Peter O’Toole? Edmund Kean? Edmund Gwenn? Donald Crisp? Fictional?
Dear Quote Investigator: One of my friends is an aspiring comedian, and he enjoys telling an anecdote about a gifted character actor who delivered a famously incisive line about playing comic roles while lying on his deathbed. A visitor approached the actor who was ill in a hospital and said sympathetically, “This must be very difficult for you”. The actor lifted his head, smiled weakly, and disagreed saying “No. No. It is not too bad”. He then spoke the classic apothegm:
Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.
Is there any truth to this story? Could you investigate this quotation? My friend says the tale is about Edmund Gwenn who played Santa Claus in the 1947 version of the movie Miracle on 34th Street.
Quote Investigator: There is another popular variant of this show business adage that is similarly terse: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” This tale is prevalent in Hollywood and has been told by prominent actors such as Academy Award winners Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon.
Edmund Kean was a celebrated Shakespearean actor, who lived from 1787 to 1833, and who is sometimes credited with this maxim. However, QI has not located any solid support for this attribution. Other renowned figures such as Groucho Marx and Stan Laurel [QVEG] are sometimes mentioned, but the evidence is non-existent.
There is evidence that Edmund Gwenn is responsible for this adage though the phraseology given in the earliest citation is different. Gwenn was a very successful actor who began with roles on the stage, appearing in West End and Broadway productions; later he appeared in Hollywood films. He died in 1959, and the first published description of his deathbed saying that QI has located is in a 1966 self-help guide by Neil and Margaret Rau that is aimed at actors.
A movie director and friend named George Seaton regularly visited the bedridden Edmund Gwenn at the Motion Picture Country House. The nickname Seaton used for Gwenn was Teddy. On Seaton’s final visit the following dialog reportedly ensued [NREG]:
“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy.”
“Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.”
The anecdote recounted by the Raus states that Gwenn expired immediately afterwards, hence these were his last words.
Here are selected citations in chronological order. The 1966 book “Act Your Way to Successful Living” by Neil and Margaret Rau, describes the final conversation of Edmund Gwenn. George Seaton visited Gwenn while he was suffering his last illness, and conversed with him at length. One topic of discussion was the difficulty of playing comedy, and Gwenn jokingly stated:
All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through.
Here is a longer excerpt containing the key phrase under investigation [NREG]:
One day Seaton, coming into the room and looking down at his game old friend, felt a sudden surge of compassion.
“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy,” he said sympathetically.
Gwenn didn’t buy that sympathy. A smile touched his lips.
“Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy,” he answered cheerfully.
They were his words of exit. His head turned on the pillow. He was dead. Up to his last breath and in spite of great physical suffering, Gwenn had actually lived the gentle whimsicality on which his career was based.
The prominent actor Jack Lemmon played both dramatic and comedic roles, and the tale of Gwenn’s last words resonated with him. George Seaton directed and wrote the screenplay of Miracle on 34th Street and developed a strong friendship with Gwenn afterwards. Seaton was also a friend of Lemmon’s, and he told Lemmon the story. In 1974 the Los Angeles Times ran a profile and interview of Lemmon in which he presented a version of the legend [JLG]:
“He was ill and alone. So finally George went over, got Teddy, and put him in the Motion Picture Home. At the end, Teddy was very sick, and the staff called George, who went to him. Gwenn said ‘I’m going.’ George said ‘I know, Teddy.’ Gwenn said ‘You know, I don’t like it. It’s pretty bad.’ George said ‘It must be bad.’
“And Gwenn—this was the last line he ever spoke—replied: ‘But it’s not as bad as playing comedy.'”
In September 1975 an article in the Chicago Tribune retells the story, but another actor named Donald Crisp is credited with the famous adage [CTDC].
At age 93 actor Donald Crisp, who played a patriarch in so many movies he became a second father for a few generations of filmgoers, lay near death at the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills, Cal. An old friend was visiting him. “Donald,” the old friend said, “it’s terribly difficult, isn’t it?”
Crisp opened his eyes, struggled to raise his head from the pillow, and croaked this reply, “Not as difficult as playing comedy.”
The story may be apocryphal, but it verges on truth. Crisp spent many of his declining years at the home. And most important, the punch line is the kind of irreverent wit relished by those in show biz.
Also in 1975 a biography of Jack Lemmon by Don Widener was published. In this text Jack Lemmon repeats the story that he told the Los Angeles Times journalist in 1974. The setting is the same: George Seaton visits Edmund Gwenn at the “Actor’s Home”. But the last words of Gwenn are slightly different because Lemmon replaces the word “bad” with “hard” [JLDW]:
“George, I don’t like it. I don’t like it a bit. There is no feeling of peace, no feeling of anticipation. George, it’s awful. It’s frightening and I hate it.”
Not knowing what to say, Seaton murmured “Yes, old friend, I guess dying can be very hard.”
Gwenn thought about it for a moment and then looked at Seaton. “Yes,” he said, “but not as hard as playing comedy!”
Those were his last words.
This citation to Lemon’s biography is also given in the important reference works: the Yale Book of Quotation [YQEG] and the Quote Verifier [QVEG].
A popular fictionalized version of the maxim appeared in a 1982 film starring Peter O’Toole called “My Favorite Year”. O’Toole plays a matinee idol named Alan Swann and delivers the line as described in this review [TAS]:
“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” Swann intones at one point, claiming this switch on an ancient show-biz truism is an expiring actor’s last words, but My Favorite Year’s writers and director are sometimes too determined to make it seem as comfortable as possible.
The next year, 1983, a writer at Time magazine credited one of the terse versions of the saying to Edmund Gwenn [TEGW]:
Dying is easy,” said Actor Edmund Gwenn at the end of his life. “Comedy is difficult.” Perhaps that is why so many writers shun the genre. But there is a more salient reason. As Woody Allen sadly observes, “When you do comedy, you are not sitting at the grownups’ table.”
The phrase is so well-known that it inspires parodies. In 2006 the humorist and city-dweller Art Buchwald presented his own variant [TAB]:
Dying is easy. Parking is hard.
In conclusion, this anecdote is based on the testimony of George Seaton. If Seaton is reliable then Edmund Gwenn did express something similar to the saying under investigation on his deathbed. The version of Gwenn’s final words offered by the Raus and the two versions offered by Lemmon differ in precise wording, and the exact phraseology may be lost.
The clever terse versions of the maxim that include the phrase “dying is easy” evolved over time. QI thanks you for your question and hopes you have a long and enjoyable life. Also, if you are unable to obtain immortality, QI hopes you have an easy death.
[NREG] 1966, Act Your Way to Successful Living by Neil Rau and Margaret Rau, Page 145-146, Prentice-Hall, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper) link
[JLG] 1974 January 27, Los Angeles Times, “Jack Lemmon—Some Like It Subtle” by Joyce Haber, Page O21, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[CTDC] 1975 September 6, Chicago Tribune, How Show Biz Cares: A Home for the Fadeout by Hannah Marshall, Page S12, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[JLDW] 1975, “Lemmon: A Biography” by Don Widener, Page 184, Macmillan, New York. (Google snippet; Verified on paper)
[YQEG] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 328, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified no paper)
[QVEG] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 49 and 284, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
[TAS] 1982 September 27, Time, “Cinema: Swann’s Way” by Richard Schickel, Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of Time magazine) link
[TEGW] 1983 November 07, Time, “Books: Laughing Matter” by Stefan Kanfer, Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of Time magazine) link
[TEGW] 2006 June 20, Time, “10 Questions for Art Buchwald” by Elaine Shannon, Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of Time magazine) link