But Paul Daniels, who died yesterday at 77, a month after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, went on to be one of the biggest names in mainstream showbusiness, with a Saturday night BBC series watched at its peak by more than 20 million people.
He died at the family home in Berkshire, with Debbie McGee, his stage assistant and wife of 28 years, at his side.
Earlier, she had told fans on Twitter: “I wish I could answer all your wonderful messages individually but there are so many. They are all appreciated so much.
“Paul and I had no (idea) of how people felt. Truly amazing. Thank you.”
Daniels’ nephew James Phelan, also a magician, led the tributes by calling his uncle a “force of nature”.
Mark Linsey, the acting director of BBC TV, added: “Paul was an outstanding showman. His long-running magic show delighted viewers, as did his BBC One quiz shows Odd One Out, Wipeout and Every Second Counts and children’s favourite Wizbit.”
In the 1970s, Daniels virtually reinvented the way magic was presented on the screen, yet he revered his predecessors, in particular the avuncular Nixon, and they shared a “magic consultant” in the Indian conjurer Ali Bongo, real name William Wallace.
He had developed an obsession with tricks as a boy in Middlesbrough. A book called How to Entertain at Parties gave him the bug and he said that from the day he picked it up, he knew he would become a professional magician.
But after school in Redcar and national service in Hong Kong, it was to his parents’ grocery business that he turned for a living - performing just occasionally a speciality act with his first wife Jackie Skipworth under the name of The Eldanis, an anagram of Daniels.
He got his first TV break on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks in 1970, but it was a series of appearances on Granada’s Wheeltappers and Shunters Club that made him a star, and propelled him to a series of lucrative residencies at the northern “chicken-in-a-basket” cabaret clubs of the era.
It was in one such club, in Bradford, that Daniels was said to have coined his most enduring catchphrase. “You’ll like this,” he told a heckler to make him pipe down. “Not a lot, but you’ll like it.”
Ironically, given his earlier stage reputation, Daniels was not popular with some of the new wave of alternative comics who came to the fore in the late 1980s. His public support for the Conservative Party also did little to endear him to his peers.
Around the same time, he courted controversy by faking his death in a live Halloween special. In the show’s climax, Daniels was to escape from an iron maiden - a deadly medieval torture contraption lined with metal spikes. But at the critical moment the door slammed shut, leaving viewers believing he had been trapped and killed inside.
Some 11,000 people reportedly phoned the BBC fearing Daniels had been killed, and he had to make an appearance between programmes reassuring them that he was indeed alive.
With the cancellation of his magic show in 1994, he began to appear less frequently on TV and developed other business interests, including the co-ownership of Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, a petrifying well linked to a 15th century soothsayer.
His off-camera enterprises were so successful that comedian Caroline Aherne, playing the TV host Mrs Merton, was famously moved to ask Debbie McGee in 1995: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”