Remembering Marty Feldman

Marty Feldman as Igor in "Young Frankenstein"

Marty’s Early Work

Marty Feldman was born in London’s East End on this day in 1934. An operation to correct a thyroid condition in his late twenties led to his unique goggle-eyed appearance. Feldman’s comedy career began behind the camera, partnering with Barry Took on writing for BBC television and radio productions. Marty made his on-screen debut as part of the ensemble cast of At Last the 1948 Show, joining Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and John Cleese. The collaboration produced the classic “Four Yorkshireman” sketch which was later performed by Chapman and Cleese troupe Monty Python and often mistakenly attributed to that group.

After a number of sketch comedy series, Marty Feldman had enough exposure to launch into film. Unfortunately, Feldman made only a handful of films before his death in 1982. These are three of my favorites.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein was conceived by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks while they were filming the mock western Blazing Saddles. A parody of the Universal horror films, Brooks used vintage props and insisted on shooting the film in black-and-white. Gene Wilder played the titular doctor (“That’s Fron-Kon-Steen!”) while Peter Boyle turns in a memorable performance as the monster.

Feldman is Igor (“eye-gor”), the latest in a line of hereditary hunchbacked servants to the Frankensteins. Igor gets some of the most fondly remembered gags in the film, including his ever-shifting hump (“What hump?”) and the acquisition of the monster’s brain. Startled by thunder and lightning, Igor drops the chosen brain of “scientist and saint” Hans Delbruck and instead returns to the laboratory with “Abby… Abby Normal.”

The famous “Walk This Way” gag inspired the Aerosmith song of the same name. I still occasionally encounter people reenacting the skit that I doubt have ever heard of the film, let alone seen it. They have, no doubt, come across someone else doing it and, like any good joke, it has propagated from person to person.

Marty Feldman and Ann-Margret on the cover of "People"

Marty Feldman and Ann-Margret
on the cover of People

In God We Tru$t (1980)

Despite my grandmother’s fondness for televangelists such as Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller, she found this movie endlessly amusing. Of course, she also loved beer and baseball, so she was clearly a woman of many layers. For many years, a pre-teen RayRay could get away with referring to breasts as “bumpy bits” thanks to Mr. Feldman.

Feldman wrote, directed, and stars in the film as Brother Ambrose, a naive monk charged with rounding up $5,000 to save his monastery from foreclosure. Along the way, he is seduced by a prostitute (Louise Lasser) and exploited by a con artist (Peter Boyle). Eventually, his quest comes to the attention of televangelist Armageddon T. Thunderbird (played with reckless abandon by Andy Kaufman) and poor Ambrose’s quest is temporarily derailed.

While certainly blasphemous and critical of religion, the film, much like Brother Ambrose, has an innocent charm that manages to avoid hostility. Feldman’s antipathy for state-sponsored Christianity became public knowledge during the Oz obscenity trial when Feldman testified for the defense. He refused to swear on the Bible and was accused as having no religion because of this choice, a claim that incensed Feldman. The trial was the longest obscenity trial in the UK up to that point.

Stay tuned to the end of the trailer for an appearance by “G.O.D.” It’s an inspired bit of casting that easily rivals Alanis Morissette in Dogma.

Yellowbeard (1983)

Feldman, Chapman, and Cleese reunited for Yellowbeard a pirate spoof in the Mel Brooks style. The production was plagued with recasts, rewrites, and disasters, including the sudden death of Marty Feldman in Mexico City of a heart attack. Python vets John Cleese and Eric Idle consider the film one of their worst, but have fond memories of working on it. Regardless, Yellowbeard never fails to bring a goofy guilty grin to my face.

Graham Chapman plays the title pirate who has been imprisoned for twenty years and still has not disclosed the whereabouts of his stolen treasure. The authorities, led by Commander Clement (Eric Idle), contrive to force Yellowbeard to escape in the hopes of following him to the treasure. Along the way, Yellowbeard is introduced to his meek and bookish son (Martin Hewitt) and runs afoul of his traitorous bosun, Moon (Peter Boyle).

Keith Moon’s flagging health prevented him from playing Yellowbeard. Harry Nilsson was pegged to create a soundtrack, making the film nearly a Son of Dracula reunion, but neither came to pass. The casting of Yellowbeard’s gardener son, Dan, also went through some changes. Originally, rock star Adam Ant was cast in the role, but he grew frustrated with the slow pace of production and quit. Sting was ready to come on board, but producers thought he would make the cast “too British”.

Marty Feldman, in his final role, plays Gilbert, a former crewman turned prison trusty and gravedigger, turned bosun under “Captain” Moon. Gilbert tries to cajole Yellowbeard into revealing the location of the treasure, but the salty pirate won’t be caught out with mere trick questions. Eventually, with Feldman’s untimely death preventing more scenes with his character, a stunt double for Feldman was used to have Gilbert fall into a pool of acid, ending his treachery.

Marty Feldman is buried in the Garden of Heritage at Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery near his idol, “The Great Stone Face,” Buster Keaton. His epitaph reads
“He made us laugh, He took my pain away, I love you, Lauretta”.

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