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.