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How Marty Feldman became the great forgotten Jewish comic

Best known as Igor in ‘Young Frankenstein,’ the actor and writer enjoyed a rich but all-too-brief career

This Dec. 2 marks the 40th anniversary of Marty Feldman’s death. Of the dozen or so people I’ve recently informed of this factoid, most had the same reaction — a slightly confused expression, followed by some variation of “Really? He’s been gone that long?” The others just stared blankly at me for a few seconds before the named clicked. “Oh,” they said. “That guy with the eyes?”

Yep, that guy with the eyes.

The late British comedian’s wonky, bugged-out orbs were his trademark, a perpetual sight gag (no pun intended) that made every line he delivered seem hysterically funny, even when it wasn’t necessarily intended as such. Those eyes lent Igor (pronounced EYE-gor), Feldman’s Hollywood breakthrough role in Mel Brooks’ 1974 film Young Frankenstein, a wonderful mixture of goofiness and menace — indeed, Gene Wilder specifically wrote the part of the hunchbacked henchman with him in mind, after catching a broadcast of the short-lived variety show The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine on late-night TV.

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Those eyes provided significant grist for humorous riffage in his own posthumously published autobiography eYE Marty, as well as inspiration for “Marty Feldman Eyes,” a Dr. Demento-approved 1981 novelty spoof of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” waxed by the immortal Bruce “Baby Man” Baum with Little Roger & the Goosebumps.

But there was so much more to Feldman than his eyes, which Brooks once likened to “hard-boiled eggs that somebody painted eyeballs on and didn’t paint them on right.” Long before he became a TV and film star, Feldman was an in-demand writer for British radio and TV. He and writing partner Barry Took penned scripts for the popular Granada Television sitcoms The Army Game and Bootsie and Snudge, as well as the first three series of the BBC Radio sketch comedy series Round the Horne. The latter program, which in its mid-1960s heyday drew 15 million listeners per episode, bridged the gap between The Goon Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus with its fast-paced gags and its satirical references to contemporary and political events, as well as its radical-for-the-time use of camp humor and sexual innuendo.

At a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Great Britain, Feldman and Took regularly worked Polari — a form of slang popular in British gay and theatrical subculture — into their sketches for Round the Horne characters Julian and Sandy, an exceedingly flamboyant pair of out-of-work actors portrayed by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. It was a brilliantly subversive gambit; not only did the Polari dialogue introduce much of the show’s audience to all manner of raunchy gay humor, but BBC executives couldn’t object to its usage, because to do so would be to admit that they themselves were conversant in gay slang. (And why might that be, eh?) Julian and Sandy became so popular with British listeners that some historians have credited their Round the Horne sketches as an influential factor in the gradual repeal of Britain’s anti-gay laws, which began in 1967.

Marty Feldman, circa 1975. Photo by Getty Images

Feldman wasn’t gay, but he felt an affinity for persecuted minorities, something he attributed to having felt like an outsider from an early age. The initial cause of his sense of “otherness” wasn’t his eyes — which wouldn’t reach their famous state of protrusion until his mid-20s, when thyroid surgery caused them to bulge— but rather his Jewishness. Born in London’s East End in 1934 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Feldman was usually the only Jew in the dozen or so schools he attended (many of which he either ran away or was expelled from).

“I didn’t do Bible class because I was a Jew,” he recalled in eYE Marty. “They didn’t know what to do with me, so they would just give me extra Maths. The Bible must have been hard work because God knows Maths was.”

Comedy was an escape for Feldman, both from the grimness of his urban surroundings and the cruelty of his teachers and fellow students. Though he would later come to idolize Buster Keaton (and would eventually be buried near him at Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks in the Hollywood Hills), his initial comedic touchstones were Laurel and Hardy and Danny Kaye. After seeing the latter at the London Palladium, young Feldman made his first attempt at standup comedy, telling jokes at a bar mitzvah for pocket money. His act, taken wholesale from Kaye’s performance, along with jokes “nicked” from Max Miller, Jack Carson and Mickey Rooney, wasn’t well-received by the audience.

“I didn’t see anything incongruous in a 12-year-old smoking a cigarette and talking about my wife,” he’d later recall. “I couldn’t understand why they’d got annoyed with me!”

Feldman’s other early love was jazz, and he approached the form (and the trumpet in particular) with a similar mixture of enthusiasm and cluelessness. Having dropped out of school for good shortly before his 15th birthday, he decided to “be” Miles Davis, though he spent significantly more time ingesting gin and Benzedrine than actually practicing his instrument. He found some gigs during a yearlong sojourn in Paris, but those were due more to his chutzpah than any discernible talent.

Marty Feldman with his wife Lauretta Sullivan, 1970. Photo by Getty Images

“I was so bad,” he later wrote, “and would always say to the rest of the band that they would have to carry me a bit to get going, because the chest was weak from the TB and it still had a hold on me, but once I got going I would catch up.” (As you may have guessed, Feldman never actually suffered from tuberculosis.)

