John Le Mesurier was one of Britain’s best loved character actors thanks to his stage work, regular spots on Hancock’s Half Hour and always excellent supporting roles in films like The Italian Job and The Pink Panther.
However it was the actor’s role as Sergeant Wilson in classic sitcom Dad’s Army that made him a huge star. Despite the fame, adulation and fortune that came his way while playing Wilson, Le Mesurier’s life was sadly filled with heartache and tragedy.
Here’s his fascinating story.
His first wife was an alcoholic
Le Mesurier was first married to theatre director June Melville in 1940, having met her when he took a role in play Goodness, How Sad! The actor was 28 and only a few months later he had to join the war effort, being conscripted to the Army.
When he returned to civilian life, June had become an alcoholic and Le Mesurier found the marriage an impossible struggle. They become estranged, but didn’t actually get divorced until 1949.
Second wife Hattie Jacques openly cheated on him with her chauffeur
The star met Jacques, known for starring in the Carry On series, in 1946, but didn’t marry her until his divorce from June three years later.
The actress was known for lacking self-esteem, but as an actor himself, Le Mesurier recognised something of her insecurity. The pair had two sons, but their careers began to take their toll, with John often being away from home.
Nevertheless, he would have been surprised to find out that Jacques had started to sleep with John Schofield, a younger man who she’d met when he drove her to a charity event. And this was no one-night stand. Schofield moved in, but devoted to his kids, John decided to stay as well, moving into the spare room rather than break up.
The pinnacle of embarrassment came when the pair appeared on This Is Your Life in 1963 – Le Mesurier touted as her loving husband while behind closed doors, she was sleeping with Schofield. Although he tried to save the marriage, it took a toll on his health and he collapsed while on holiday in Morocco.
His third wife Joan would also betray him with his best friend
Le Mesurier met Joan Malin, who was 19 years his junior, the same year as the This Is Your Life debacle.
Incredibly, even though he and Jacques were living separate lives, he agreed to divorce her by taking the blame by admitting his own infidelity so she didn’t get criticised in the press. He married Joan in 1966.
By this point, Le Mez (as he was known) had become close friends with British sitcom star Tony Hancock and appeared in episodes of his seminal TV show Hancock’s Half Hour, and in 1963 comedy The Punch and Judy Man. But the introduction of the tortured Hancock into his life was something of a poisoned chalice. A few months after their wedding, Joan began an affair with him, moving out of the family home and leaving Le Mez cuckolded for a second time.
Hancock, himself an alcoholic, was abusive and Joan even attempted suicide, leaving her lover after a year to move back in with her husband, who amazingly had forgiven both his friend and wife’s betrayal.
Unfortunately, the relationship wouldn’t die and Joan started seeing Hancock again in secret, until the latter’s suicide.
He had his own alcoholism battle
“I had never thought of myself as a heavy drinker,” Le Mesurier once said. “I liked to drink, yes. Sometimes I drank too much, sometimes not at all.”
Alcohol was definitely a prominent feature of his life – he once attended a party at Tony Hancock’s house where guests were given pints of neat vodka to drink.
The cumulative effects of his boozing eventually came back to bite him when he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver after collapsing in Australia in 1977. He suffered a stomach haemorrhage in 1983 and was taken to Ramsgate Hospital. His final words before slipping into a coma were, “It’s all been rather lovely”. He died on 15 November at the age of 71.
Demonstrating his droll wit, a death notice appeared in The Times which he had written himself before he died. It read: “John Le Mesurier wishes it to be known that he conked out on November 15th. He sadly misses family and friends.”
It was a fitting, understated epithet from a man who, even though he had a life full of heartache, maintained a British ‘stiff upper lip’ at all times.
Dad’s Army repeats stream on BBC iPlayer.
This article was first published in February, 2016.