British comedian Mel Smith died Friday, after suffering a heart attack at his London home. He was 60. Smith made his television debut in a bit part in Stephen Frears’ controversial 1979 TV film Bloody Kids. Later that year, he got his big break when he joined the cast of Not The Nine O’Clock News, the celebrated and star-making topical sketch-comedy series that also featured Rowan Atkinson, Chris Langham, and future Saturday Night Live cast member Pamela Stephenson.
Griff Rhys Jones, who had pitched in on the show’s first season, became a full cast member in the second, and after the series ended in 1982, he and Smith formed a lasting creative partnership, starring together in the BBC series Alas Smith And Jones. (The series first aired in 1984 and ran until 1998, By which time it was just called Smith And Jones, presumably because most of the people who remembered the ‘70s western Alias Smith And Jones had died off.) The two were also business partners. In 1981, they formed their own production company, TalkBack, which, in addition to Smith and Jones’ shows, was responsible for Smack The Pony, The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, Brass Eye and The Eleven O’Clock News
In 1985, Smith and Jones took their act to the movies, writing and starring in the sci-fi comedy Morons From Outer Space. The film, directed by an apparently uncomprehending Mike Hodges (best known for the modern noir classics Get Carter and Croupier), was not a success. They also starred together in the TV series The World According To Smith & Jones and Smith And Jones In Small Doses, and the 1990 movie Wilt. On his own, Smith starred in the sitcom Colin’s Sandwich, beginning in 1988.
In 1987, he recorded a version of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” with Kim Wilde for Comic Relief. It reached number three on the UK charts.
In 1989, Smith moved behind the camera to direct the movie The Tall Guy, a theater-scene romantic comedy starring Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson and written by Richard Curtis, highlighted by an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style musical version of The Elephant Man. As a movie director, he had a hit with Bean, a 1997 big screen spinoff of Rowan Atkinson’s silent TV character, co-written by Curtis. He also played Sir Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn’s British film version of Twelfth Night.
Smith’s attempts to break into Hollywood didn’t turn out as well. After small but memorable parts in National Lampoon’s European Vacation and The Princess Bride (1987), Smith was assigned the Chico role in Brain Donors (1992), an attempt at a modern Marx Brothers-style comedy (with John Turturro in the Groucho slot) that tanked. He was hired by George Lucas to direct Radioland Murders, one of the long-deferred dream projects that Lucas had been developing, off and on, for decades. A period slapstick comedy with a crowded cast, the movie was a commercial and critical fiasco.
In 1999, Smith was hospitalized for various ailments he blamed partly on work-related stress and a resulting addiction to a prescription painkiller. He subsequently sold his production company and cut way back on his workload, and began to concentrate more on the theatre than TV or movies. His last screen appearances were in the 2011 movie My Angel and the Chiwetel Ejiofor TV series Dancing On The Edge, which aired in Britain earlier this year.