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Andrew Sachs, Who Played Beloved Waiter Manuel On 'Fawlty Towers,' Dies

<em>Fawlty Towers</em> actor Andrew Sachs was photographed in a 1981 training manual for caterers.
Getty Images
Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs was photographed in a 1981 training manual for caterers.

Actor Andrew Sachs, best known for his beloved portrayal of a hapless Spanish waiter named Manuel on the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, has died at 86.

Sachs had "suffered from dementia for four years," according to the BBC. He died on Nov. 23 and was buried Thursday.

In the 1970s BBC comedy, Sachs plays a constantly confused waiter who speaks only a little English, working at a small hotel. Manuel provided a vehicle for the show to lampoon the classism of British society. "¿Qué?" he says over and over again, frequently directed at the hotel's bullying owner Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese.

Most of the gags involving Sachs are centered on Manuel and Basil misunderstanding each other — in fact, that was the reason Cleese suggested the character of Manuel in the first place, as he told the BBC: "The idea that one could constantly have misunderstandings between Basil and Manuel was a terribly simple one, but it worked well and of course it could happen at any point."

Here's a scene that epitomizes that tension and gave Sachs one of his most often-repeated lines, "I know nothing":

Basil rushes in to ask Manuel not to divulge that he has put money on a horse race. As usual, it's a delight to watch the two agonizingly speak past each other. "I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation," Basil says, holding his head in his hands. "Please try to understand before one of us dies."

Despite Manuel's unfailing earnestness and constant good-natured attempts to please, Basil frequently hits the skilled physical comedian, usually with a spoon. "I never got upset when he hit me," Sachs said in 2014, according to the BBC. "He's my friend, I must say yes, yes [it hurt], several times, more than once."

Among Manuel's other counterpoints was the relatively posh, obtuse Major Gowen, with whom he appears in this clip:

In addition to his role on Fawlty Towers, the BBC reports that Sachs "had dozens of other acting roles, both serious and comic — including stints in TV's two biggest soaps" — Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Sachs was "born in Berlin before his family fled the Nazis to settle in Britain," according to The Guardian.

Cleese spoke about his easy rapport with Sachs, as the Guardian reported:

"It's like playing tennis with someone who is exactly as good as you are. And you play with them every week, sometimes he wins and sometimes you win, but somehow there is a rapport. It comes from the very deepest part of ourselves. We never had to work at it, it all happened so easily."

In a series of tweets after his death, Cleese hailed Sachs as a "very sweet gentle and kind man and a truly great farceur."

"I could not have found a better Manuel," he said. "Inspired."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.