DEL BOY star Sir David Jason has paid a tearful tribute to the late John Challis, his Only Fools And Horses co-star for more than 20 years.
The 81-year-old actor choked with emotion while describing his “kind and lovable” pal, who played car dealer Boycie, one of sitcom’s most iconic characters.
John’s death was announced on Sunday, with his family revealing he passed away after a long battle with cancer at the age of 79.
Sir David said: “It wasn’t a complete surprise because poor old John hadn’t been well for the last month or two, but he went downhill so fast, very rapidly.
“One minute we were thinking he was on the road to recovery, but sadly it just took him quite swiftly.”
He added that John was nothing like wide boy Boycie in real life, saying: “One of the things that I always measure an actor by is the difference between how they are in real life and the parts they played.
“So it comes as a bit of a surprise to people at times how John was kind and such a lovable chap and totally different to the character Boycie that he played.
Joined travelling children’s theatre
“A lot of people tend to think that that was John, but that just showed the skill he had as an actor to portray Boycie the way that he did because it was totally against his natural nature.”
John, who also played dodgy businessman Monty Staines in hit ITV comedy Benidorm, had no plans to retire from showbusiness before his death.
He intended to fulfil his 30-date speaking tour of the UK, which was postponed last year due to Covid.
He was forced to cancel again earlier this month due to ill health, after playing just one gig in Stourport, Worcs.
He was also gearing up for a sitcom comeback, by starring in a pilot called Together, written by former Eggheads quizzer CJ de Mooi, which was set to be pitched to the BBC, ITV and Amazon Video.
He had plans to film a six-part series called Great British Houses With John Challis, which played into his love of gardening and historic buildings.
His own house in Herts, where he lived with fourth wife Carol, was built in the ruins of a 12th century abbey.
Just three weeks ago, John had wrapped a TV special called A Marriage Made In Peckham alongside Sue Holderness, 72, who played Boycie’s unlucky other half Marlene, to celebrate Only Fools And Horses’ 40th anniversary.
It was directed by Lazar Vukovic, the man behind documentary Boycie In Belgrade, released last year, which saw John visit Serbia to learn about the unlikely popularity of Only Fools And Horses in the Balkans.
Speaking in one of his last interviews, John revealed: “That was the first foray into the documentary world for me and Boycie and it seems to have gone down pretty well, particularly over there. Hopefully that’s ongoing.
“There’s a suggestion that I’ll go out there and do some more, but maybe this time go to Croatia, Montenegro or Kosovo, which everybody is keen on.”
Bristol-born John, whose father was a civil servant in the Admiralty in nearby Bath, moved to South East London aged one before settling down in Epsom, Surrey, where he was educated at state boarding school Ottershaw School in nearby Woking.
His first job was as a trainee estate agent but he always had a love for acting.
Against his strict father’s wishes, he joined a travelling children’s theatre, before appearing in the West End and with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Sixties and Seventies saw John move into TV, landing minor roles in various dramas, including Z Cars, The Sweeney, Doctor Who and Open All Hours alongside David Jason.
He also appeared in Coronation Street on two separate occasions, playing different characters.
But it was his part as Chief Inspector Humphreys in an episode of BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, which aired in 1980, that marked the turning point.
His acting impressed writer John Sullivan, who earmarked him for a far bigger presence in his next comedy, the soon-to-be commissioned Only Fools And Horses. John said: “He later said to me that I reminded him with that performance of someone he used to know in South London who was a second-hand car dealer.”
Twelve months later, he was cast as Terrance Aubrey Boyce, aka Boycie, a role he played on TV for 28 years and right up until his death by filming birthday greetings on video messaging website Cameo.
‘I'd resigned myself to being single’
Boycie was originally introduced as a gangster-style character in Only Fools, but quickly became part of the comedic backdrop to the Trotter family, alongside Nags Head regulars including roadsweeper Trigger, played by the late Roger Lloyd Pack. Other than his love of mocking Del Boy and selling dodgy motors, Boycie was most famous for his cry of “Marleeeene” and his distinctive laugh, an attribute he brought to the character himself.
Explaining its origins, John said: “One day in the back of my mind I remembered a cackly old woman I used to see around the place and she had this machine gun-like laugh.
“I just did it one day as a joke and everybody just fell about and said, ‘Keep that in’.
“And then it got into the scripts — ‘Boycie does one of his laughs’ — as a stage direction. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
John’s on-screen relationship with Marlene, which later sparked its own spin-off series from 2005 called Green Green Grass and written by Sullivan, was far more successful than most of the marriages in his own life.
The actor was married four times.
He revealed in his second autobiography that his third wife, actress Sabina Franklyn, 67, had an affair which, coupled with a disastrous investment in a friend’s aloe vera farm in Portugal, triggered a spell of heavy drinking during a time in which Only Fools was topping the TV ratings in the late 1980s.
He said: “That was a pretty dark time. That is the irony that Boycie was doing terribly well, but John Challis was a bit of a state.”
John, who has no children from any of his marriages but regrets “not having a daughter”, married fourth wife Carol in 1995 and credits her for turning his life around. Speaking last year, he said: “I’d pretty well resigned myself to being single because I was convinced I was hopeless at relationships after having three failed marriages behind me.
“She believed in me, grounded me, and was such a steadying influence and we’ve been married 25 years.”
John also credited getting up and performing for helping him through the toughest times in his life — and was honoured that Only Fools also helped others when they needed it most.
He added: “People often will come up and tell me how Only Fools And Horses helped them through their difficult times by making them laugh and distracting them from their problems.
“It’s quite humbling really.”
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