Ironically, Feldman left his biggest musical mark not on jazz, but on rock and (eventually) rap. Back in the recording studio after catching a screening of Young Frankenstein, members of the band Aerosmith were still in stitches over Igor instructing Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein to “walk this way,” and Dr. Frankenstein mimicking Igor’s humpbacked limp. Their producer Jack Douglas thought the phrase might make a good title for the funky instrumental that the band was working on. A flurry of Steven Tyler lyrics later, and one of Aerosmith’s signature anthems was born. A No. 10 hit in 1976, “Walk This Way” would chart even higher a decade later, when rappers Run-D.M.C. covered it with assistance from Tyler and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

Throughout all his musical misadventures — and similarly ill-fated stage stints as everything from a hypnotist’s assistant to one-third of a comedy trio that filled the gaps between dance numbers in a traveling burlesque revue called Saucy Girls of 1952 — Feldman amused himself by writing poetry and comedy sketches. Scottish comedy writer John Law took an interest in Feldman after catching his act at a Saucy Girls performance, and helped steer him into writing for radio shows. His first full-time writing gig was the BBC Light Programme radio show Educating Archie, starring a ventriloquist and his dummy. Though Feldman bristled at the absurdity of a ventriloquist act performing on the radio — and was rather creeped out by the dummy — the enormously popular show soon led to better projects and better money.

By 1966, he’d become the chief writer and script editor of The Frost Report, the BBC1 satirical show that introduced the talents of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett to British television audiences, and featured a stable of talented writers included John Law as well as Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Palin and Jones, who would go on to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus with Cleese and Chapman, took Feldman’s support as major validation at a time when they were still the new kids on the BBC block.

“That was the first real encouragement we ever had,” Palin recalled decades later in an interview with author Robert Ross for his book Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend. “To get a few words of praise from someone as good as Marty was amazing.”

Feldman’s turn on the other side of the camera finally came in late 1967, when Chapman, Cleese and future Goodies member Tim Brooke-Taylor insisted that he co-star with them in what would become ITV’s At Last the 1948 Show, despite producer David Frost’s unease at the prospect.

“Tim told me that Frost said that my ‘grotesque looks’ would put the public off and thus sink the show,” Feldman later wrote. For his part, Feldman thought doing some comedic acting would be a “giggle,” and that he’d soon be able to return to writing full-time. But while At Last the 1948 Show is largely remembered today as the immediate precursor to Python, it was also the show that turned Feldman into an unlikely star. Far from putting off the public, Feldman’s oddball looks — along with his loopy charm and expert comedic timing — proved popular enough to earn him a BBC series of his own (Marty) as well as the lead role in the 1970 film comedy Every Home Should Have One.

While American audiences tend to remember Feldman primarily for his supporting roles in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, it’s worth tracking down Every Home Should Have One to see how well he could carry a film by himself. Co-written by Feldman with Took and Herbert Kretzmer, the film is a witty low-budget send-up of both contemporary television ads and the “clean up television” campaigns mounted by conservative activists like Mary Whitehouse.

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Feldman plays an advertising man who, encouraged by the example of his swinging boss Shelley Berman, has an affair with his family’s Swedish au pair and nearly loses his wife and son in the process. The film nicely showcases Feldman’s gift for Keaton-esque physical comedy, as well as his warm, endearing presence; despite Frost’s concerns about Feldman’s looks, he’s charming and charismatic enough here to convince the viewer that Julie Ege (who plays the au pair) would actually find him attractive.

With its whimsical satire and modest conceptual reach, Every Home Should Have One should have been a good a template for Feldman to follow when — following his success in Brooks’ films — Universal Pictures signed him to direct five films. Unfortunately, the two films Feldman directed (and wrote) for Universal before his death, 1977’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste and 1980’s In God We Tru$t were massive misfires undone by inconsistent jokes, unwieldy concepts and satire too broad by half. Feldman, who had relocated with his wife Lauretta to Hollywood, was especially crushed by the failure of the latter film, which parodied televangelism and religious conservatism at a time when the U.S. was taking a hard turn to the right.

Disillusioned by his Hollywood experience, Feldman intended to return to England and write for television again, but he died of a heart attack at the age of 48 before he could carry out that plan. At the time of his death, he was in Mexico City shooting Yellowbeard, a pirate comedy starring and co-written by Graham Chapman.

Though Feldman wasn’t especially enamored of the script, he gave a typically hilarious performance as the bumbling buccaneer Gilbert, and by all accounts delighted in being surrounded by a cast of friends that included Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Madeline Kahn, Peter Cook, Peter Boyle and Spike Milligan. Though his death cast something of a pall over the film — which completely tanked at the box office — Chapman was philosophical about it. “I try to look at the positive side,” he said later. “I take pleasure knowing that Marty was back on form for his last role.”

While it still feels tragic and unfair that he died so young, Marty Feldman made a substantial contribution to comedy while he was here, which is probably why it doesn’t really feel like he’s been gone for 40 years. “Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act,” Feldman liked to say — but at his bug-eyed best, he made it look like the most natural thing in the world.

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