40 Years Ago: “My Favorite Year”

Well, not MY favorite year of course but that of this semi-autobiographical film’s main character. This film was released on October 8, 1982, 40 years ago today. The titular annus mirabilis was 1954.

My Favorite Year is not “my favorite movie” but it is certainly A favorite, and my buddies and I watched it together numerous times both in the cinema and when it came out on video. We knew that it was loosely based on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, but I’m not sure we realized the extent to which was driven by Caesar alum Mel Brooks. In a way, it’s Brooks’ equivalent to Neil Simon’s later Laughter on the 23rd Floor. He didn’t write or direct this movie but he produced it, and it is based on his memories, and the young writer portrayed by then-newcomer Mark Linn-Baker was based on Brooks and young Woody Allen. (With regard to the latter, two interesting tangents: 1. Mark Linn-Baker’s film debut had been in Allen’s 1979 movie Manhattan, and 2. It’s interesting that Allen himself never made a comedy about these years; that’s something I’d like to see).

Peter O’Toole was associated with Woody Allen though — they’d appeared together in 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat? (which Allen also wrote), and Casino Royale (1967), in which Allen had a smallish part and O’Toole a funny cameo. Though O’Toole was a major Oscar winning star, there’s cruel injustice in posters mentioning only him. Linn-Baker was an unknown but he’s the real star, the protagonist of the movie. O’Toole’s role is in the tradition of his scenery chewing madman characters such as he’s played in The Ruling Class (1972) and The Stunt Man (1980). In this case, he plays a drunken, out-of-control movie star (based on Errol Flynn) who Linn-Baker’s young writer character must wrangle so that his appearance on the comedy show isn’t a disaster. He takes a risk in doing so; his own career is on the line, so the stakes aren’t nil, but it’s still basically a 90 minute sit-com episode. Just a few years later Linn-Baker would get to put these same comedic skills to extended use on Perfect Strangers.

There is also a hilarious subplot having to do with the star of the show King Kaiser (Joe Bologna) taking perverse delight in making fun of a particular gangster on the show, with the result that the gangster may also destroy the show by killing Kaiser. The gangster is hilarious played by Cameron Mitchell, who had earlier appeared opposite Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft in the B movie horror classic Gorilla at Large (which had been released in 1954, as coincidence would have it!).

The script was written by Norman Steinberg, who’d also been one of the writers on Blazing Saddles, and was directed by the brilliant Richard Benjamin (his first film as director, in fact, an excellent debut!) But the ensemble cast pushes it over the top into magic. Besides the above mentioned there’s Jessica Harper from Woody’s Love and Death and Stardust Memories (and fresh off Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin) as the love interest. Bill Macy from Maude is the frantic head writer based on Mel Tolkin. Basil Hoffman (who passed away just about a year ago) plays a writer based on Neil Simon, who only whispers his suggestions in the ear of whoever’s sitting next to him. Adolph Green of Comden and Green is another writer. Real life Caesar writer Selma Diamond has a role. Mel Brooks regular George Wyner is in it. Lainie Kazan is the hero’s overbearing mother, and Lou Jacobi (who’d been in Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) plays an embarrassing uncle. Pre-code star Gloria Stuart, whom younger readers known from Titanic, has a small role. And for a real head-spinner, the dancing girl inside the Old Gold Cigarette package was Lana Clarkson, the woman later murdered by Phil Spector!

Speaking of music (ha! how’s that for an audacious segue), we’re also nearing the 30th anniversary of the Broadway musical version of My Favorite Year, which played a few weeks in late 1992 and early 1993. Kazan reprised her role in that show, joined in the cast by Tim Curry, Andrea Martin (in her Broadway debut), Ethan Philips, and Josh Mostel (whose dad Zero was in Mel brook’s the Producers of course, as well as The Front with Woody Allen).

Much like Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, My Favorite Year really does rate inclusion within the very show biz lore it chronicles.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy a read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.