British actor Peter Sallis, who voiced one half of the beloved duo Wallace & Gromit, has died at the age of 96, The Guardian reports. His agents, Jonathan Altaras Associates, issued the following statement on Sallis’ passing: “It is with sadness that we announce that our client Peter Sallis died peacefully, with his family by his side, at Denville Hall on Friday, June 2.”
Sallis was born in 1921 in Twickenham, Middlex, where he dreamed of joining the Royal Air Force before moving on to live theater, training at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts. Sallis’ stage career didn’t end up being quite as expansive as his TV work, but he did tread the boards in productions of Cabaret (with Judi Dench) and Orson Welles’ Moby Dick—Rehearsed before making his Broadway debut in Inadmissible Evidence. His TV introduction was the lead in the BBC’s The Diary Of Samuel Pepys, which he followed up with roles on Doctor Who and The Pallisers, among many others. He was also a mainstay in the animated Wind In The Willows series that ran from 1984-1987. The big screen also beckoned for a while, as Sallis joined adaptations of Wuthering Heights and The Day Of The Triffids.
The actor could be counted on to play the well meaning everyman, which is precisely what he did when he got his big break—a regular role on the Roy Clarke sitcom, Last Of The Summer Wine. Clarke reportedly wrote the part of Norman with Sallis in mind; with such provenance, it’s no wonder Sallis inhabited the role from 1973-2010. After achieving national acclaim as an agreeable sort, Sallis went on to provide the dulcet, Northern-accented tones of the cheese-loving human of Wallace & Gromit. Creator Nick Park reportedly wrote to Sallis in the ’80s to ask him to join the voice cast of his fledgling, clay animation comedy, which the kindhearted actor agreed to after Park made a donation to a charity of his choosing.
Sallis, who already had a decades-long career at that time, won over new generations of fans as the amiable inventor Wallace, who had to carry the bulk of the dialogue since he was playing off an anthropomorphic, but otherwise non-speaking dog, Gromit. And what began with a short film (A Grand Day Out) led to multiple feature-length films—including the delightful The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit—a TV series, spin-offs, and much critical and popular success, thanks in part to Sallis’ endearingly drawn-out vowels. Sallis retired from acting in 2010, and Ben Whitehead took over as the voice of Wallace.
The tributes from Sallis’ collaborators have been pouring in, with Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, saying “Alongside Last Of The Summer Wine, Peter Sallis featured in many of the BBC’s most popular programmes. He was a marvellous actor. Who could forget that remarkable voice? Peter will be greatly missed by his many fans. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.” And Aardman Animations co-founder Pete Lord memorialized the veteran voice actor on Twitter:
Park paid homage to the winsome actor with a letter that’s been published at the Aardman Animations site. Here’s an excerpt, but you should give the full letter a read: “He had naturally funny bones and was a great storyteller and raconteur off stage too and would keep us amused for hours. He could make the simplest incident sound hilarious – just by the way he said it.”