Actress Linda Thorson said her friend Paul O’Grady was “so happy” and “full of life” when she spoke to him hours before his death aged 67.
The Avengers star, also known for being on the ITV soap Emmerdale, described the drag queen turned TV and radio presenter as a “king among men” who “really cared about me”.
O’Grady, who began on the nightclub circuit as the acerbic, platinum wig-wearing Lily Savage, died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday evening, his partner, Andre Portasio, said in a statement.
Tributes have been flooding in for the comedian, including from the Queen Consort, Sir Elton John, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies and MPs.
Thorson, who said she first met the presenter on early-morning show The Big Breakfast, told Good Morning Britain: “Paul rang me on Tuesday, the day before yesterday, at three o’clock and we spoke for an hour.
“It must be one of the best conversation we’ve ever had.”
While working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council in London, O’Grady began his career performing as Savage in the 1970s.
On Wednesday, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – where he had a solo residency in London before rising to fame with TV and radio appearances – held a minute’s raucous applause in tribute to the late TV star.
O’Grady also played his drag character on The Big Breakfast from 1995 to 1996 – leading to his own shows on ITV and Channel 4 – after he took over from Paula Yates as the on-the-bed interviewer.
Thorson said: “I can’t believe it… just to hang up the phone and hours later for someone to die who was so happy, full of life.”
She said O’Grady, who had been touring in the musical Annie as Miss Hannigan, had just returned home after performing in Newcastle and Edinburgh when she spoke to him.
She added: “(The show) was heading down to Southampton in a few weeks and he’d heard from producers that were going to bring it into town at Christmastime and he was absolutely over the moon. He loved the cast, got along with everybody.”
The production saw O’Grady share his role as Miss Hannigan with a rotating cast including Craig Revel Horwood.
The show is on a week-long break but bosses said further news will be released in due course.
Thorson said she “never heard anyone say a bad thing” about the host of The Paul O’Grady Show, Blind Date and Blankety Blank and admired his ability to speak in a comedic “stream of consciousness”.
Paul O'Grady's life in pictures: from drag persona to royal seal of approval
She added: “He just… he brought energy into the room. He was very magical and he was just… he was an entertainer.”
Last year, Queen Consort Camilla featured on ITV’s multi-award-winning For The Love Of Dogs, presented by O’Grady, to mark 160 years of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, an organisation for which he was an ambassador.
ITV has confirmed the upcoming 11th series will still launch on April 13 as planned.
O’Grady’s other charity work included being a patron of the human rights charity the Peter Tatchell Foundation and Save The Children, which said he highlighted its work with orphaned children living with HIV in South Africa and supporting families in the UK.
“He was generous to a fault,” Thorson added. “I will never ever meet anyone like him.
“He was a king among (men). He was just a friend. He cared about me. He actually cared about me and I felt that and you don’t feel that that often.”
Born in Birkenhead, on the Wirral, Merseyside, O’Grady’s mother’s maiden name was Savage – which is believed to have inspired his famous drag alter ego.
He was made an MBE in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to entertainment.
His daughter, Sharyn Mousley, a child from a brief relationship he had when he was 17, attended the ceremony with him.
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