The Teletubbies, from left, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po are shown in this 1998 publicity photo.

The Teletubbies, from left, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po are shown in this 1998 publicity photo.

/AP

British actor Simon Shelton Barnes has died. Chances are his name doesn't or won't ring a bell. But his character was known worldwide and brought smiles to millions of toddlers. 

Barnes played Tinky Winky, the plump purple character who bounced around TV screens and talked baby talk on BBC's Teletubbies

Barnes collapsed on a Liverpool street and died of hypothermia, reports confirmed Thursday. The father of three was 52. 

It's a sad end for someone who brought giggles to children -- and some adults. 

When our son was a toddler in the late 1990s, my wife and I searched TV programming for appropriate viewing. When we happened upon a group of brightly colored characters who trotted around and cooed and made odd noises, we couldn't stop watching (We also watched Boohbah, go figure). 

For some reason, the Teletubbies all had TV screens implanted in their abdomens and an antenna jutting from their heads. Their world was a domed house on what looked like a manicured golf course. Tinky Winky and pals Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po seemed to answer to Sun Baby, a large baby face that giggled a lot. 

Yes, Teletubbies was a gentle show, and it became a global hit, at one time airing in 120 countries in 45 languages and reaching one billion children.

Barnes, a trained ballet dancer and choreographer, played Tinky Winky from 1998 to 2001, but was at first reluctant to play one of the Teletubbies. He later embraced his role so much that he called the Teletubbies "a bit like the Beatles." (It's uncertain whether he was making a comparison with another quartet of strange-looking characters from Liverpool.) 

But as sweet as the show was, it had a notable critic. 

In 1999, televangelist Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist pastor, said Tinky Winky's purple color, triangle antenna and handbag indicated the character was gay, a statement that also drew criticism from The Dallas Morning News readers. The BBC said at the time that "as far as we are concerned Tinky Winky is simply a sweet, technological baby with a magic bag." 

Rev. Jerry Falwell holds a Tinky Winky Teletubby presented to him by Rev. Bill Dougherty of the First Coast Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla.

Rev. Jerry Falwell holds a Tinky Winky Teletubby presented to him by Rev. Bill Dougherty of the First Coast Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla.

EARL CRYER/AP

The circumstances of Barnes' death is prompting the British papers to bring up his post-Tinky Winky dark side

That's OK. We're learning that even the guy who spent 10 years as Barney the dinosaur (also purple), is a tantric sex therapist

Teletubbies didn't make a lot of sense, but it was gentle. At the time, it was perfect entertainment for our toddler. And it was fun to watch.

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