Exclusive: New Marty Feldman Bio Goes Behind the Scenes of Young Frankenstein
This week brings film buffs and comedy devotees alike the pleasure of Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend, author Robert Ross's revelatory new chronicle of the turbulent life and premature death of the titular British TV and film comic. An aspiring jazz musician-turned-comedian known predominantly for the pop-eyed visage he brought to his acting, writing and directing projects, Feldman's broad influence on British comedy of the '60s receives a close look from interview subjects including Michael Palin, Terry Jones and, from tapes recorded for his unfinished memoir, even Feldman himself. But his impact hardly ended there -- as anyone who's seen Young Frankenstein knows.
In Movieline's exclusive excerpt from Marty Feldman, filmmaker Mel Brooks and writer/co-star Gene Wilder recall the "gift from God" that helped make their collaboration an instant comedy classic.
"Perhaps it's with hindsight," muses Bill Oddie, "but it came as no surprise to any of us that Marty went to Hollywood. He had done the ATV series so we all knew he was being floated in those American waters, being lauded beyond these shores and beyond logic, frankly. He had done this bloody long series, cheated his way to a Golden Rose of Montreux and so it was only a matter of time until he was thrown to Hollywood. That was the next step. Take him over there and make him a star. They had done it with Peter Sellers and they would do it with Dudley Moore. It never ends well for our blokes over there."
The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine had indeed struck a chord with a huge number of Americans. His pursuit of work there was inevitable: "A mountaineer wouldn't hang about in Wales," he said. "He'd go to the Himalayas." Although it hadn't been the massive commercial success that ABC had hoped for, it did consolidate Marty's cult status amongst students and the self-proclaimed intellectuals. It was certainly enough for a tempting five-year television contract to be put on the table. However, despite the promise that the series would make Marty a millionaire, he turned down this much needed financial boost in favor of a film to be shot in black and white over at the 20th Century Fox studios. For one of the great and good of American film comedy, who had been bewitched by The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, was Gene Wilder: "I picked up my pad and pen and wrote the title Young Frankenstein. I had been a lover of movies ever since I was a child and I think the name Young Frankenstein came from the film Young Edison which I had loved as a kid. I just thought what sort of things would have happened to the great grandson of the original Frankenstein. I loved the original Frankenstein films. My script was particularly inspired by the 1931 original and The Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, originally, my Frankenstein was going to end up over the precipice and the monster was going to hook up with the fiancée."
The concept also called for a comic grotesque to play the hunchback. A sort of cross between the hunch-backed assistant played by Dwight Frye and the broken-necked assistant played by Bela Lugosi in the Universal series. Marty Feldman was a gift from God. Indeed, having been inspired by the Comedy Machine, Gene Wilder wrote the part especially for Marty. It was he who gave Marty his big break in Hollywood. He practically told him to pack his bags and go West, young man.
"I play the part of Igor [pronounced Eye-Gor for affectation] the assistant to Frankenstein," Marty told a visiting Mexican television reporter on the set. "He's actually a hunchback. I don't have the hump with me at the moment. It's optional. You only wear it in the evenings, you know."
"I am the only guy ever to appear in a horror film without make-up," he quipped again making the first joke about his appearance before anybody else could. "Not even size six eyeballs."
Fortuitously, Marty was being represented by Wilder's agent, Michael Medavoy. Delighted when Medavoy suggested doing a film with both Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle in the cast, Wilder was struck by the thought and asked, "How did you ever come up with that team?" He replied that: 'I have all of you on my books!'" As Wilder solemnly mused: "Well, with a wonderful artistic basis like that, it can't go wrong!"
Marty remembered the moment when the film collaboration was hatched: "Peter Boyle and I were in this agent's office and the agent suggested that we should do a film together. He said he knew just the guy for us to work with and he got Gene Wilder on the phone. 'Hello,' I said, 'I'm Marty Feldman.' Then we talked about ideas and Gene said he would send one in the post. One paragraph arrived the next day and within twenty-four hours they had a producer and director and a million dollar film had been set up."
The paragraph that had hooked Marty and everybody else was the train station meeting between Frankenstein and the hunchback. It was written exactly as it appears in the finished film and became something of a lucky mascot throughout the production, post-production and distribution of Young Frankenstein. It certainly appealed to director Mel Brooks. Gene Wilder remembers that Brooks was: "Mike Medavoy's suggestion. He had read the script, loved it and said: 'I think we can get Mel Brooks to direct this.' I said: 'I don't think Mel would want to direct anything he hasn't conceived himself, but if you can get him he'll be wonderful.' The very next day Mel called me and said: 'What have you got me in to? And I said: 'Nothing that you don't want to get in to.'"
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