beauty and expressiveness.” Stark attracted much attention as in one scene he waltzed across the stage majestically with the veteran actor Miles Malleson. Stark witnessed the final concert which Sir Thomas conducted on the Castle esplanade. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was about to be played and the fireworks let off from the ramparts when Sir Thomas donned a steel helmet.
Graham William Stark was born in Wallasey and attended the local grammar school where he appeared in many of the plays. His mother made him take ballet classes and he was offered a scholarship with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.
But Stark was set on becoming an actor and in 1939 he enrolled at drama school in London. With the outbreak of war Stark volunteered for the RAF, but he was diagnosed as being colour blind and spent two years training as a flight mechanic.
He was offered a role with Ralph Reader’s RAF gang shows and entertained the troops in the Far East. After the war Stark continued to work on the Gang Show circuit (one of his colleagues was the unknown Tony Hancock) and he and Sellers shared digs, Stark finding work in various repertory theatres.
His ability for mimicry and accents proved ideal for radio and Sellers got him into the hit comedy Ray’s a Laugh starring Ted Ray and The Goon Show to cover for Spike Milligan when he was ill.
By the early 1960s Stark was recognised as a comedian whose timing and sense of delivery was ideal for sitcoms. He also proved an ideal “feed-man” who knew how to let the star get the laughs. Consequently, he worked with many of the leading comedians of the day, including Benny Hill, Leslie Crowther, Jimmy Tarbuck and Ken Dodd. He did a summer season with Ronnie Corbett in Cromer.
In 1964 the BBC gave him his own comedy show, The Graham Stark Show. Despite being written by Johnny Speight it never caught on and was never recommissioned. He was in the west end in a hit farce, The Bed-Sitting Room, in which he played a loony psychiatrist.
Stark appeared in more than 70 movies and an early success (1966) was opposite Michael Caine in Alfie. Sellers got him a part as a very proper butler in the light comedy The Millionairess in which Sellars and Sophia Loren starred.
Other movie roles alongside Sellers included Only Two Can Play and, especially memorably, as Professor Auguste Balls in The Pink Panther. Stark proved an equally eccentric foil to Sellers’ famously accident-prone Inspector Clouseau.
Stark played Clousseau’s inscrutable assistant, Hercule Lajoy in Trail of the Pink Panther. For this role his ability to speak volumes through facial expression was vital: throughout the film all he said was “Oui, monsieur.”
Blake Edwards, director of the Pink Panther films, cast Stark in his 1982 film Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews. Stark shared a memorable scene as a waiter with the star and a cockroach in an opening scene.
Stark remained active in movies until 1998 but one of his personal joys was to take over the role of Private Walker on the death of James Beck in the radio adaptation of Dad’s Army.
Joanna Lumley recalled that “Graham was full of madness, energy, optimism, kindness and wild humour”.
He married Audrey Nicholson in 1959, and she and their two sons and a daughter survive him.