Born Ronald Balfour Corbett in 1930 in Edinburgh, the son of William Balfour Corbett, a master baker, and Annie Elizabeth (née Main) Corbett. Ronnie was the eldest of three children and attended the James Gillespie's High School and Royal High School in the city. He enjoyed amateur dramatics and at the age of 15, he starred in a pantomime at his local church youth club. When he left school he found employment as a clerk at the Ministry of Agriculture. Ronnie joined the Royal Airforce to complete his national service and in 1950 was commissioned into the secretarial branch of the RAF as a pilot officer (national service) at RAF Bridgnorth. At the time, Ronnie at 5 ft 1 in (1.55 m) tall was the shortest commissioned officer in the British Forces. On discharge from the forces he moved to London to start his acting career.
At first, Ronnie Corbett took work where he could and tread the board in various theatres as well as taking bit parts in TV and film. He performed on stage with Danny La Rue and soon attracted the attention of several top TV producers and executives who were impressed with his abilities as a stand-up comedian. By 1955, Ronnie had become a regular member of the Children’s TV teatime program, Crackerjack (BBC). Unlike most of his fellow cast members, Ronnie was quickly given a spotlight to showcase his own stand-up routines.
As a comedic actor, Ronnie Corbett’s appeared in small parts in many films including: You're Only Young Twice (1952) the hapless "Chumleigh" in Fun at St Fanny's (1955), and "Drooby" in Rockets Galore (1958). He also took bit parts in TV and appeared in an early episode of the Saber of London (The Vice) (1955) and the Saint (1962).
Ronnie Corbett served drinks at the Buckstone Club, London between acting jobs then in 1963 he got a starring role in the first London production of the musical The Boys from Syracuse (as Dromio of Syracuse) at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, alongside Bob Monkhouse. In 1965, he was in cabaret at Winston's, Danny La Rue's Mayfair nightclub, during which time he met and married Anne Hart. Then in 1965, he landed the role of Will Scarlett in Will Scarlett in Lionel Bart's Robin Hood musical Twang!!. Sadly, the musical failed after just, 43 performances and Ronnie found himself looking for work in 1966. David Frost was starting a new satirical TV program and had seen Ronnie performing stand-up at Danny La Rue’s club he was attracted to his size and quick wit. Over cucumber sandwiches at The Ritz David invited him to join the team of The Frost Report (1966–67) with the lanky, John Cleese, and amply proportioned, Ronnie Barker to perform a mixture of satirical monologues, sketches and music. The writers and cast were mostly Oxbridge graduates from the Footlights tradition. Corbett and Barker were drawn together as two grammar school boys who had not gone to university. As the show progressed, Corbett and Barker were drawn together and a natural pair for later partnership.
Following the Frost Report, Ronnie Corbett starred in “No – That's Me Over Here!”, a sitcom written by Frost Report writers Barry Cryer, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle (ITV 1967–70). Cryer and Chapman wrote two follow-ups: Now Look Here (BBC 1971–73) and The Prince of Denmark (BBC 1974). Ronnie also took time to appear as "Polo" in the spoof Bond film, Casino Royale (1967) and continued in television with appearances in Frost on Sunday (ITV 1968) as well as hosting The Corbett Follies (ITV 1969). More film work followed with Some Will, Some Won't (1970). Then in 1971 Barker asked him to star in the comedy sketch series The Ronnie Barker Yearbook (1971). As well as being a wonderful comedy actor Ronnie Corbett was also an accomplished after dinner speaker and very funny stand-up comedian. These talents came into play when Barker and Corbett were asked to fill in a few minutes during a technical hitch at an awards ceremony. Amongst the audience was Sir Paul Fox, the then Controller of BBC One who was so impressed by the duo that they were subsequently given their own show by the BBC.
The Two Ronnies (BBC) saw a comedic coupling of matching tastes and styles which ran from 1971 to 1987. It was a marriage made in comedy heaven when Barker and Corbett took part in musical performances and sketches. They quickly became primetime viewing and were only rivalled by Morecambe and Wise. The programme won a Bafta in 1972 for best light entertainment performance and was staple viewing for much of the UK audience on a Saturday night, with more than 17 million viewers. Much of the success was due to the array of great writers behind the sketches, including Ronnie Barker (under the 'Gerald Wiley' pseudonym). These were not only ridiculously funny but also brought with them fantastic wordplay. Barker excelled with his lexiconic brilliance and when Corbett was on his own he specialised in long, rambling jokes delivered from an outsize armchair with his legs dangling in the air. He was usually wearing a Lyle & Scott golfing V-neck sweater.
During the filming of the "Two Ronnies" Ronnie Corbett found time to branch off into a whole host of other projects as did Ronnie Barker. The wee man appeared in the film version of the farce No Sex Please, We're British (1973); as well as more TV with The Ronnie Corbett Special (1979). In 1979, both he and Ronnie Barker took their families to Australia for a year for job opportunities and starred in a series of The Two Ronnies in Australia (Channel 9).
In 1981 Ronnie Corbett’s best role away from The Two Ronnies was in the sitcom Sorry! (1981 – 88) in which he played the 40-something Timothy Lumsden, dominated by his mother and written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent. Following Barker's retirement in 1987, Corbett had a number of roles in the theatre, including The Seven Year Itch, Out of Order and The Dressmaker, while he also took guest roles on TV and in film.
The versatile comedian hosted the BBC One game show Small Talk for two years from 1994-96. He also appeared on the première of the short-lived BBC game show Full Swing, hosted by Jimmy Tarbuck (1996). More film parts followed with Fierce Creatures (1997), and Timbuctoo (1998). In 2005, Corbett reunited with Barker to present a special six-part series looking back at their favorite moments from the "Two Ronnies". In the same year Ronnie Corbett appeared with comedian Peter Kay in the spoof music video for the number one single "Is This the Way to Amarillo?", in which the song, originally by Tony Christie, was mimed, to raise money for Comic Relief. Corbett is remembered for accidentally falling on the treadmill that was out of shot in the green screen video; however, he found the fall funny when played back, and it was kept in the final version.
Ronnie Corbett won a swag of new fans when he played a hyper-realised version of himself in Extras, caught taking drugs at the BAFTA Awards (2006). Then later he appeared as himself in Little Britain Abroad, in which Bubbles DeVere tried successfully to seduce him. In 2010, he reunited with Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent in the BBC Radio 4 series radio series When The Dog Dies and in the same year appeared in Burke & Hare as Capt. Tom McLintock. Already an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Corbett was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to charity and the entertainment industry.
The much loved comic actor and popular entertainer died in 2016 at the age of 85.