May 03, 1999 12:00 PM

Dying didn’t sit well with Anthony Newley. “The last days of his life, he was extremely irritable, restless and kicking a lot,” says Sasha Newley, 33, his son with ex-wife Joan Collins. “He was just PO’d he had to die. He quoted Dylan Thomas: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ ”

Newley’s courageous war against death proved futile. On April 14, at age 67, the British-born entertainer succumbed to the cancer that had spread to his lungs, liver and kidney. At his home in Islandia, Fla., he held his love’s hand and waited for the pain to pass. “I was stroking his face,” says British designer Gina Fratini, 67, his companion since 1993. Then, she says, “he just went to sleep.”

Newley approached his death, life and work with equal fervor. By age 30, he was a theatrical sensation, writing, directing and starring in the landmark 1962 Broadway hit Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. He introduced the show’s two big numbers, “Once in a Lifetime” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” with a voice packed with verve yet haunted by sadness. Though Newley never clicked as a Hollywood actor—his biggest film, 1967’s Dr. Doolittle, was a flop—the score he cowrote for 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory handed Sammy Davis Jr. his signature song, “The Candy Man.” Newley was “a total original,” says Collins, 65, his second wife, with whom he had Sasha, a painter, and Tara Cynara Adam, 35, a singer. Collins, whose eight-year marriage to Newley ended in divorce in 1971, adds, “He was magnetic, funny, moody and difficult.”

Newley’s feverish drive began in Hackney, a working-class London neighborhood. Born illegitimate and raised by his single mother, Grace (who, at 96, survives him), “he was starved of approval,” says a friend, Les Miz lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. Newley joined an acting class and at 16 landed the role of the Artful Dodger in the 1948 film classic Oliver Twist. For years after, he dabbled in singing and in 1961 teamed with Leslie Bricusse to write songs and musicals. Newley figured he could also star in their shows. In 1962 he conquered Broadway in Stop the World, in which he played a Chaplinesque everyman buffeted by life. “Anthony,” says Bricusse, “had a bit of the tragic clown in him.”

And a bit of the valiant trouper. His career on the wane, Newley—relocated to L.A. in 1967—became a fixture performing on the Las Vegas nightclub scene. “He’d say, ‘I’ve got to go earn money to buy shoes for the children,’ ” recalls third wife Dareth Dunn, 53. The former flight attendant is the mother of his other offspring, Shelby Newley, 26, a TV director in Frisco, Colo., and Christopher Newley, 19, a student.

His painful final days were brightened by his 1993 reunion with Gina Fratini, with whom he had had a two-year affair in the ’50s. “We came back together at the perfect time, I suppose,” says Fratini. “But it ended too soon.”

Tom Gliatto

Lori Rozsa in Palm City, Fla., Joanna Blonska in London and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles

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