Chosuke Ikariya, an actor and leader of the Drifters, one of Japan's best-known slapstick comedy groups, died Saturday at a Tokyo hospital after battling lymph node cancer for nearly a year. He was 72.

Ikariya, whose real given name was Choichi, and four other men formed the Drifters in 1964 and it became one of the biggest successes in Japanese comedy. In 1966, the group was an opening act at a Beatles concert.

The funeral will be held Wednesday at Aoyama Funeral Hall in Minato Ward. The Drifters were famous for their prime-time television slapstick comedy show "Hachijidayo Zeninshugo!" ("It's 8 o'clock, Assemble Everyone!") that was launched in 1969. It attracted a large audience even though some critics found it vulgar.

After the program ended a 16-year run, Ikariya ventured into acting and appeared in Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams" in 1990 and other movies. He often took the role of a police detective in TV dramas and in movies, including the recent blockbuster "Odoru Daisosasen The Movie 2 -- Rainbow Bridge Wo Fusaseyo!" ("Bayside Shakedown 2 -- Save The Rainbow Bridge!").

Ikariya was hospitalized last May after being diagnosed with lymph node cancer. He was discharged in July and returned to work.

His agency said he was hospitalized again March 15.

Ikariya's death was major news, drawing about 80 reporters to his house in Meguro Ward Saturday night. Boo Takagi and Ken Shimura, who were also in the Drifters, paid their last respects to their leader.

Born in Tokyo, Ikariya moved to Shizuoka Prefecture during World War II and spent his childhood there. His love of music led him to join Jimmy Tokita's country music band in 1961.

Entertainment critic Ushio Yoshikawa praised his distinctive way of blending humor with otherwise serious roles, while Noboru Saijo, a writer who helped with Ikariya's autobiography, expressed his sadness at losing "a monument of comedy."