Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 10

As Franz Liebkind

I first saw Kenneth Mars, the actor who died on February 12, on Fernwood 2-Night, the syndicated comedy series that grew out of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and seemed so grown-up, even illicit, because it aired late at night, past my bedtime.* Mars played local businessman W.D. “Bud” Prize, a recurring character, and exhibited many of the qualities that marked his more famous performances, notably an exaggerated accent and an inspired range of belligerent arrogance and barely controlled lunacy.

His chin always seemed ready to pick a fight, and he led with it, much the way a rooster in a barnyard leads with its beak; in later years, I came to think he’d be an excellent choice to play Richard Wagner. (Bud is self-conscious, however, and frequently wears a “chin-odontic device” to change its alignment.) In two important screen roles, Mars’ chin is practically a star player, surveying a dining room of lesser mortals in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? and rallying a mob in Young Frankenstein. But that chin could be vulnerable, too, even while making me laugh, as Mars proved in The Producers.

After all, any writer frustrated in his ambitions must feel a little sympathy for the playwright Franz Liebkind.

With Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers

Mars’ death is itself a disappointment to this writer. I’d like to have met the man who made me laugh so hard; beyond that, I’d like to have interviewed him for my authorized biography of Madeline Kahn. They appeared together in What’s Up, Doc? and Young Frankenstein, milestones in each career, and both starred in the ill-fated pirate farce Yellowbeard, as well. What stories Kenneth Mars might have had to tell me!

What’s Up, Doc? was Madeline’s first feature film, and her first indication that she might not always get to play the “pretty girl.” As I’ve explained here, she was miserable during the production; while she and Mars share the screen only briefly, he might have been able to shed more light on her state of mind and the process whereby she overcame her unhappiness to deliver an explosive, star-making performance.

As Hugh Simon: Pissing from a great height.
Mars towered over his What’s Up, Doc? cast mates.

Young Frankenstein, by contrast, was one of Madeline’s happiest moviemaking experiences. She and Mars have no scenes together, except for the triumphal march by the entire cast that was filmed on the last day of shooting, and originally intended to play under the closing credits. I’m not sure what Mars might have observed: Madeline’s entire time on the set amounted to a single five-day week, plus a pickup day several weeks later, when the march was shot.

The Monster meets Inspector Kemp.
(For years, I didn’t recognize Mars under Kemp’s makeup.)

But that set was so happy that Gene Wilder tried essentially to replicate it a short time later, when he directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. I’d like to speak with anybody who participated in Young Frankenstein.**

It’s too late to speak with Marty Feldman, who died during the filming of Yellowbeard. Here again, Kenneth Mars might have been able to help me. As another cast member put it, that film united “Mel Brooks People” (Madeline, Feldman, Mars, Peter Boyle) with “Monty Python People” and a third community, distinguished British actors (including James Mason, Michael Hordern, and Beryl Reid). Kenneth Mars might have shared Madeline’s high hopes for Yellowbeard and her disappointment in the results, her pleasure in reuniting with old friends, and her grief at losing one of their number.***

Mars ably exploited his distinctive face and his height,
but he didn’t require them to create a memorable character.
As Triton in The Little Mermaid, he reduced one friend of mine to almost-inconsolable tears.

But in biography-writing as in comedy, timing is everything. Feldman died long before I dreamed of tackling this project; so did Cleavon Little (from Blazing Saddles). Harvey Korman’s death preceded the project by only a little while; Dom De Luise died just as I began to track him down. Madeline’s career touched so many others: there’s simply no way I can reach everybody.

Korman as Hedley Lamarr: You’ve got to think he’d have been a fascinating interview, too.

There’s a gamble involved, too. Until a publisher commits to this book, there’s a limit to what I can afford to do, in terms both of time and of expense. Just transcribing the recordings of interviews I’ve already conducted will take money to hire somebody — or time that I could be devoting to other work that will keep me afloat.

I’ve already spoken or corresponded with many of the people whose participation I consider absolutely necessary to the success of this biography: family, friends, and colleagues. But as one of those people, Betty Aberlin, rightly points out, there are legions of people I haven’t even identified yet, especially the backstage, off-camera colleagues who may have witnessed significant moments in Madeline’s life and art. These folks may hold the biggest surprises of all.

From Mars to the Final Frontier:
A late-career appearance on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Madeline and her generation were revolutionaries, changing the way my generation views movies and television. They were Young Turks, but now they’re Grey Eminences. I’ve got to hope they hang on — or tell their stories to friends and family members, who will pass them on to me. A story secondhand is better than no story at all.

But make no mistake: the sooner I can get back to work, and the more people I can speak to, the stronger the book will be.

As Otto Mannkusser in Malcolm in the Middle

You can help, not least by leaving comments on this blog, where prospective editors may see them. And as I come up with other means to demonstrate that which some editors seem to doubt — namely, that there’s a substantial audience waiting eagerly for this book — I’ll let you know, even if it means supplying you with torches and pitchforks and leading, chin-first, a charge on the publisher’s castle.

As Kenneth Mars might say, “A mob is an ugly thing … and I think it’s just about time we had one.”

*NOTE: Fernwood 2-Night also introduced me to the comedy of Martin Mull, Fred Willard, and many others. In retrospect, I understand it as a treasure house.

**Shortly after Young Frankenstein, Madeline co-starred in Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, the rehearsal and filming of which required more than five months of Madeline’s time. The contrasting formulae couldn’t have been clearer in her mind: a short shoot with pretty costumes and good friends equals a pleasant experience, whereas a long shoot opposite a cover girl (Cybill Shepherd) equals abject misery.

***Another Yellowbeard co-star, Martin Hewitt, has so far declined to share with me his recollections of Madeline — but he’s done so in a singularly tantalizing way, making it sound as if the stories are very good indeed. Let me know if you ever change your mind, sir.

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