Andrew Sachs, best known to American audiences as Manuel, the buffoonish Spanish waiter who was terrorized by (and often unwittingly terrorized back) John Cleese’s eternally flustered hotelier on “Fawlty Towers,” died last Wednesday. He was 86.
The news seems to have taken a week to reach American shores, with Variety only getting up a report eight days after he passed from vascular dementia. The performer was, after all, primarily cherished on this side of the Atlantic for a role on a show beloved by Anglophiles and PBS watchers. It was a corker of a role: On “Fawlty Towers,” Sachs’ Manuel was every bit the equal of Cleese’s Basil — a comedic foil who indeed foiled many of his agitated employer’s already plagued schemes, from hiding some recent horse race winnings from his wife (Prunella Scales) to not insulting German patrons with talk of “the war.”
Sachs’ embellished Spanish accent — the closest thing to a catchphrase was his constantly deployed “Que?” — and speedy, almost balletic gait made for one of television’s most brilliantly-realized and endearing fools. Over the show’s two series — only 12 episodes — Sachs withstood untold physical abuse from his co-star. Two occasions (not caused by Cleese, mind) resulted in actual harm on the actor, including being burned by acid during a fire gag and suffering a massive concussion when a prop fell on him.
Sachs was born in Berlin in 1930 to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. The family managed to escape to north London during the rise of the Nazis. Manuel came when he was already a regular presence on televisions, and it loomed large over his career. In the ’80s Manuel was brought for a series of commercials for insurance companies and wines (which often featured finer production values than the video-shot “Towers”). But Sachs’ career spanned some 60 years, with prolific work in TV, though his film work is slim. He had small parts in “Revenge of the Pink Panther” and Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part I,” buried in the latter’s French Revolution segment.
Despite being best known for a character with a jokey Spanish accent, Sachs’ English-accented voice became regularly deployed for voiceover work, audio book and narration. The English-language version of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s 1994 feature “Faust” featured Sachs performing all the voices. At home, Sachs was a legend and constant presence, much more than the genius who played Manuel on “Fawlty Towers.”
As he got up in years, Sachs retreated from the limelight, though he was unfortunately summoned back when Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross started leaving jokey prank calls on his answering machine, leading to a nationwide call to leave this nice, old man alone. (You can watch his gentlemanly acceptance of their apology here.) He suffered dementia in his final years, though Cleese, memorializing his departed friend over Twitter, said he had no idea he wasn’t long for this world.
You can memorialize Sachs, too, by cackling through his pratfalls and endlessly circular arguments from “Fawlty Towers.” Here are some of our favorite bits (that you can find in clip form in YouTube, anyway):
Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge