Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fennell, William John (Willie) (1920–1992)

by Jacqueline Kent

This article was published online in 2016

William John Fennell (1920–1992), actor, comedian, producer, and author, was born on 20 January 1920 at Bondi, Sydney, son of New South Wales-born parents William Hugh Fennell, vocational trainee, and his wife Alma Doris, née Tie. Finding employment as a travelling salesman, William pursued interests in script writing, tap dancing, radio entertainment, and comedy theatre. In World War II he served full time in the Citizen Military Forces from 1 October 1941 and the Australian Imperial Force from November 1943. Having qualified as a signaller and been promoted to sergeant, he was posted to successive training units in Australia as an instructor. Meanwhile, he wrote scripts and impersonated Hollywood stars in army shows. On 28 April 1944 he was discharged from the AIF for employment in an essential occupation, with the Department of Civil Aviation. He worked as a radio operator at the flying boat base at Rose Bay, Sydney.

In 1945 Fennell decided to try his hand at show business, successfully auditioning for a role as a radio performer. At the time the greatest opportunities for would-be comedians lay in the Colgate-Palmolive Unit, maintained by the advertising agency George Patterson Pty Ltd. The unit’s biggest star was Roy Rene (‘Mo’), who ruled over Calling the Stars, the flagship comedy and variety program. Though Fennell was proudest of his Hollywood impersonations, he gained a spot on the program because of his character comedy: he wrote and performed as ‘Phooey’ Fennell, a supercilious British Broadcasting Corporation race caller.

The unit’s producer, Ron Beck, thought that ‘Phooey’ was rather too sophisticated for the Colgate-Palmolive audience, so Fennell wrote and developed the character of ‘Willie,’ a sad little Australian underdog, whose catchphrase—‘Ow are yer, mate?’—quickly became famous. Contrasting Fennell’s style with Rene’s blue vaudeville comedy, one astute critic said that Willie had ‘a kind of sad humour which goes much deeper than the casual belly-laugh’ (Nicholls 1950, 17). Fennell stayed with the unit as a scriptwriter and performer until its demise in 1953. He made countless personal appearances around Australia, doing much work for charity and becoming one of the unit’s greatest and most durable stars. An advertisement in Launceston’s Examiner (9 December 1949, 18) dubbed him ‘the man who makes the continent laugh.’

Fennell wanted, however, to be more than a stand-up or character comedian. In 1952 he starred in a short-lived radio series based on the newspaper comic-strip characters of Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead: this was popular but was cancelled after a threatened plagiarism suit by the strip’s creator, Chic Young. Fennell saw the potential of a half-hour family situation comedy based on Australian suburban characters, but he could not interest advertisers in the idea. He borrowed money he could ill afford to repay, wrote scripts, booked a studio, engaged a cast, and produced the first episode of Life With Dexter, about the adventures of a hapless suburbanite named Dexter Dutton, his wife and children, and their neighbours. Often based on incidents from Fennell’s family life, it was squarely in the tradition of Australian comedy about suburbia by such writers as Lennie Lower and Ross Campbell.

Life With Dexter was an immediate hit with the Australian public. Fennell observed that ‘listeners felt that Dexter and Jessie and the rest weren’t just actors. They were real’ (Kent 1990, 43). The show lasted on air for eleven years, and was also sold to radio stations in South Africa and New Zealand. It earned Fennell a comfortable living: he wrote and starred in more than five hundred episodes and retained all rights. He also wrote a series of books based on the characters he had created, which were published between 1959 and 1962.

After television came to Australia in 1956, Fennell gradually abandoned Dexter and embarked on a career as a character actor. He appeared on stage at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, from the late 1950s, notably several times as Wacka in Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year. During the 1970s and 1980s he had recurring roles in many television series, including The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters, A Country Practice, G.P., The Flying Doctors, and Chopper Squad. He appeared in Australian films including Cathy’s Child (1979) and Hoodwink (1981), and the television mini-series A Fortunate Life (1985).

Willie Fennell was one of the very few actors whose talent, skill, and versatility earned him a career in various branches of Australian show business over nearly fifty years, and at a very difficult and transitional time for the industry. His slightly nasal, rasping voice and moustache, as well as the porkpie hat he often wore, made him immediately recognisable.

On 30 November 1946 at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Elizabeth Bay, Fennell had married Joy Therese Hawkins. It was a stormy relationship that ended in divorce in 1975. They had two daughters, one of whom became the children’s television presenter Jane Fennell, who was best known as ‘Miss Jane’ from the Australian Broadcasting Commission series Mr Squiggle and Friends. Survived by his two daughters, Fennell died on 9 September 1992 at Kirribilli, Sydney, and was cremated. The actor Geoffrey Rush, who appeared with Fennell in Gogol’s The Inspector General, and whose clowning shares something of the same manic though melancholic quality, later paid tribute to him as a major influence on his early style.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Kent, Jacqueline. Out of the Bakelite Box. Sydney: ABC Books, 1990
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX164962
  • Nicholls, Alan. ‘Is “Willie” Stealing the Show from “Mo”.’ Argus (Melbourne), 8 July 1950, 17.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jacqueline Kent, 'Fennell, William John (Willie) (1920–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fennell-william-john-willie-17006/text28875, published online 2016, accessed online 13 December 2018.

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