Bert Newton had one of the biggest personalities on Australian television, and one of the most recognised faces.
“Old Moonface”, as he was affectionately known, died on Saturday aged 83.
The entertainment legend was particularly synonymous with the Logies, the Australian TV awards. He hosted a record 19 Logie Award shows, and picked up plenty of the gongs himself – four of them gold.
Although working for all TV networks, he was intrinsically linked to Nine through his three-decade partnership with funnyman Graham Kennedy, and later Don Lane, who as a trio became known as the kings of Australian television.
Newton’s career, which earned him an AM and MBE, also spanned radio and theatre.
In late 2008 he took over the role of the Wizard in the musical Wicked, in which he toured for three years.
After his last performance with Wicked in Adelaide, he announced his intention to spend time with his family and grandchildren in Melbourne.
In 2011 Newton suffered a serious bout of pneumonia. He was admitted to Melbourne’s Epworth Hospital and placed in intensive care. Newton later said doctors had told him he was “lucky to pull through”.
He was back in hospital the following year, for bypass surgery.
Newton was back on stage in 2012, briefly taking over the role of President Roosevelt in Annie. The following year he played disc jockey Vince Fontaine in the revival of Grease, and in 2015 he was the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show.
In May this year Newton had his leg amputated after a toe infection caused problems and led to a six-week hospital stay.
Despite the richness of his career, Newtown is probably best remembered for a single, stand-out moment – his breath-stopping 1979 Logies gaffe with boxer Muhammed Ali.
Newtown maintained no racial slur was intended when he laughingly said to the heavyweight champion: “I like the boy” – a moment which has been replayed endlessly on Australian TV.
The term “boy”, while innocent in Australia, has racist connotations in the US, and only a quick ad-lib by Newton saved him from an unfavourable reaction from Ali.
While Newton was always laughing on screen, there was a sharp edge to his humour and intellect.
No situation illustrated this better than Newton’s 1996 interview with then Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Keating, on the campaign trail, had stopped by the Good Morning Australia set for a lighthearted chat, his spin doctors no doubt targeting the thousands of housewives in the GMA audience.
But what ensued was one of Keating’s toughest grillings of the election campaign.
Newton, with surprise doggedness, hounded the prime minister on all manner of issues – the budget deficit, Labor’s poor opinion polls, Keating’s personal wealth, and the lack of differentiation between Labor and the coalition.
Try as he might – and he tried every trick in the politicians’ armoury – Keating could not shake Newton. By the end of the interview Keating looked beaten, prompting Newton to console his guest.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to bite you,” Newton said.
Weeks later, Keating lost the federal election to John Howard in a landslide, and retired from politics.
Newton’s show remained on air for another 10 years.
Albert Watson Newton was born on July 23, 1938, in the working-class Melbourne suburb of North Fitzroy. His media career began at the age of 12, when he fell into casual work writing radio plays and reading commercials on 3XY in Melbourne.
By the time he was 14, Newton had a paid Saturday-morning gig as a clown on the station’s children’s show and at 17 he graduated to TV on Seven’s The Late Show. He was poached by Nine two years later.
It was at Nine that Newton’s fame reached stratospheric levels. What started as a guest appearance on In Melbourne Tonight in 1957 became a regular gig, playing the straight man to the anarchic Kennedy.
It was a relationship what would span three decades – including The Graham Kennedy Show – and write both men’s names in Australian television folklore.
However, the stress told on Newton and in 1964 he suffered a nervous breakdown that forced him off the screen for two years.
But he was soon back with Kennedy, reprising his role on In Melbourne Tonight.
When Kennedy left Nine under controversial circumstances in 1975, Newton stayed, where his role as second banana was reprised in the Don Lane Show.
It was Don Lane who christened Newton “Moonface”, a nickname that stuck.
However, Newton’s 49 years on television was not all laughs.
When the Don Lane show wound up in 1983, Newton’s star was fading.
In 1984 he hosted Tonight with Bert Newton on Seven. But the show had no legs, Newton’s brand of humour looked old hat and his career in television was on the wane.
Tonight with Bert Newton was canned soon after, beginning the star’s wilderness years running radio station 3DB in Melbourne.
But Newton could not stay out of television for long, and in 1993 he received a lifeline from Channel 10 when he was asked to host Good Morning Australia.
GMA ran for 14 years and 3200 episodes before winding up in 2005, and cemented Newton’s place in Australian television history.
Newton’s ability to keep things fresh, to constantly challenge himself and his audience, and to maintain a television career over more than five decades garnered respect from younger entertainers.
More recent comedians Rove McManus, Andrew Denton, the Working Dog team led by Rob Stitch, Mick Molloy, and most unlikely, the ABC Chaser team, were all brought up on Bert, and have duly paid homage to “Moonface”.
“He’s remained creative when many people his junior haven’t,” Enough Rope presenter Andrew Denton said in 2004.
“Bert doesn’t play it safe. He is defined by the vaudeville tradition.”
True to his working-class roots, Newton loved a beer, a fag and a flutter – his enjoyment of the latter resulting in a well-reported fall from grace, when Newton was declared bankrupt in 1993. He was broke and owed a million dollars, $70,000 to one bookie alone.
Family was central to Newton throughout his life, providing a counterweight to the strains of the entertainment business.
Despite the success with In Melbourne Tonight, Newton continued to live with his mother until marrying fellow performer Patti McGrath at the age of 36.
Patti provided stability in Newton’s often chaotic working life, and many friends and associates credit her with the longevity of Bert’s career. The couple were married for more than 45 years.
However, the family suffered unwanted media attention in the years before Newton’s death, with his son Matthew linked to the assault of more than one ex-girlfriend.
A love of television continued to drive Newton in later life, long after contemporaries had given up the game. In 2006 he returned to the Nine Network, hosting shows including Bert’s Family Feud, 20 To 1 and What A Year.
In a 2002 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Bert Newton said he was not the “sort of person” to retire and take it easy.
“I want to go on for as long as I possibly can. I mean, if the signs were obvious that it doesn’t work for me anymore, if it wasn’t happening, then I would have to make the decision to get out. But I still enjoy the television world,” he said.
“I made a pledge to myself many years ago that so long as I still feel passionate about what I do I would continue doing it. Because I love to entertain. I know that sounds a cliche, but it’s true.”
Bert Newton is survived by wife Patti and children Lauren and Matthew.