The star wit of the new generation of young English comics, that was Peter Cook in 1964. Cook, who died Monday at the age of 57, was one of the original members of the satiric comedy troupe that created "Beyond the Fringe," a loony look at society that predated Monty Python by several years. The other members, all of whom went on to greater success, were Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, and, the most famous, Cook's old partner Dudley Moore, with whom he once had a comedy show on British television.
Miller became a famed director of opera and plays and the author and host of the medical television series "The Body in Question." A film of Bennett's play "The Madness of George III" is due out soon. Moore continues to work in television. But Cook hadn't really been heard from for years, since a bad American TV comedy in which he played the butler to an eccentric family bombed back in the '80s. This is, in show-biz terms, rather tragic, since of the four he was the lightest-hearted, the looniest, the most acerbic and surreal, arguably the most talented.
Cook was lanky, languid, acid and elegant, a slender, semi-aristocratic figure who had a great foil in Moore's small stature and working-class truculence. Together they performed some of the classic routines in "Beyond the Fringe," routines written by Cook. Such as:
The one about the one-legged man (Moore) applying to a casting agent (Cook) for the role of Tarzan. Moore hops cheerfully into the room, and Cook searches desperately for a polite way to tell him he just won't do.
Cook: Need I point out to you where your deficiency lies as regards landing the role?
Moore (earnestly obtuse): Yes, I think you ought to.
Cook: Need I say with overmuch emphasis that it is in the leg division that you are deficient?
Moore (thinking it over): The leg division?
Cook: Yes, the leg division, Mr. Spiggot. You are deficient in it -- to the tune of one. Your right leg I like. I like your right leg. A lovely leg for the role. That's what I said when I saw you come in. I said, "A lovely leg for the role." I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is -- neither have you.
Then there's Cook solo, as a miner, explaining how coal was formed when a great windstorm knocked down trees that God then metamorphosed "gradually, over a period of 3 million years so it wasn't noticeable to the average passerby. ... It was all part of the scheme, but people at the time did not see it that way. People under the trees did not say, 'Hurrah, coal in 3 million years.' No, they said, 'Oh, dear, oh, dear, trees falling on us -- that's the last thing we want.' And of course, for the most of them it was the last thing they got."
Cook and Moore made a few movies together. Many of them, including a version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" with Cook as Holmes and Moore as Watson, were terrible. They made movies in which they were funny but the films themselves were bad, such as "The Wrong Box" (which also wasted Michael Caine and Ralph Richardson). The only film in which they hit anything like the comic heights of their stage and television work was "Bedazzled," a retelling of the Faust story with Cook as the Devil and Moore as a humdrum little man yearning after the actress Eleanor Bron. The Devil's servants were the seven deadly sins (Raquel Welch played Lust), and he found them troublesome, but, as he remarked to Moore's character, "Consider the wages."
In the '60s Cook also helped found the savage satiric weekly magazine Private Eye, and the Establishment, the first British comedy club to host Lenny Bruce. He was the darling of the hip intelligentsia and appeared to have a great future. But in spite of his talent -- in an interview in the '80s, Moore gave him credit for most of the best writing in "Fringe" -- he faded. It's understandable that he would not have had the same kind of stardom as Moore, a much coarser and more accessible personality. But neither did he have the less showy artistic triumphs of Miller or Bennett, both of whom went on to become major figures in the English theater.
Did he burn out or wear out? Some artists are only artists of youth -- their abilities are smothered by middle age. Or possibly he was, like a lot of facilely brilliant talents, lazy, and once he had fame and fortune he just didn't care to push for anything more. Whatever happened, it was our loss. The world would have been a more wonderful place for the past 30 years if Cook had been cracking more of his sophisticated, surreal, satiric jokes.
CAPTION: Peter Cook, who died on Monday at 57, never fulfilled his early promise.
CAPTION: Tall and elegant, Cook was the perfect partner for short, earthy Dudley Moore.