Exit Laughing: RIP Reni Santoni

Actor Reni Santoni (b. 1938) passed away a couple of weeks ago. I had long planned a post on him and kept kicking the can down the road. I didn’t eulogize him on August 1 (the day he passed) because ironically I was busy delivering a talk on stage and screen comedians. I do it today as a consequence of Santoni’s “angel” Carl Reiner having passed away just a month previously. TMC recently showed a bunch of Reiner’s films by way of memorial, and watching them is what gave me my natural hook. Also: apparently today is a day for Corsicans. While born in New York, Santoni was half Corsican and half Spanish by blood. Today happens to be the birthday of the most famous Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte. And as it happens, earlier today I was talking about vaudeville performer Irene Bordoni, also born in Corsica. Just one of those days of meaningful coincidences I guess.

I first knew Santoni from his early 1971 guest shot on The Odd Couple, in which he played (if I remember correctly) an Inuit football player. The overwhelming majority of his over 100 screen credits were just this type of work — TV guest shots. But you can also see him in a handful of movies.

He has quite a big role in Dirty Harry (1971), he’s part of the ensembles in Anzio (1968) and Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), and has supporting parts in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), They Went That-a-way and That-a-Way (1978), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982, by Reiner), Bad Boys (1983) and the 1985 remake of Brewster’s Millions.

But as solid as Santoni is in those roles, they don’t fulfill the promise bespoken in the first of his mere two or three starring movie roles, Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (1967). This little gem is Reiner’s first film, and I consider it by far his best. What an unmitigated joy. It’s based on Reiner’s own semi-autobiographical novel, and covers the same ground later visited by his old Show of Shows colleagues Neil Simon (the Brighton Beach trilogy an Lost in Yonkers) and Woody Allen (Radio Days): a rosy, affectionate memory of being a young Jewish kid in an outer borough in the time of FDR. Santoni plays the lead, a kid of about 19 or 20 who lives with his parents and works as a delivery boy for a repairman. His folks want him to be a pharmacist; he wants to be an actor. His misadventures in his first role with a shabby stock company constitute the core of this little slice of life.

There are several reasons why this is Reiner’s best film. As Mel Brooks did with his second movie The Twelve Chairs (one of the few times he directed a comedy that wasn’t a parody) he exercised great discipline and care. This was his first film — he had to get everything right. I might also compare it to my favorite movie of Garry Marshall’s, 1984’s The Flamingo Kid. Somehow, there is a relationship to reality that keeps him on track. The story is focused and it feels like a complete experience (Reiner’s films often leave me unsatisfied).

The biggest riches are the cast, another reason this is one of Reiner’s best films — incredible performances by an ARMY of the best acting talent. Jose Ferrer is screamingly hilarious as a drunken, frustrated old ham. Elaine May, in what may be her best cinematic performance, is his nymphomaniac daughter — it shows such promise, and one wished she had done many more roles like this.

The immortal Richard Deacon (whom Reiner had worked with on The Dick Van Dyke Show) does some of his best work as a beleaguered stage manager. The late, lovely Janet Margolin (also of Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run and Annie Hall) plays the young man’s patient girlfriend. His best friend is nutty Michael J, Pollard, who got an Oscar for his part as C.W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde the same year. Jack Gilford is warmly hilarious (and wonderfully shaded) as his immigrant boss. His parents are Shelley Winters and David Opatoshu. Nancy Novack is the third gorgeous woman in the kid’s life; her boss is played by Don Rickles. Also in the cast: Herbie Faye (as a tailor), Milton Frome (as a cop), and a very young Rob Reiner in one of his first screen appearances as a nebbishy kid at an audition, again extremely funny. And the immortal Mantan Moreland has a cameo!

But we are eulogizing Santoni. And man oh man oh man does he more than hold his own at the center of this movie. It should have been a star-making turn. He’s not just a terrific moment-to-moment actor, but a great physical comedian, highly reminiscent of Jerry Lewis. Yes, Jerry Lewis. In fact, watching this, I often thought the picture would probably be better known and remembered with Jerry as star, but of course Jerry was 20 years too old at this point, deeply in his Three on a Couch/ Boeing Boeing phase. (Though he also did The Big Mouth this year too so who knows?) On top of all this, Santoni does a Ronald Colman imitation! Skill wise, Santoni nailed it, and if there were justice in the world, he would have been tapped to star in movies for decades. But somehow, he didn’t make a splash. It is my guess that he was considered “too ethnic” by casting people, in spite of his leading man good looks. Most of the time he was cast as Latinos, and his biggest roles were sidekicks. By the end, his last couple of professional decades, roughly 1989-2009, most of his jobs were walk-ons (e.g., cop”) and voice-overs.

Most of the obits I’ve seen lead with the fact that he played “Poppy” on four episodes of Seinfeld. Obviously Jerry was smart enough to tap him because he knew and respected his wor (as he did with so many great character actors over the years). As for the industry at large: man, get it together, Hollywood.