Last updated: 20 November 2008
One of the most popular British comics of the 20th century, Tommy Cooper gained a devoted following with his intentional mistakes and crafted buffoonery.
He was born Thomas Frederick Cooper on 19 March 1921 in Caerphilly, Wales. His father was a Welsh army recruiting sergeant and his mother was from Devon. They moved to Exeter when Cooper was three years old.
At the age of eight an aunt bought him a magic set; he spent hours perfecting the tricks. After school he was called up to the army, and served as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards during World War Two. He initially served in Egypt.
In the army he refined his variety act, performing magic tricks and comedy routines. One night in Cairo he borrowed a fez hat from a passing waiter, which received a rapturous response.
His incapability as a performer was an artifice; he was an accomplished magician and member of the Magic Circle. As well as the red fez, which swiftly became a hallmark of his stage show, he boasted a wide a range of catchphrases.
Audiences came to know Tommy Cooper soon after he left the army in 1947. He quickly became a top draw on the variety circuit with his incompetent conjuror act. He made his television debut in 1948 on the show New To You, and proved so popular he soon starred in his own shows.
Many regard his period on Thame Television from 1968-1980 as his heyday as millions tuned in to watch. The latter part of the 1970s was marked by a deterioration in his health as his heavy drinking and smoking took its toll. A heart attack in 1977 in Rome didn't set him back for long. He returned to the stage just three months later.
Thames Television declined to give him his own show after 1980, but he remained a popular guest on other programmes. He worked with Eric Sykes in 1982 on two shows: The Eric Sykes 1990 Show and It's Your Move.
But he bowed out with a grand sense of occasion. Live on stage in London on 15 April 1984, being performing live to millions on ITV's Live From Her Majesty's, Cooper suffered a massive heart attack. Some thought it was part of the act, but it soon became clear that Cooper was seriously ill.
He was pronounced dead at London's Charing Cross Hospital.
Since his death, his influence has been repeatedly and forcefully stated by polls and other comedians. In a 2005 poll, The Comedian's Comedian, he came sixth.