|Norman Wisdom was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000. (Reuters)|
Norman Wisdom; UK comic who entertained Albanians
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 Monday at 95, 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 Mr. Wisdom’s death, describing the actor as the nation’s “most beloved entertainer.’’
Mr. 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,’’ said Albert Rakipi, a 49-year-old charity worker. “He made us laugh during our bleak childhoods under the communist regime.’’
Mr. 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,’’ Johnny Mans, Mr. Wisdom’s agent, said yesterday. “It was just like the Beatlemania of the ’60s.
“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.’’
Mr. Wisdom, also an accomplished singer and musician, grew up in poverty, spent most of his childhood in foster homes, and was 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 on Broadway in the 1960s, and was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in the comedy “Walking Happy.’’
His films 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 as Pitkin, which Albania’s authorities considered safe to show.
Albania was the most isolated among Europe’s former communist regimes.