ONE OF THE WAYS TO AVOID BEING beaten by the system," Peter Cook once said, "is to laugh at it." That's just what the deadpan, demonic British performer did for nearly 40 years, making what his longtime sidekick, Dudley Moore, called a "massive contribution to comedy" until his death last week in London at 57.
Cook may not have wanted the empire to topple, but he clearly enjoyed causing it to totter a bit. The son of a Colonial Service officer, he grew up in the English seaside town of Torquay. At Cambridge University he joined the Footlights, the resident satirical troupe, and proved to be, as Monty Python's John Cleese once conceded, "the funniest and most original of us all."
In 1959 Cook teamed with fellow Cantabrigian Jonathan Miller, who became a director, and two Oxford grads, Alan Bennett and Moore, to create the wickedly witty revue Beyond the Fringe. The show won accolades at the Edinburgh Festival and on the London stage, then crossed the Atlantic to gain a special Tony Award on Broadway in 1962. It also brought Cook and Moore together as the Mutt and Jeff (Cook stood 6'4" to Moore's 5'2") of sophisticated satire. In 1967 they costarred with Raquel Welch in the cult film Bedazzled, which Cook wrote, and their stage revue Good Evening was, the surprise hit of Broadway's 1973-74 season.
Cook once called their relationship "ideal," adding, when Moore went off to Hollywood to star in 10 and Arthur, "I doubt I will ever do anything better." Alas, he didn't. He made a string of mediocre movies in the '70s and '80s. And he so despised doing The Two of Us, a 1981 sitcom on CBS, that he walked off the show.
Cook was also unlucky at marriage. His first, to Cambridge sweetheart Wendy Snowden in 1964, produced daughters Lucy, now 30, and Daisy, 28. Wife No. 2 was actress Judy Huxtable, and in 1989 he wed Lin Chong. A lifelong drinker and smoker, Cook saw his health decline in recent years. On Jan. 3, he was admitted to London's Royal Free Hospital, telling reporters, "I'm a bit poorly, and I'm in for checks."
Chong and his daughters were with Cook when he died of gastrointestinal hemorrhaging, and Moore flew to London for the funeral. "He was the creative genius behind our partnership," he said. "He had a verbal wit that was second to none." He kept it honed till the last. "I suppose I might have some regrets," Cook recently mused, "but I can't remember what they are."
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