Kenneth Mars: Master of Dialect Comedy

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Today is the birthday of the late Kenneth Mars (1935-2011). In a rational world, his name would be much better known. He was one of the funniest and most talented comedy presences on screens big and small peaking in the mid 1970s. Chameleon-like and always working best as part of an ensemble, audiences loved him without (for the most part) knowing whom they were loving.

As luck would have it, as a teen I had the cast album of one of his earliest triumphs, his role in the 1962 revival of the Cole Porter Broadway show Anything Goes. Mars played the clueless Englishman Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, with the broad spirit of fun that would characterize his best performances. For the next decade or so he worked constantly in television. His first role was on Car 54, Where Are You? (1962), he was a regular on the short-lived He and She (1967), played numerous parts in Love, American Style (1969-1974), and had a memorable turn on Columbo (1977). In these and a couple of dozen other tv shows, he always made an impression, usually playing comical foreigners of one kind or another. Sometimes because of his large size and wide features he would be cast as a working class hard-hat type, but he was less adept in those parts, which required a greater degree of realism.

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It was Mel Brooks who gave Mars the opportunity to take the brakes off and really demonstrate what he could do when he cast him as Franz, the demented Nazi playwright in The Producers (1967). He had a small but memorable turn in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as a frustrated sheriff. But the 70s were really his glory period.

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He was the Croatian musicologist with the wayward strand of hair in Peter Bogdonavich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), the Transylvanian police commissioner in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), played Henry Kissinger on the comedy album Henry the First (1975), was in 8 episodes of Fernwood 2nite (1977) and then was a much-loved regular on the variety show Sha Na Na (1977-1980). He was definitely the only bearable element of The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). He’s in Graham Chapman’s Yellowbeard (1983) and Fletch (1985) with Chevy Chase.

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In the 80s, 90s and oughts he worked more than ever, but there is a lack of focus to his career that makes it less distinctive and harder to track. He did lots and lots of family film and television, especially voice-overs in animated productions, most notably in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) and its sequels. One of his last major on-camera roles was a regular part as Otto on Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006).

For more on comedy film history see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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