As with many of my generation (especially boys), my first major comedy influence was The Three Stooges. Yeah, yeah — I can already hear the groans! There’s an old saw which says, boys (especially from my generation) love The Three Stooges. On the other hand, girls hate them. Obviously, there are exceptions, but in my experience, more often than not, the rule holds true .
Thanks to my mother, who kept files of everything having to do with her four sons throughout our childhoods, I have a paper written in 1962 (1st grade/2nd grade — who remembers). It was (and I’m being kind here) a picture I drew of a man (more of a stick figure) standing between what I assume are two large klieg lights (and for some strange reason I can’t remember, what looks to be a big plant next to him). At the top of the page I wrote the words, “I want to be an actor. When I see the Three Stooges, I get an iden (yes, my six-year-old self misspelled the word, idea) I want to be an actor.”
A few years later, I was introduced to four complete and utter maniacs. Their names — Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo — The Marx Bros. I couldn’t get enough of them (still can’t) — The Cocoanuts, A Night At the Opera, Duck Soup, and then, the miraculous re-release of Animal Crackers, unseen for years. What The Stooges started, The Marx Bros. completed. I would be a comic actor, fate sealed!
Comedically, I’ve had numerous influences through the years. I’ve probably appeared in, or directed more Neil Simon plays than I can count. It is my firm belief, Simon is a genius, especially when it comes to dialogue. I find it sad so many of Simon’s stage plays didn’t transfer all that well to the screen (with notable exceptions, The Odd Couple being a major example). And the team of Richard Dreyfus and Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, is as good as romantic comedy gets.
On stage, it was Simon and Murray Schisgal, followed later by writers like Paul Rudnick. And Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which was rerun throughout the 1970s, was sheer brilliance. Then came the films of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen (both graduates of the Sid Caesar school of comedy, as was Simon), and so very many others. These people and their work, taught me more about the crafts of acting, writing and directing than any college or professional program ever could.
I was also fortunate enough to grow up in the age of Firesign Theatre, Monty Python, Peter Cooke & Dudley Moore, SCTV, the original National Lampoon gang, and, a little later, the original cast of Saturday Night Live.
How all of this brings me to two comedic gems I feel have been woefully overlooked, I’m not sure. But both are films that have stayed with me through the years, and which I re-watch when I’m feeling the need for inspiration. The first of these films is, No Way To Treat A Lady, written by John Gay (from a story by the immortal William Goldman, whose resume is too long to recount, so I’ll just mention two — Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride). The film was directed by Jack Smight.
The second film, Where’s Poppa, with a screenplay by Robert Klane (based on his novel), was directed by the comic genius, Carl Reiner, yet another Show of Shows veteran, as well as creator and cast member of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Both films share one major thing in common — their leading man. George Segal, currently known to television audiences as “Pops” Solomon, the grandfather on ABC’s sitcom, The Goldbergs, was, in the early and mid 1960s, known as a “serious” actor. His turns in Ship of Fools, King Rat, and Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (opposite Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), for which he received an Oscar nomination, cemented that reputation. But it was his work in No Way To Treat A Lady, and Where’s Poppa? which quickly led to other screen comedies, including The Owl & The Pussycat (opposite Barbra Streisand), The Hot Rock and Blume In Love, all of which helped cement his reputation as one of the top comedic leading men of the 1970s.
Another thing both films have in common is, there’s a darkness within the stories, which, somehow, makes the humor even funnier. In No Way To Treat A Lady, Segal plays Morris Brummel, a NYC detective on the hunt for a serial killer, played to perfection by Rod Steiger. Steiger’s character, Christopher Gill, who comes from a theatrical family, is a master of disguise and accents, which makes tracking him down incredibly difficult. Gill takes an interest in the detective hunting him, and begins calling Morris, taunting him. As I said, the story is dark. The movie is funny.
A tremendous part of the humor comes from the wonderful Eileen Heckart, as Mrs. Brummel, Morris’s mother (who he still lives with). In Heckart’s capable hands, what could easily have become a one-dimensional caricature of the standard Jewish mother, becomes a fully realized multi-dimensional human being. The gorgeous and talented Lee Remick, who becomes Segal’s romantic interest, is the one-person who has seen Gill, making her a witness, as well as a potential victim.
There’s a lot going on in this film. In lesser hands, it could easily have become a mess. But the combination of incredible acting, a superb, funny and, at times, thrilling screenplay, and Smight providing a light directorial touch, firmly places this movie on my list of Must Sees.
I have a sneaking suspicion, No Way To Treat A Lady may have led Segal to Where’s Poppa? Once again, we have Segal as NY attorney, Gordon Hocheiser , who still lives with his seemingly senile mother (the amazing, Ruth Gordon). What keeps Hocheiser home, is the deathbed promise he and his brother, Sidney (the hysterically on point, Ron Liebman) made their father, to never put Momma in a home.
When Gordon falls in love with the ethereal, almost angelic, and absolutely shiksa nurse, Louise (Trish Van Devere, perfectly cast), hired to care for Momma, Hocheiser determines the last thing he’s going to do is allow Momma to screw this one up — no matter what he has to do to prevent it.
That’s the set-up. As in No Way To Treat A Lady, we’re dealing with a dutiful Jewish son, with an overbearing mother, who falls in love with a beautiful shiksa (for the uninitiated, a shiksa is a non-Jewish woman). That’s where the films diverge. Where’s Poppa is filled with so very much more — Sidney’s nighttime runs through Central Park, an unbelievably funny courtroom scene with a pre-All In the Family Rob Reiner doing battle with the ultimate war-hawk, army Colonel, played by the great Barnard Hughes, just to mention two.
From the very first moment, Reiner the elder, directs this fast-paced film to perfection. There are moments so hysterically funny, situations so easily relatable (especially if you’re from NYC, and Jewish), you have to be careful not to laugh so hard you miss out on some of the fun.
While both films are very much of their time (late 60s to 1970), the humor stands up. Funny is funny.
In any event, these two comedies are on my list of movies you have to see — unless, of course, you have no sense of humor and don’t like comedy. I’d also like to give honorable mentions to two other films from that same time period. Harold and Maude, a story about a very rich young man with social anxieties (Bud Cort), who falls in love with a 70-something, free-spirited woman (once again, Ruth Gordon) who teaches him to enjoy life. All I can say is, it’s a wonderful, funny and even poignant film.
The other honorable mention goes to The Loved One, based on a novel by British satirist Evelyn Waugh. This comedy deals with the very profitable funeral industry in Los Angeles, and stars a young Robert Morse (fresh off the smash Broadway musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying), the always brilliant comedy of Jonathan Winters, the stunningly beautiful, Anjanette Comer, and, once again, the incredible Rod Steiger. There’s also an all-star guest cast that’s a veritable who’s who of 60s comedy.
All four of these films remain fresh and funny. They still make me laugh. And they continue to teach me about my craft.