Old pop-eyes

The story of the late Marty Feldman is a classic showbiz yarn of riches and rags. James Rampton traces the rollercoaster career of a comic genius poised for a renewed encounter with stardom
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The Independent Culture
His face was his fortune. In the 1960s, Marty Feldman suffered from a thyroid condition that made his eyes pop and gave them that mad, staring quality. It became, his writing partner Barry Took recalls, "a great money-earner for him. Once seen, never forgotten.''

In the 1990s Feldman's face is rarely seen and its owner largely forgotten. Jonathan Ross, who presents the clumsily titled It's Marty Resurrected: Some of the Best of Marty Feldman on BBC2 next Tuesday at 9pm, calls him "The forgotten man of comedy''.

David Housham, producer of It's Marty Resurrected, feels that "90 per cent of the reason Marty has been forgotten is that he's not physically here any more. He can't be pulled out of retirement to appear on Gagtag and be interviewed by the Independent.''

In the late 1960s, however, the world was Marty's lobster. After a spell in music hall - in a triple-act described as "a down-market Marx Brothers" - he teamed up with Took. They wrote the radio series Round the Horne and The Frost Report - as well as The Army Game, The Glums, Take It from Here and We're in Business.

Housham takes up the story. "Marty had become a father figure to John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who persuaded him he was too entertaining as a person not to be a performer. So he did several disruptive cameos on their satirical series At Last the 1948 Show. On the strength of this, Bill Cotton offered Marty his own show.''

Marty, which ran for two series in 1968-69, won the Writers' Guild Award and the Silver Rose, Montreux. "He emerged as this fully-fledged, unique comic presence,'' says Housham.

The testament to Feldman's impact is how much his style - anarchic, surreal and physical - has been aped. He thrived on the comedy of incongruity, beloved of everyone subsequently from Monty Python to Reeves & Mortimer. In one memorable sketch from Marty, he plays a boozing, yobbish ballet dancer being ticked off by the head of the company (John Junkin): "For your information, the Nutcracker Prince enters with a grande jettee. He does not lurch onto the stage in a plastic mackintosh clutching a quarter bottle of brown ale and a bag of vinegar flavoured crisps."

"He will be remembered for being a wild- eyed iconoclast,'' Took, the co-writer of Marty, reflects. "You always wondered what the hell he was going to do next... he had a terrific sense of danger. Looking like that, you thought 'what's he going to do now, get out an axe?' Some of the best jokes came out of this weird-looking guy playing it straight."

For Housham, "Marty had this massive energy born out of irreverence. He was an amazing gentle anarchist, a genuinely subversive rebellious spirit - and there isn't much of that in comedy at the moment. The energy, the slapstick, and the surreal visual element still hold up. What I find interesting is that you can see in Marty a lot of the rough templates for Monty Python sketches... things in Marty that seem like classic John Cleese sketches in embryo turn out to have been written by Feldman and Took.''

Gene Wilder, acting at the Bristol Old Vic, saw Marty and told his colleague Mel Brooks about this bizarre comedian with a face that launched a thousand tugboats. Brooks cast Feldman as Igor, the hunch-backed henchman in Young Frankenstein and then in Silent Movie.

"There aren't that many British comedy performers who have been taken that seriously in Hollywood," says Housham, "or who have got anywhere near that position - except perhaps John Cleese with A Fish Called Wanda.''

Then things began to go horribly wrong. On the back of his success with Brooks, "he got a deal where he had complete control, and it didn't work,'' according to Took.

In 1977 he wrote, directed and starred in The Last Remake of Beau Geste, a flop. In 1980 In God We Trust, an attempted religious satire, opened for just four days in the US. "A rare achievement - a comedy with no laughs,'' sneered Variety.

"It was the Icarus thing,'' Took sighs. "He flew too near the sun. It happened to Hancock and many others. Performers get out of sympathy with what they can do. They feel they don't need anyone else. But you don't want to direct yourself being funny. You need another pair of eyes on you. Marty had very little technique: he was all instinct and flair.'' Housham muses: "Part of the reason Marty became disillusioned was that he'd been given the free run of the train set and not known what to do with it''.

In the early 1980s, Feldman fell into what is euphemistically termed "the Hollywood lifestyle.'' In 1982, aged 49, he tried a comeback in Graham Chapman's pirate comedy Yellowbeard, filmed in Mexico.

Housham concludes this sad comedian's story. "They had finished all Marty's scenes - except for one in which he was hiding in a trunk for a sight gag. Marty spent all day crouched in a small hot trunk, when he wasn't well. During the night after that he suffered a fatal heart attack. His last words were said to be 'how is this going to affect the film?'. It's poignant that even then he was keen to be part of a success. It's the old showbiz trouper thing - born in a trunk, died in a trunk."