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A comedian always in search of 'a good ending', Bert Newton has died at 83
Bert Newton has died at 83.
An icon of Australian broadcasting, he is remembered as a master performer and comedian, with successful roles on radio, television and the theatre. He is survived by his wife Patti, children Matthew and Lauren, and grandchildren.
Bert Newton’s achievements, particularly relating to Australian television, are remarkable. As an Order of Australia and Member of the British Empire holder for his services, he is also a Logie Hall of Fame inductee, a four-time Gold Logie winner and 20-time host of the ceremony. It has often been said the Logies should be renamed the “Berts” in his honour.
Born July 23 1938, the Melbourne boy started his broadcast career as part of a children’s program, Peter’s Pals, on radio station 3XY while still in his early teens. As leading Australian media historian Bridget Griffen-Foley explained in her book Changing Stations, “Newton read newspapers aloud in his bedroom to overcome a childish lisp, and took his scripts to school”.
Soon, he would become a master radio, then television broadcaster. Relationships formed with Sir Frank Packer and Graham Kennedy during the 1950s set him up for renown in the best possible way.
Depending on your age and media preference, Newton was either your late night or early morning companion. First, late-night viewers knew him as Graham Kennedy’s partner on In Melbourne Tonight (1957-1970) – apparently the “straight man” to Kennedy’s bluster, but with comedic skills just as sharp.
Later, early morning viewers knew him as the host of Good Morning Australia (1992- 2005) – an otherwise “graveyard” broadcasting shift between breakfast and lunch into which Newton somehow managed to inject remarkable life. There were the standard interviews and infomercials, but those paying closer attention were rewarded with nuance and incredible cheeky comedy.
Later in life, Bert appeared on stage in musicals, from Beauty and the Beast to The Wizard of Oz, and notably as the infamous Narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 2015.
A perfect place for the host who has it “all together”, it was a role that also let him play, too. Although in his late 70s at the time, he told the Sydney Morning Herald he saw the Narrator as a “the calming influence” amid some otherwise “wild scenes”.
A complicated man
A product of his times, some of his comedy has not aged well, either. Some sketches relating to race and gender are particularly problematic for contemporary viewers who now, rightly, expect more.
But as Denise Scott tweeted this morning, Bert’s devotion to comedy and the comedy community knew no bounds or personal ego, recalling how when her friend and colleague, iconic comedian Lynda Gibson was dying of cancer, Bert attended and “paid homage by removing his ‘rumoured’ toupee & revealing his total baldness.”
This is a sentiment also shared by Dan Illic, saying Newton’s “immense talents were only amplified by his generosity of spirit and kindness to even the smallest names in showbiz.”
A good ending
I’ve been asked three times over the past few years to draft obituaries for Bert Newton, “just in case”. Each time, I’ve said “no” - the reason has always been timing. While I know lots of media outlets have a bank of obits ready to go (famously, The Queen’s “Operation London Bridge” strategy has been updated periodically for decades and a variety of new media forms), I believe you should always let a comedian choose their own timing.
In his 1977 autobiography, Bert!, Newton wrote about his own struggle with finding a satisfying conclusion:
The hope of every good producer is to come up not only with a good show or a good movie but also to have a good ending.
Only a few days ago, his beloved wife, Patti Newton, posted a picture of him in a hospital bed but beaming, surrounded by his family, with the caption “This is what happiness is”. A good ending, indeed.