Blunders made us like him

Actor: His comedic flair propelled Dudley Moore into audiences' hearts in such movies as `10,' `Arthur' and `Foul Play.'

March 28, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Dudley Moore made the insufferable endearing. And for a while, that made him one of the most popular actors in Hollywood.

Moore, who died at his New Jersey home yesterday at 66 of pneumonia after a long bout with supranuclear palsy, hardly looked the part of a movie star. A stout little man with round features and a mop of curly brown hair, Moore looked the part of a British comic, which is exactly how he started.

But beginning with a scene-stealing role as a lovestruck orchestra conductor in Foul Play (1978), he became Hollywood's favorite nebbish, a clownish figure who seemed destined to forever play second fiddle to just about anyone else, but nevertheless managed to blunder his way into audiences' hearts.

That persona was never showcased better than in Arthur (1981), in which he played a chronically drunk, self-centered and irredeemably infantile millionaire's son with perhaps the world's most god-awful laugh. Somehow, he made the character likable, even lovable. The film proved one of the year's biggest box-office hits and earned Moore an Oscar nomination.

Born on April 19, 1935, in Dagenham, England, Moore's early bouts with illness, leading to frequent hospitalizations, made him a loner. Music proved his best friend - "I can't imagine not having music in my life, playing for myself or for other people. If I was asked, `Which would you give up,' I'd have to say acting," he said in 1988 - and early on he learned to play the piano, violin and organ. In 1958, he was awarded a bachelor's degree in musical composition from Oxford (after earning one in English the previous year).

Spending his teen years as something of a social outcast also paved the way for his later years as a comic. But it also bred in him a sense of insecurity he was never able to shake entirely; even as an adult, he suffered frequent bouts of depression. "I certainly did feel inferior," he once explained. "Because of class. Because of strength. Because of height. I guess if I'd been able to hit somebody in the nose, I wouldn't have been a comic."

Moore first found fame when he and three schoolmates - Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller - formed the comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe, a precursor of and influence on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Their manic, irreverent and sometimes cerebral humor (one famous skit involved a conversation between God and Noah) proved a hit on both sides of the Atlantic; in 1962, they brought their act to Broadway and won a Tony.

In 1975, Moore headed to Hollywood. He struggled in bit parts until Foul Play, a murder-comedy where he was fourth-billed behind Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Burgess Meredith, made his career.

In 1979, director Blake Edwards cast him in 10, as a middle-aged man fixated on a young beach bunny played by Bo Derek. It was Derek and Ravel's Bolero that earned the film its notoriety, but it was Moore's take on middle-age wanderlust that gave the movie its heart.

Arthur came two years later, and Moore was on top of the Hollywood world. But that performance proved the peak of his career. He never had a role that juicy again (the sequel, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, was a resounding dud). Audiences tired of his clowning but never accepted him in anything else. Roles in such films as Unfaithfully Yours (1984), Like Father, Like Son (1987) and Crazy People (1990) followed, and Moore continued playing the lovable schlub, but audiences stopped caring.

Following a failed TV series (Dudley) in 1993, Moore largely retired from acting, concentrating on composing and performing music.

Three years ago, after complaining of vision problems and difficulty swallowing, he was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative disease similar to Parkinson's. Since then, he had remained out of the spotlight, asking that his privacy be respected.

Moore married Suzy Kendall in 1958, Tuesday Weld in 1975, Brogan Lane in 1988 and Nicole Rothschild in 1994; all four marriages ended in divorce. He had a son, Patrick, by his second marriage and a son, Nicholas, by his fourth.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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