John Bluthal, the actor whose voice brought life to Fireball XL5’s Commander Zero, has died at the age of 89. He was born in Galicia in the south of Poland in 1929, his family escaping the country before Hitler’s Germany invaded the country in 1939, and settling in Australia. There the young Isaac Bluthal gained the new first name of John and discovered a talent for performing and acting in, among other places, Melbourne’s Yiddish Theatre.
After the war, aged 18, John first visited England, joining the Unity Theatre, the famous London left-wing theatre group where he acted alongside future Jewish acting greats such as Alfie Bass and Warren Mitchell. He also made important British contacts among touring British performers working in Australia, particularly former Goons Michael Bentine and Spike Milligan. The latter would be an especially important figure in Bluthal’s professional life, the pair working together for almost the entirety of Milligan’s television career. When he finally moved permanently to England in 1960, Bluthal was immediately accepted into the top tier of comedic character actors.
Within a year of his arrival he was cast in the sitcom Citizen James, starring Sidney James. This was a very high-profile project, representing Sid’s return to the sitcom form after Tony Hancock removed him from Hancock’s Half Hour. It was written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were in the process of escaping from Hancock’s shadow and becoming the most renowned comedy writers of their generation. With Bentine he appeared in the sketch show It’s A Square World and he even made appearances in Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s series Not Only, But Also.
The much-travelled Bluthal had an ability with accents which saw him in demand as a character actor in film and TV roles. In The Saint he played first Italian, in the 1964 episode The Damsel In Distress. The following year he was invited to return in a much larger role for the story The Happy Suicide. His role as television presenter Ziggy Zaglan, smarmy on stage and malevolent off, represented possibly his largest part in filmed drama. In 1965 he appeared in The Avengers episode Two’s A Crowd alongside his old friend Warren Mitchell as Russian diplomat Ivenko and two years later he was a small-town Italian police inspector in The Baron episode The Long, Long Night.
Bluthal was a natural for the voice cast of the AP Films Supermarionation series and he lent a strident, rasping American accent to Commander Zero, the permanently exasperated boss of Steve Zodiac and the crew of Fireball XL5. Not surprisingly, he also provided other voices for the series, his alien accents occasionally bringing a smile of recognition to anyone familiar with his work with Spike Milligan. His film roles were often small, but he always stood out in films such as the Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, in a dual role in the 1967 spy spoof Casino Royale, and the Carry On movies Carry On Spying, Follow That Camel and 1971’s Carry On Henry.
In the latter he played a very Jewish-sounding tailor to Sidney James’ Henry VIII, a role that referenced probably Bluthal’s biggest personal success, in the sitcom Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width. The series featured Bluthal as a Jewish tailor in a bickering relationship with his Irish Catholic partner Joe Lynch. This was one of the ITV network’s biggest comedy successes, running for six series between 1967 and 1971. As with many sitcoms of the early seventies, there was even a film spinoff from the series, produced by EMI films in 1973.
His stage career tended to take precedence over screen appearances and he scored some major roles, taking over from Ron Moody in 1961 as Fagin in the original smash hit West End production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and starring alongside his old friend Milligan in the original 1963 stage production of post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed Setting Room. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s Bluthal appeared in productions at the National Theatre alongside major stars such as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Judi Dench. He would also return to Australia at regular intervals from the 1970s onwards. As well as prestigious stage productions, he would appear in popular Australian television shows such as the crime series Matlock Police and Blue Heelers, and even starred in the sitcom Home Sweet Home, which ran from 1980 to 1982.
Late in life, he achieved popular acclaim once again as part of the ensemble cast of the Richard Curtis created sitcom The Vicar Of Dibley. Playing Frank Pickle, one of the most boring men in the world, Bluthal displayed his range, playing the part in a much lower register than the more manic nature his other television roles had generally required. Screened constantly on British television ever since its debut in 1994, it’s difficult to believe that only two full series of The Vicar Of Dibley were ever produced, with occasional Christmas and Easter specials boosting the total to a mere 20 full length episodes.
John Bluthal worked almost until the end of his life, turning up in the Coen Brothers 2016 Hollywood satire Hail Caesar! as the real life philosopher Professor Herbert Marcuse. His final appearance was filmed earlier this year in By Any Other Name, a short musical film made in Australia and written and directed by his daughter Lisa about living with the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Originally published in FAB 91.