Give a man a beer, waste an hour. Teach a man to brew, and waste a lifetime!
Best known as loveable rogue Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, Bill Owen played many roles during his long acting career.
Born William Owen Rowbotham, he made his first fleeting film appearance in 1944 and even fronted a music panel show, during the 1950s. He then landed small roles in four early Carry On films, playing a soldier in Carry On Sergeant and one of the unlucky hospital patients in Carry On Nurse.
He appeared in many other films too and had a part in the acclaimed ITV version of Brideshead Revisited.
Off screen, he had been enjoying an acclaimed stage career – he’d acted alongside Katharine Hepburn on Broadway in 1950 and was the first professional British actor to play Mack the Knife in the Threepenny Opera. He also penned his own successful songs and plays for the stage. Cliff Richard and Ken Dodd had chart hits with two of his numbers.
Bill was almost sixty when he donned Compo Simmonite’s woolly hat in a new sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine, in 1973. It was to be by far his most enduring role – a scruffy ferret obsessed man on a hopeless romantic pursuit of the indomitable Norah Batty (Kathy Staff). Owen described the mischievous character as “a geriatric Just William.”
Bill played Compo for more than 30 years. When he died in 1999, Bill’s actor son, Tom Owen, stepped in for his dad, playing Compo’s son – also called Tom – until the show ended in 2010.
Although he was London-born, Bill’s family fulfilled his wish to be buried in Holmfirth, the West Yorkshire town where he had spent so many happy years filming Last of the Summer Wine.