LONDON British comedian Mel Smith, who became a household name for a series of television sketch shows in the 1970s and 80s which colleagues said had inspired a generation of comics, has died of a heart attack, his agent said on Saturday.
Smith, who died on Friday aged 60, found fame starring in hugely popular shows "Not The Nine O'clock News" and "Alas Smith and Jones" and went on to direct the films "Bean" and "The Tall Guy".
"I still can't believe this has happened," said Griff Rhys Jones, his comedy partner in his best-known TV shows. "To everybody who ever met him, Mel was a force for life. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit."
Together, they formed Talkback, a highly successful independent TV production house that spawned many hit British comedies including the "Ali G" series, which gave Sacha Baron Cohen his first big television break.
Talkback was sold to Pearson TV in 2000 for 62 million pounds ($95 million).
"Mel Smith's contribution to British comedy cannot be overstated," said Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC.
"On screen he helped to define a new style of comedy from the late 1970s that continues to influence people to this day."
($1 = 0.6553 British pounds)
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Potter)