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Ballroom dancer and longtime 'Dancing With The Stars' judge Len Goodman dies at 78

Len Goodman attends a "Dancing with the Stars" event in November 2019 in Los Angeles. He died on Saturday, less than a year after retiring from the show.
Valerie Macon
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AFP via Getty Images
Len Goodman attends a "Dancing with the Stars" event in November 2019 in Los Angeles. He died on Saturday, less than a year after retiring from the show.

Len Goodman, the beloved ballroom champion and longtime judge on Dancing with the Stars and its British counterpart Strictly Come Dancing, has died of bone cancer at age 78.

Goodman died Saturday peacefully and surrounded by family at a hospice in Kent, England, his agent Jackie Gill told the BBC. Goodman is survived by his wife, son and two grandchildren.

"Len Goodman was a wonderful, warm entertainer who was adored by millions ... and felt like a member of everyone's family," BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement. "He will be hugely missed by the public and his many friends and family."

Goodman began his career as a professional ballroom dancer. He first started dancing at the age of 19, and, after winning the British Championships in the 1970s, retired in his late 20s to open a dance school.

He made his way to television — and international fame — several decades later. Goodman was the head judge on the BBC's "Strictly Come Dancing" from its launch in 2004 until 2016, and on DWTS from 2005 until 2022.

He spent several years judging the British and American shows simultaneously, "criss-crossing the Atlantic weekly," the Associated Press reports.

Goodman also won the Carl Alan Award (the "Oscars of the dance world") in recognition of outstanding contributions to dance and wrote several books, including his 2009 biography, Better Late Than Never: From Barrow Boy to Ballroom.

Goodman announcedhis retirement from DWTS last November, at the end of season 31 (he had served as a judge in all but two of them). He said he wanted to spend more time with his family and grandchildren back in Britain.

"Doing a live show you have to be at the top of your game and quick to react. And as one gets older, then things start to get more challenging," he told People magazine shortly afterward. "I haven't fallen asleep or started dribbling yet on the show, so I thought it's best to go before I start to do so!"

Goodman added that part of his retirement would include digging through old DVDs to relive favorite memories of seasons past.

"I have had a wonderful run of good fortune and cannot thank everyone enough who assisted me along the way," he said.

Goodman rose to fame in his later years

Goodman grew up in London's East End and spent his formative years working at his father's fruit and vegetable stand ("and being bathed at night in the same water they used to cook the beetroot," per his autobiography) and then as a welder in the London Docks.

A foot injury dashed Goodman's dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, but did introduce him into the world of ballroom dancing, after his doctor suggested he try it as part of his recovery.

Goodman danced professionally for about a decade, winning several championships with his partner-turned-wife Cherry Kingston (they divorced in 1987, and he married dance teacher Sue Barrett in 2012).

But he didn't become a household name until his 60s, when he started judging on Strictly Come Dancing and DWTS.

"I think he was astonished and delighted by what had happened to him at an age when dancers retire or have long retired," British broadcaster Esther Rantzen told PA Media. "I think it really pleased him that ballroom dancing had become the flavour of the month, the country had fallen in love with it again."

Rantzen said she believes Goodman was so successful in the U.S. in part because "he was quintessentially British: firm but fair, funny but a gentleman."

Goodman became known for his colorful feedback and distinct delivery, from catchphrases like "pickle me walnuts" to his signature score proclamations of "se-VEN" and, on rare occasions, "it's a 10 from Len."

Some of his most memorable lines, as compiled by the AP and BBC, include: praising a salsa-dancing couple as "like two sizzling sausages on a barbecue," telling a dancer they had "floated across that floor like butter on a crumpet," comparing one contestant to "a stork who'd been struck by lightning" and another to a chess master: "You plotted your way around that floor. That was a mango of a tango."

Costars remember Goodman as a gentleman

The British royal family and prime minister offered their condolences on Monday, the BBC reports.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described Goodman as "a great entertainer, a popular face on TV screens up and down the country." Buckingham Palace said that Camilla — a fan of the show who danced with Goodman at a 2019 event — was "saddened to hear the news."

Tributes are also pouring in from Goodman's colleagues and fans, who are remembering him for his wit, warmth and integrity.

DWTS judge Carrie Ann Inaba shared a montage of photos and videos of the two together on Instagram, calling him "A Dancer. A teacher. A refined gentleman. A wonderful storyteller. A special soul. A mentor. A family man. And ... A treasured friend."

"Saying goodbye at the end of last season broke my heart," she wrote. "But today's news has shattered it all over again. I can't believe that you're gone."

Bruno Tonioli, who has judged on both shows, called Goodman his "dear friend and partner for 19 years, the one the only ballroom legend."

He wrote on Instagram that he is heartbroken over the loss and will "treasure the memory of our incredible adventures and hundreds of shows we did together."

Strictly Come Dancing host Claudia Winkleman described him as "one of a kind, a brilliant and kind man. Full of twinkle, warmth and wit."

"Len Goody Goodman is what I always called him and 'It's a 10 from Len & seveeeeern' will live with me forever," Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood tweeted.

Kristina Rihanoff, a former professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing, tweeted that Goodman will always be her favorite judge, calling him an "honest & witty person with integrity & respect for us — fellow dancers."

British television personality Robert Rinder described Goodman as "a rare gentleman: Kind, charming, exacting, encouraging & danced like a dream."

"RIP Len Goodman," he added. "It's a 10 from us all."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.