Paul Eddington, the popular English star of TV’s “The Good Life” and “Yes, Minister” who deepened in recent years into a uniquely affecting and truthful stage actor, died Nov.4 at his home in London. He was 68.
Eddington had been suffering for years from a rare and disfiguring form of skin cancer, mycosis fungoides. The disease left his skin blotchy and covered with sores, and had led to rumors in the tabloid press that the actor had AIDS. His last stage appearance, in a 1994 revival of David Storey’s 1970 play “Home,” had its pre-London tour planned around the availability of hospitals – there had to be one within 10 miles of each venue – so that Eddington would be able to continue treatment while doing the play.
Eddington was best known for two sitcoms, each a touch stone of its sort. In “The Good Life” (1975-78), he achieved a popular breakthrough, playing Jerry Leadbetter, the suburban husband of Penelope Keith and neighbor to Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal. Then, in “Yes, Minister” and, as it was later known, “Yes, Prime Minister,” his dithering politician, Jim Hacker, made a flawless foil to co-star Nigel Hawthorne’s Sir Humphrey Appleby.
Other TV work included “Outside Edge,” the “Murder at the Vicarage” episode of “Miss Marple” and Peter Hall’s TV adaptation of Mary Wesley’s “The Camomile Lawn,” with Rosemary Harris.
Born in London in 1927, Eddington spent a brief time as a window dresser before launching a stage career with provincial runs in Birmingham, Sheffield and Ipswich, moving on, in 1961, to his London debut in Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man.” He made his Broadway debut in 1964 in Iris Murdoch’s “A Severed Head,” returning to London the next season to play Disraeli in “Portrait of a Queen,” followed by his first musical, “Jorrocks.”
More recent stage appearances included George to Margaret Tyzack’s Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the National (1981); Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off; a revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers”; and a Peter Hall Company production of “Tartuffe” (1992), each of the last two with Felicity Kendal.
He surpassed himself in recent seasons inheriting roles originated by Sir John Gielgud, with whom Eddington had appeared in the West End premiere of Alan Bennett’s “40 Years On” (1968).
He first filled Gielgud’s shoes in a 1984 revival of the same play, playing the Headmaster of Albion House, a fictional English public school. But it was as the dishevelled Spooner in a 1992 revival of “No Man’s Land” – for which he received an Olivier nomination – and then as the mental patient Harry in “Home,” that his essentially comic demeanor gave way to suggest immeasurable reserves of feeling and pathos.
In “Home,” he played Harry with an unfailing good cheer that repeatedly cracked open to reveal harsher truths about the character’s sad life – the soft repetition of the word “well” a clue to the audience that all indeed was not well.
Eddington went public with his skin ailment – an illness that had been creeping slowly through his body since the early ’60s – in response to the insistence of the tabloid press that he had AIDS. Less than a week before he died, he appeared in a previously taped interview with host Jeremy Isaacs on BBC2’s “Face to Face,” in which he candidly discussed his cancer. Asked how he found courage to carry on, the actor replied: “There is no alternative… One gives a gallant shrug.”
In the weeks before he died, he appeared in two notable pieces of Shakespeare – John Caird’s BBC film of “Henry IV,” playing Justice Shallow, and “The Prince’s Choice” collection of excerpts from the Bard, in a scene from “Julius Caesar.” His autobiography, “So Far, So Good,” was published this year.
He is survived by his wife, Patricia, and four children, one of whom, Gemma, directed her father in a recent tour of Congreve’s “The Double Dealer.”