Tragic final hours of Kate Beckinsale’s dad, Richard, who died aged just 31

It was a death that horrified and saddened the nation.

Forty years ago today, rising comedy star Richard Beckinsale , a favourite in the hugely popular sitcoms Rising Damp and Porridge, died in his sleep aged just 31, leaving behind a devastated wife and two bewildered young daughters .

The sense of loss was widely felt because Beckinsale was not only admired for his acting skills but loved by all who knew him.

Many also believe it robbed the industry of a huge talent whose career could have gone all the way.

Award-winning director Stephen Frears was working with him at the time of his death .

"It was such a shock," he recalls.

"He was adorable – a wonderful actor and a very nice man. I was looking forward to directing him in future films.

"I think he would have gone on to be a movie star. He was very good-looking. He had it all."

Beckinsale's friend and Rising Damp co-star Don Warrington agrees.

He told The Express: "He was a very fine actor who could turn his hand to anything.

"The trajectory of his career was upwards. He was a great loss."

Richard Beckinsale was a goodnatured, easy-going lad from Nottingham who made his first stage appearance at the age of eight in his school production of Snow White.

His teacher said he was the best Dopey she had ever seen.

She added: "He bumped into everything, knocked into the props.

"We didn't really know whether it was acting genius, or whether it was that he was so short-sighted."

Beckinsale left school at 16 already bitten by the acting bug but his first job was as an upholsterer at the local bus company.

That ended with the sack when he fell asleep at the job, and was found at a bus depot five miles away.

After a stint as a clerk at the gas board he worked as a pipe inspector at an ironworks.

He took a day off to go for an audition for a drama course. Two years later, he won a scholarship for RADA.

His father Arthur wasn't sure acting was the best career path.

He explained: "I told him it's a very dicey profession. You'll be out of work more than in and you must have a second string to your bow, even if it's hairdressing or something like that."

Beckinsale got married at 18 and had a daughter, Samantha, by his first wife Margaret.

He met his second wife, the actress Judy Loe, while working in rep at Crewe.

He made his TV debut in Coronation Street in 1969, as a policeman who arrested the redoubtable Ena Sharples.

His breakthrough came when starring opposite Paula Wilcox in the Granada sitcom The Lovers, which brought him an award as best television newcomer for 1971.

In 1974 he was cast alongside Ronnie Barker as the first-time prison inmate Lennie Godber, in a new BBC sitcom Porridge.

Beckinsale was perfect as the naive young foil to the wily old lag Norman Stanley Fletcher, and the series soon had a huge following.

That same year, he landed a leading role in another sitcom which was to prove a massive hit.

In Rising Damp, he played Alan, a long-haired Left-wing medical student, the butt of jibes from his bullying landlord Rigsby, played by the late Leonard Rossiter.

"Len really loved Richard," recalls Don Warrington.

"He thought he was wonderful. Whatever mood Len was in, Richard would come in and his mood would change."

The pair had some memorable exchanges. In one episode Rigsby accuses Alan of trying to seduce fellow boarder Miss Jones.

Alan confesses he's not as experienced in such matters as Rigsby thinks.

"But you're a member of the permissive society, you're supposed to know where the erogenous regions are!" storms Rigsby.

"I know where the Himalayas are but I've never been up 'em!" Alan protests.

At the start of 1979 the world looked to be at Beckinsale's feet. He was filming a new sitcom, Bloomers, set in a florist's shop, and had finished work on the film of Porridge.

And, in a change to his usual comedy casting, he was playing a detective in the Stephen Frears film Bloody Kids.

But the actor wasn't feeling well.

He complained of blacking out and suffering dizzy spells.

He also woke up in a cold sweat having had a dream he was dying from a heart attack.

His doctor found nothing wrong save an over-active stomach lining and a slightly high cholesterol level.

Stephen Frears, who had dinner with him a few days before he died, said: "He talked about having high cholesterol but also raged against the National Theatre for not taking him seriously as an actor."

The day before he died, Beckinsale and five-year-old daughter Kate went to see Judy, in hospital after an operation. He told her he felt tired.

That night he went to a party for The Two Ronnies then returned to his house in Sunningdale, Berks.

In a final phone call to friends he said he had pains in his arms and chest but made light of it.

He fell asleep and died from a massive heart attack. A post-mortem revealed a congenital defect.

Just three days later, Sydney Lotterby, producer of Porridge follow up Going Straight, and comedy legend Ronnie Barker both won awards at the Baftas.

Lotterby was too upset to speak, but a tearful Barker said: "The death of my friend Richard Beckinsale has robbed me of the joy of this award but the pride of winning it still remains."

That summer saw the release of the film version of Porridge. And Beckinsale's legacy lives on, with repeats of the shows to which he added so much.

He would have been proud his two daughters Samantha and Kate, have both gone on to become highly successful actors.

Kate has said that being able to watch the father she hardly knew in his old TV shows has been "extremely comforting".

One can only wonder what Beckinsale might have achieved had he lived.

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