Albania mourns death of British comic hero Normal Wisdom, unlikely star during Communism

By Llazar Semini, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Albania mourns death of British comic hero

TIRANA, Albania — Through decades of Communist isolation, Albanians had little reason to laugh.

Authorities imposed a ruthless ban on most forms of free expression, outlawed religion, overseas travel, and Western movies — making one curious exception.

British slapstick comedian Norman Wisdom was the only Western entertainer shown on Albanian television during the grim years under paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1941 to 1985.

The acrobatic funnyman — who apparently amused Communist authorities with his portrayal of the downtrodden Englishman — died in Britain at the age of 95 on Monday after suffering a series of strokes.

Albanians, from the country’s current leader to ordinary citizens who lived under Communism, paid tribute to the man who made them laugh.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said he was “deeply saddened” at Wisdom’s death, describing the actor on Tuesday as the nation’s “most beloved entertainer.”

Wisdom was known in Albania for his role as Norman Pitkin, a clumsy underdog battling adversity, with his trademark cloth cap worn sideways.

“Pitkin brought us light during our time of darkness. He made us laugh during our bleak childhoods under the Communist regime,” said Albert Rakipi, a 49-year-old charity worker.

Wisdom twice visited Albania after the fall of Communism 1990, and was surprised at the reception he got.

“We knew he was popular here and in other countries, but we didn’t realize the type of reaction he would get when he got out there. It was just like the Beattlemania of the 60’s,” Johnny Mans, Wisdom’s agent, told the AP Tuesday.

“They just wanted to kiss him and touch him. Even people up in the mountains, shepherds and such, knew who he was. It was an amazing experience to visit Albania with Norman and I will never forget it.”

Wisdom, also an accomplished singer and musician, grew up in poverty, spent most of his childhood in foster homes, and found himself a homeless teenager in London before joining the army as a means or survival.

He became a full-time entertainer after leaving the military, launching a varied career in film and music.

He acted in Broadway in the 1960s, when he was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in the comedy “Walking Happy.”

His filmed included “Trouble In Store” in 1953 and “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” in 1968, which he made in Hollywood. His subsequent career was largely based in television.

He specialized in family-friendly slapstick comedy in the 1950s and 1960s — in his role at Pitkin, which Albania’s authorities considered safe to show their audience.

“Norman Wisdom always played the character who was downtrodden by bosses of big companies but was always successful in the end,” Wisdom’s agent Mans said.

“I believe Hoxha’s thoughts were that Communism was the downtrodden character with the capitalists keeping them down.”

Albania was the most isolated among Europe’s former communist regimes, severing all ties with the West as well as the Soviet-dominated East.

During Communism, many Albanians didn’t have a television in their home, and those who did could only watch one state-run, black-and-white channel filled with news programs advertising the regime’s achievements in agriculture and education.

On rare occasion, it would show Italian films and Hollywood epics like the 1960 Oscar-winning movie “Spartacus,” but Pitkin movies remained the national favorite.

“He was the source of humor in our homes, a glimpse of the Western world that we could not taste ourselves, living in isolated Albania,” said Vladimir Mollaj, a 49-year-old owner of a fish restaurant in Albania’s capital, Tirana.

On one of his visits to Albania in 2001, Wisdom watched England play Albania at soccer.

His trip overshadowed the presence of soccer star David Beckham, and to please the home crowd Wisdom watched the match in a jersey made stitching together the national team shirts of England and Albania.

Sulejman Starova, coach of Tirana soccer club, and then secretary-general of the country’s soccer federation, remembered Norman showing up at the match.

“We lost the match 2-0,” he said. “But he helped Albania play a great game.”

Associated Press writer Gillian Smith contributed to this report from London.


Norman Wisdom:

(This version CORRECTS New Approach. Corrects “Normal” to “Norman” in extended headline.)

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