Obituary: Peter Sallis

By Rory McInnes-Gibbons

Peter Sallis OBE, the actor, who has died at the age of 96, was the voice of Wallace in Aardman animation Wallace and Gromit and star of enduring BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine.

In a career that started just two years after the Second World War, Sallis’ television roles ranged from Doctors to Shakespeare, Z Cars to the original Doctor Who, spanning eight different decades. Despite this, it is not Sallis’ face that will live long in the public memory, but the way in which he said: “Cheese Gromit!”

A 5-inch clay figurine and his precocious dog fired the actor to international acclaim. Sallis was selected to voice Wallace in 1982 by Aardman founder, Nick Park. “Peter was really my only choice. Surprisingly he agreed to do it. I offered him 25 quid. He just said yes and came round,” said Park in 2014 to ITV.

Starting as the voice of Wallace in 1990, Wallace and Gromit progressed to Oscar acclaim over the next two decades with Sallis at the centre. Creator and writer Nick Park won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short with consecutive releases The Wrong Trousers (1994) and A Close Shave (1996).

It was the release of feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, however, that catapulted Sallis into the spotlight. “I am flattered by the attention I have received recently,” remarked Peter Sallis in 2005 during the filming process. “I am an old man, so it comes as a nice surprise. It is the first time I have had the title role in anything,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit secured the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film in 2006. At 85, Sallis went from a BBC stalwart of the small screen to an Academy Awards ceremony in which Reese Witherspoon and Philip Seymour Hoffman won the best acting awards. He had journeyed from over 30 years in the rolling greenery of Holmfirth on Last of the Summer Wine to the red carpet of LA’s A-listers.

It was a remarkable rise for a man who saw service in the Second World War as a wireless mechanic, before he first tasted acting in amateur roles and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after the war. Starting on the stages of London, Sallis gained prominence in the first West End production of Cabaret starring Judi Dench, before he moved into acting on British television.

As his legacy, Sallis leaves doubts over the future of the Wallace and Gromit franchise. Sallis stepped down as the voice of Wallace in 2012 after he was diagnosed with the eye condition macular degeneration. In 2014, Nick Park suggested that although he was eager to produce more episodes, he did not know whether it would be possible to continue without Sallis despite his replacement in the voiceover role, Ben Whitehead.

In 1957, Sallis married his wife of 56 years, Elaine who died in 2014. Their son, Crispian survives the pair.

Peter Sallis, born 1 February 1921, died 2nd June 2017

Photograph: David Wilson via Flickr.

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