Gone almost four decades, the guy with the goofy humor and bulging eyes that went opposite directions.
Marty Feldman is still a funny man. He only made a few films, most of his life was spent on English television or the club circuit. But who could forget Igor from Young Frankenstein?
Feldman didn’t become a star until he was forty, as he toiled in clubs and then many years in television before getting his Hollywood break. As a teenager, he quit school, tried music, stand up comedy and other things as he struggled to find his calling, and to figure out who he was. He moved to Paris and longed to be a jazz trumpeter like Miles Davis. Deported from France, Feldman tried comedy, as part of comedy act and became a writer as much as a performer.
In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Feldman wrote for BBC radio and television, including top series like Bootsie and Snudge and Round the Horne, before hooking with up David Frost. He was the lead writer for The Frost Report and then co-created At Last the 1948 Show, where he performed with John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who would go on to form Monty Python.
English humor in the 1960s was farce and satire. Not exactly highbrow, but smart and hip. Feldman came from the Spike Milligan comedy tree, by way of David Frost, and found comedic accomplices with John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
From there, he starred in his own series, Marty (1968), a sketch comedy show, which pushed him up the ladder of English entertainment. At one point, four of the six members of Monty Python were working for Feldman as writers.
He also co-starred in The Bed Sitting Room (1969), a Richard Lester-directed comedy about a post-nuclear war England, with a series of odd characters going on with life. He had attracted the interest of American television, appearing on The Golddiggers in London, the summer version of Dean Martin’s variety show.
After that was The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine that aired on television (1971-1972), with American writer Larry Gelbart (MASH, Tootsie) helping write and produce the show. Feldman would become quite an interest to American audiences from both the Golddiggers and the Comedy Machine. Feldman also found that as he continued to set the bar high, replenishing the comedy material was getting more difficult.
He was also very into the social scene, sex, drink and drugs. While Americans were fascinated by this silly, funny-looking guy, he was a huge star in England. But England wasn’t America, so there was only one thing to do.
Go to Hollywood.
This was a pretty good journey for a kid that suffered from a thyroid eye disease that caused his eyes to bulge and eye lids to retract. He was never sure whether the condition was the result of a boating accident or from a boy sticking him in the eye with a pencil. He was very sensitive to his condition and his looks in general, unconventional for someone wanting a job in front of an audience or before a camera. But eventually, he accepted it and used it.
“My looks are my comic equipment, and they are the right packaging for my job.” – Marty Feldman
In Los Angeles, Feldman appeared on a number of television shows, drinking in his new-found success.
Then Gene Wilder called.
“In Los Angeles I was lucky enough to make good business contacts. An agent asked me who I’d like to work with. I sputtered, “Gene Wilder”. Suddenly I was on the phone with this very polite, soft-spoken man who told me that he had been lying in bed very late one night and was flicking through the telly channels when he’d stumbled upon The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine. He watched a couple of minutes of the show, then sprang out of bed and scribbled on a yellow notepad “Young Frankenstein”. – Gene Wilder
Young Frankenstein made Feldman a very in-demand commodity. Playing Igor (pronounces Eye-Gor), Feldman had some of the best moments in the film.
“Marty Feldman not only met your material, he lifted it. He gave it extra magic.” – Mel Brooks
Next up was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, again with Gene Wilder, who wrote and directed the film.
He made two rather interesting films. Sex With a Smile (1976) was an Italian film that strung together a series of unrelated sketches. Mel Brooks called again, for Feldman to be part of his on-screen, but non-verbal posse in Silent Movie (1976).
Feldman, like Wilder and Brooks, was white-hot in Hollywood. He had acting and writing credentials, so why not direct too? His agents made a deal to co-write, direct and star in The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977). That wasn’t the film he really wanted to re-make, but Universal gave him a ton of money and Cary Grant’s old office.
The film was a modest success, after Universal took over post-production. The experience left him wondering about what he has accomplished and what he had signed up for.
Since he had arrived in America, his former writers, now very successful as Monty Python, had graduated to film and had a recent box office success with Life of Brian, a religious spoof. The continued success of Brooks/Wilder and Python, upped the ante for expectations of Feldman.
In God We Trust bombed and Universal dropped his contract. Instead of a farce, Feldman had sought a satire, where he loaded it with deeper observations and not quick laughs. The guy with the wild hair and goofy eyes wanted to be taken seriously.
There was another film, with Jerry Lewis, Slapstick of Another Kind, that was made but not released for several years.
He accepted performing jobs to earn a living. Hollywood Squares, The Muppets and Insight (a religious program), but no one would hire him as a writer.
He was said to be seriously considering returning to England to work in television. “I went to America because that’s where movies were being made,” Feldman said. “But I temporarily lost the values that had made me become a writer in the first place.”
Then came Yellowbeard, a film written and starring Graham Chapman, his Monty Python pal. A group of his actor friends were also in the cast, so even though the script was lousy, it was a type of reunion. The working conditions were brutal, high altitude, hard physical work, and Feldman’s bad diet and chain smoking.
Marty Feldman completed his autobiography just before he left for location for filming of Yellowbeard in Mexico. Then Feldman died of a heart attack in Mexico City as the film wrapped. The manuscript stayed in storage until Feldman’s widow died in 2010, when it was published.
Hollywood had welcomed and then rejected him. Instead of embracing his deeper comedic intentions, it wanted irreverent and slapstick. When he could consistently deliver, he was cast aside like so many others. It’s ironic that he was buried not far from his comedic idols, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel, who had also been shown the door when Hollywood was done with them.