Bill Owen



Real name: William Rowbotham
Born: 1914, Acton, London


  1. Edith (1947; divorced 1964)
  2. Kathleen O'Donoghue (1977)

Died: 12 July 1999, King Edward VII Hospital, central London
Children: Tom

Played: Charlie Dickinson (1971)

From his early years William Rowbotham knew that he wanted to go on the stage, but it was an uphill struggle as his parents could not afford to have him trained. On leaving school he became a printer's apprentice but, disliked his work so much that he joined a local dance band as a vocalist.

At the age of 18 he took an acting course, paying for his tuition by singing and playing the drums in London nightclubs. Eventually he was given a job with a repertory company then toured music halls with a cabaret act. For several summer seasons he was an entertainer at Butlin's holiday camps. He devoted the rest of the year to the Unity Theatre, where he gained great prestige as a producer.

During the Second World War he enlisted in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, reaching the rank of lieutenant, but was forced to return to civilian life after being injured in an explosion during a battle training course.

He went straight back to acting but it was not until early in 1947 in a production of Caste - in which he appeared as a raucous Cockney - that management agencies began to wake up to his potential. He starred in The Way To The Stars, School For Secrets and Dancing With Crime before signing with the J Arthur Rank Organisation. It was then that he was persuaded to change his name from Rowbotham to Owen.

His first film under this name was When the Bough Breaks and his role of Bill Collins firmly established him on British screens. Also among his 46 movies were Once A Jolly Swagman, Georgy Girl, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man and many of the early Carry Ons, such as Sergeant, Regardless and Nurse.

He always insisted his greatest love was the theatre. "I feel at home there," he said. He scored a great success on the New York stage as Touchstone in As You Like It, starring Katharine Hepburn. One of his prized possessions was a photograph showing him playing a scene with Miss Hepburn, which she inscribed: "To Bill, with affection and gratitude - Katharine Hepburn."

Other stage successes included Mack The Knife in a 1950 Sam Wanamaker production of The Threepenny Opera, a stint with Sadlers Wells Opera in the Mikado and David Storey's play In Celebration - in the film of which he also starred. Owen's own musical The Matchgirl was staged in the West End in the mid-1960s.

His small screen credits included the 1960s BBC comedy Taxi! alongside Sid James, as well as the classic Brideshead Revisited for ITV.

But it is his charming role as Compo, in the BBC's Last of the Summer Wine for which he will long be remembered. Before stepping into the role in 1973, he had never tried a Yorkshire accent. Yet the natural ease with which he slipped into it meant that for many it was a surprise to find he had a natural London accent. "Compo has provided me with some sort of security, which I never had before," he recalled in 1998. Owen's scruffy, wellie-wearing Compo - with his unrequited love for Nora Batty - became one of British television's enduring favourites.

He was awarded the MBE in 1976 for his tireless work for the National Association of Boys Clubs and for his role as chairman of the Performing Arts Advisory Panel.

Although he had only a rudimentary education himself, he was awarded an honorary degree by Bradford University in 1998.

His final wish was to be buried in the Yorkshire village of Holmfirth, where Last of the Summer Wine was filmed.






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