Bill Owen

Will Stutely is played memorably in Disney’s Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men by the great multi-talented British character actor Bill Owen. This is a brief look at his fascinating career.

Born William Rowbotham in Acton Green, London on March 14th 1914, Bill knew from an early age what he wanted to do, he wanted to go on the stage. His father was a train driver and his mother a laundress and could not afford to send their talented son to drama school. So young William Rowbotham left school and became a printers apprentice, a job he hated.
His ambition to perform drove him into becoming a vocalist and he even started playing the drums for a local dance band. He toured the local music halls with a cabaret act, which later led to summer seasons at Butlins Holiday Camps.

With the money from this, he saved enough to start an acting course. His talents shone through and he soon gained respect as a talented stage producer at the Unity Theatre.

With the outbreak of World War II, Bill enlisted in the Royal Army Corps, where he reached the rank of lieutenant. But one day during battle training he was injured in an explosion and was forced back out into civilian life.
His acting skills now began to get noticed and his film career took off with.

‘The Way To The Stars’ (1945)
‘School of Secrets’ (1946)

In 1947 Bill signed for J. Arthur Rank Organisation and it was then that he was persuaded to change his name from Rowbotham to Owen. With this new name he took on the role of Bill Collins in his first film for Rank called When the Bough Breaks. This part established him in British cinema and a career of 46 film parts continued, including:

Once A Jolly Swagman (1948)
The Weaker Sex (1948)
The Gay Lady (1949)
The Story of Robin Hood (1952)
The Square Ring (1953)
The Ship That Died Of Shame (1955)

But Bill’s first love was the stage and he continued to perform in the theatre, with a memorable moment in his career playing Touchstone alongside Katherine Hepburn, in ‘As You Like It’ in New York.
His musical talents were called upon once again in a stint with Sadlers Wells in ‘The Mikado’ and in ‘Mac the Knife’ in ‘The Threepenny Opera.’ But his talent didn’t stop there. He enjoyed writing plays, songs, musicals and political revues. Bill was a active supporter of the Labour party and penned What’s Left? and Babes in the Wood.
Meanwhile, Bill was getting a semi-regular in the Carry On comedies usually playing cockneys.

Carry On Sergeant (1959)
Carry On Nurse (1959)
Carry On Regardless (1960)
Carry On Cabby (1963)

In the 1960’s Bill produced the stage musical The Matchgirl on the West End in London. He also became musically linked with Mike Sammes and together they wrote songs for Pat Boone, Harry Secombe and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Together with Mike Sammes, Bill’s biggest song writing success was ‘Marianne’ recorded by Sir Cliff Richard in 1968.

His early TV appearances included the BBC comedy ‘Taxi,’ starring Sid James, ‘Coppers End’ and ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.’ But he will forever be remembered as the scruffy, welly-wearing Compo. A role he played for twenty years and over 200 episodes in the BBC’s record breaking Last of the Summer Wine.
He continued working up to his death from Pancreatic Cancer on July 12 1999. He was buried at St. John’s Church, Holmfirth in Yorkshire. A place used for filming ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ and an area Bill had grown to love over the years.
In 1976 Bill had been awarded an MBE for his tireless work for the National Association of Boys Clubs and his role as Chairman of the Performing Arts Advisory Panel. He was also awarded an Honoury Degree in 1998.

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007


Brian Sibley said...

This is a great site about a great film... Disney's live-action films of the 1950s are seriously neglected and yet contain fine perfomances and excellent production vales...

ROBIN HOOD along with TREASURE ISLAND, THE SWORD & THE ROSE and ROB ROY are long overdue for re-discovery by audiences other than just Disney aficionados...

I wrote about these films in my book with Richard Holliss, THE DISNEY STUDIO STORY (now long out of print), and I salute your industry in creating this site...

Best wishes...

Clement of the Glen said...

Many thanks Brian, I have a copy of your book sitting on my book shelf!

Yes, all those films are sadly neglected and I can not understand why.

I look forward to your visits again and please feel free to contribute anything you can about the making of those wonderful films.

Clement of the Glen said...

Bill Owen
Will Stutely