Prolific comedy actor who worked with Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan and Hattie Jacques
The stony-faced, beaky comedy actor Graham Stark, who has died aged 91, is best remembered for his appearances alongside Peter Sellers, notably in the Pink Panther movies. His familiar face and voice, on television and radio, were part of the essential furniture in the sitting room of our popular culture for more than half a century. A stalwart in the national postwar comedy boom led by Sellers, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Dick Emery, Eric Sykes and Benny Hill, he worked with them all in a sort of unofficial supporting repertory company that also included Hattie Jacques, Deryck Guyler, Patricia Hayes and Arthur Mullard. He was also a man of surprising and various parts: child actor, trained dancer, film-maker, occasional writer, and dedicated and critically acclaimed photographer.
Like Gypsy Rose Lee, he had a resourceful and determined mother with an eye on stage fame and fortune, who pushed him into show business at an early age. He was born at Wallasey, in the Wirral, the youngest of three sons of a father who was a ship's purser, frequently away on transatlantic voyages.
Educated at Wallasey grammar school, he appeared in school plays to such good effect that the renowned director of the Liverpool Playhouse, William Armstrong, encouraged him to think of a professional career, telling his headmaster that young Stark was a born actor. He played Macduff's young son ("And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?") in Macbeth at the Playhouse and began taking dance lessons. His professional debut came in 1935, in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves at the Lyceum theatre in London, a show that starred the music-hall legend Florrie Forde and "Monsewer" Eddie Gray of the Crazy Gang.
Soon Stark moved to London with his mother, making an uncredited film debut as a pageboy in The Spy in Black (1939) – the first film in the significant collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – before declining a scholarship offered to him by Ninette de Valois at the Sadler's Wells ballet, and enrolling at Rada.
During the second world war, Stark served in the RAF but remained grounded because he was colour-blind. With Ralph Reader and his gang shows, he entertained the troops in North Africa, Burma, Italy and Germany. When he was running a gang show in Abingdon, Berkshire, he met Hancock and, shortly afterwards, Sellers, with whom he remained close friends until the latter's death in 1980.
After four years of rep with the Midland Theatre Company in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, and an appearance at the 1951 Edinburgh festival in the ballet scenes of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, starring Miles Malleson, he embarked on a glorious decade of BBC radio comedy, first as one of the men with funny voices in Educating Archie, in which Peter Brough's eternal schoolboy dummy was tutored variously by Hancock, Harry Secombe, Bernard Miles and Bruce Forsyth.
Simultaneously, he became a regular guest on The Goon Show (1952-60) and played an eccentric visitor, J Beerbohm Bloggs, in Happy Holiday, a 1954 comedy series with Sellers as the mayor of a small south-coast holiday resort, determined to put the place on the map. Another regular gig was the long-running Ray's a Laugh (1949-61), starring the fast-talking Ted Ray taking different jobs, and knocking around his own home besieged by a bunch of dodgy friends and supplicants played by Sellers, Stark, Hayes, Pat Coombs, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor.
Stark, as a comic stooge, could equally do pinched and vicious or passive and incredulous, and his timing was always perfect. He was brilliantly funny as the lunatic psychiatrist Captain Pontius Kak in The Bed-Sitting Room (1963), by Milligan and John Antrobus, at the Mermaid in London, so funny in fact that Milligan, always prone to depression and violent outbursts, threatened to shoot him.
What he could not do was carry the responsibility of a leading man, as was painfully demonstrated in The Graham Stark Show (1964) on BBC television, scripted by Johnny Speight with a supporting cast that included Derek Nimmo, Hayes and Warren Mitchell. Instead, having made his name in such popular British movies as Anthony Asquith's The Millionairess (1960) with Sellers and Sophia Loren, and Cliff Owen's The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) with Sellers as the gang leader "Pearly Gates" and Lionel Jeffries as Inspector Fred "Nosey" Parker, he settled into a busy film career.
One of his most touching performances was as a humanely considerate bus conductor in Lewis Gilbert's Alfie (1966), picking up the pieces of a shattered relationship in the trail of Michael Caine's romantic mayhem, and he shone briefly in Ken Hughes's entertaining spy comedy Casino Royale (1967), with David Niven coming out of retirement as James Bond to smash SMERSH and deal with Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr and Woody Allen.
On a smaller scale, he appeared in Sykes's delightful 45-minute "almost silent" film The Plank (1967), and followed suit himself as a director in 1970 with Simon, Simon, in which Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise returned Stark a favour – appearing for no fee – for having helped out with one of their routines on an Alma Cogan show.
His one feature film as a director was The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971), written and acted by everyone who was anyone in television comedy at the time – Marty Feldman, Barry Cryer, Joan Sims, Roy Hudd, Milligan, Secombe, Harry H Corbett … It was deemed a dog's dinner of glorified sitcoms and sketches, but a collector's item nonetheless.
He twice played Hercule LaJoy, Inspector Clouseau's impassive sidekick, in A Shot in the Dark (1964) and Trail of the Pink Panther (1982); and appeared as Auguste Balls in Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Son of the Pink Panther (1993).
His last film, The Incredible Adventures of Marco Polo, came in 1998, and five years later he published his autobiography, Stark Naked.
In 1959 he married Audrey Nicholson, who survives him with their two sons and a daughter.
• Graham William Stark, actor, born 20 January 1922; died 29 October 2013