Tinky Winky Actor Simon Shelton Wore a 10-Foot Tall, 60 Pound Costume On 'Teletubbies’

Teletubbies was a physically taxing gig for all the stars of the BBC show. But it was especially tough on Simon Shelton Barnes. 

The actor behind the purple Twinky-Winky died unexpectedly last week at the age of 52. The news of Shelton's death was confirmed by his niece Emily Atack on Instagram. Shelton was reportedly found dead by police on January 17 near the Liverpool waterfront. The cause of death is still unknown, but police say it is not being treated as suspicious. 

Shelton, a trained ballet dancer and choreographer, took over the role of the large, purple Teletubby in 1998, after the BBC fired Dave Thompson. He remained on the show until the show's final episode in 2001. Before Teletubbies, the actor played the Dark Knight in the children’s game show Incredible Games.

Despite their average-size appearance on the show, the real-life versions of the colorful creatures with TV for stomachs were gargantuan. Po, the smallest, was 6 ft. 6 in., while Shelton's purple Twinky-Winky, the largest, was nearly 10 feet tall. The costumes were heavy, hot and stuffy, and made the actors' 11-hour work days unusually laborious.

"When we first saw them, we were taken back, because they were huge," Shelton's co-star, 47-year-old Nikky Smedley, told Newsweek. Smedley's yellow Laa-Laa costume came in at around eight feet tall and 55 pounds.

Why so colossal? "We wanted the small children who were watching it to think we were the same size as them," Smedley said. "To get those proportions right, we had to be really tall, and then everything around us had to be really enormous." 

The actors periodically removed their Tubby heads on set to catch their breath. The only small hole for air (and sight) was the creature's mouth. "It was difficult to get used to not being able to see your own feet," Smedley laughed. "Every time we cut, the dressers would run over to us, feed us like babies, hand us water bottles and mop our brows." 

Despite these work conditions, there were no hard feelings from the core four toward the BBC or showrunners Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport. Shelton used to laugh about his 60-pound uniform with his former roommate Judith Tynan, who spoke to MailOnline on Wednesday. "It was a big to-do to wear it because it was just a big thing, but it made him."

"When they cast us, they asked for people with physical stamina," said Smedley. "It's not like they forced us to do anything we couldn't cope with."

That wasn't true, apparently, for Thompson, Shelton's predecessor. Smedley said Thompson's incompetence held up production, with the actor needing up to seven takes to complete a scene. "It was frustrating. As soon as Simon took the job, it was so much better. He was strong, he was a dancer, and he could cope with the demands much better."

The physical labor paid off. The show quickly became a commercial phenomenon worldwide, and reruns are still shown on kid's networks. The actors do not receive money for the syndication cycles, Smedley said. 

Cumbersome costumes weren't the only complication Shelton dealt with on Teletubbies. In 1999, televangelist Jerry Falwell slammed Tinky Winky for “modeling the gay lifestyle." The character was known for carrying around a red handbag, and in the National Liberty Journal Falwell argued, "He is purple—the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay-pride symbol."

Of the controversy, Shelton once said, “People always ask me if Tinky-Winky is gay. But the character is supposed to be a three-year-old so the question is really quite silly.”

Through the silliness and overweight costumes, the actors developed a close bond with each other and a loyalty to the program. John Simmit, who played the green Teletubby Dipsy, said the four stayed quite close over the years, traveling the world together promoting the show even after filming had ceased.

"We've spent years and many hours in each other's company," he told Newsweek. "That bond isn't made up."

On Monday, Simmit wrote on Twitter, "What a week! RIP Simon Shelton aka Tinky-Winky. Remembering the many good times. Rest easy.”

"Simon was an absolute joy," Smedley recalled, expressing her shock and sorrow at his death. "His remedy for everything was kindness. He was the least aggressive man I've ever met, and the best company. His smile warmed up the room."