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Barry Humphries dies at age 89. We revisit a conversation with his iconic character Dame Edna

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Barry Humphries has died at the age of 89, which means so has Dame Edna. Barry Humphries portrayed his bewigged character, an Australian grande dame, for decades on stage, telling outrageous stories, taking questions, setting off laughter to the point of tears. When I interviewed him - yikes - 20 years ago, I wanted to ask Barry Humphries about the entirety of his career in theater. He'd been in the original cast of "Oliver!" for example. But he'd just suffered a family problem and wanted only to be Dame Edna in our interview. We obliged, and I'm so glad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARRY HUMPHRIES: People are mesmerized by me because I have an aura. And I'm writing a one-woman show in the autumn of my life - yes, well, the late summer. Let's say the late spring of my life - in which I play some American icons.

SIMON: Really?

HUMPHRIES: Eleanor Roosevelt...

SIMON: Oh, my.

HUMPHRIES: ...Emily Dickinson, the poet, Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald, in a mad scene at the end where I burst into flames, I'm afraid.

SIMON: (Laughter).

HUMPHRIES: That's a trick. I won't really do it. It'll be an illusion.

SIMON: Ah, the theater.

HUMPHRIES: There'll be a lot of yellow and red paper in the background with a fan blowing on it.

SIMON: There's so many people who come to your appearances and concerts, and you can tell that it's a major moment of their lives, really. They...

HUMPHRIES: It's seminal.

SIMON: If I might ask you finally, what do you make of this man, Barry Humphries, whose name seems to dog you so much?

HUMPHRIES: Well, I'm grateful to him for the early days when he supported me. Of course, the tragedy is that when he asked me to be in his shows, he didn't realize I would be the drawcard and people would be very happy if he wasn't in them himself. His role became smaller and smaller as mine grew. My fame blossomed; his withered. I think of him only with pity, and he says horrible, horrible things to the press. He says - do you know what the latest is? - he says he is me. That's the last straw.

SIMON: Yeah.

HUMPHRIES: I shared that, sobbing, with the Queen of England.

SIMON: Oh, really?

HUMPHRIES: And she said there have been gutter journalists who have suggested...

SIMON: Well, she would know.

HUMPHRIES: ...That Prince Philip and the Queen are the same person.

SIMON: (Laughter). He, meaning Barry Humphries, must resent your success terribly, doesn't he?

HUMPHRIES: It's a sad thing he has to live with that, now doesn't he?

SIMON: The bitterness. Do you consider yourself, if I might ask, finally, Dame Edna, a comedian, an entertainer or someone rather more like Mark Twain or Will Rogers, a philosopher?

HUMPHRIES: I am really a philosopher and a communicator. I'm closer to Mother Teresa than I am to Phyllis Diller. Let me put it that way.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well...

HUMPHRIES: And I'm a person, a complex woman, a grateful woman, an amazingly gifted woman and yet a natural and normal woman. I have my drives and my juices still. So Dr. Iglesias tells me.

SIMON: (Laughter).

HUMPHRIES: And I've got my wonderful femininity. But I'm single. I hope to remain so because it gives me an opportunity to still explore this wonderful, wonderful country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Dame Edna, who Barry Humphries took on tour around the U.S. and the world. Barry Humphries died today at the age of 89. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.