ON THE very first day of my very first visit to Los Angeles, I looked up from a restaurant table and saw the unmistakable face of the veteran character comedian Fritz Feld. He had lunched and was leaving, but when he saw the expression on my face, he must have recognised the recognition he received every day. Although he was then 81 he looked almost exactly like the Fritz Feld whose film performances first made me laugh 43 years before. He smiled and stopped at my table, answered a few questions - then paused expectantly. It was an obvious cue, so I asked: 'Would you mind doing the . . . ?' Before I'd even finished the request, he smiled assent, slapped his mouth to simulate the sound of a popping cork, waved jauntily, and made an exit.
Feld first demonstrated this cork-popping trick as an improvisation in an otherwise forgettable Eddie Cantor film called If You Knew Susie (1948). As Feld said in a 1982 interview in Screen Actor: 'I played a waiter called Fritz, and Eddie Cantor says, 'Fritz, champagne.' And I said, 'Champagne - (popping mouth with palm of hand) - coming up]' People laughed and I kept it as a trademark.'
Born in Berlin to prosperous Jewish parents, Feld became stagestruck at the age of 12 when his father gave him a puppet theatre. Determined to be an actor, he auditioned for Max Reinhardt's Deutsche Theater, but was rejected because of the lisp that was later to become his stock in trade. Eventually accepted by the Deutsche Theater, he appeared in many of their productions, and acted as Reinhardt's assistant. He made his film debut in the expressionistic Der Golem (1917), playing, appropriately, a court jester. More film offers followed, but he decided to emigrate to the United States because of the anti-Semitism that was poisoning his homeland.
Soon after arriving in Hollywood, he was hired by Ernst Lubitsch, an old friend from his Berlin days, as a script-reader. Acting roles began coming his way and they kept coming for over 70 years. Feld's films include Tovarich, Hollywood Hotel (both 1937), Idiot's Delight (1939), The Phantom of the Opera, Holy Matrimony (both 1943), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Call Me Madam (1953), Barefoot in the Park (1967), Hello, Dolly (1969), The Sunshine Boys (1975), A Fine Mess (1986) and Barfly (1987). He was cast as milliners, movie directors, psychiatrists, spies, composers, hotel clerks, impecunious noblemen, but mostly as waiters and maitres d'. He even played a maitre d' in the Roman Empire sequence of Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I (1981).
Brooks, a great fan, also used him in Silent Movie (1976). Jerry Lewis, another fan, employed him in eight films. At the age of 89, Feld acted in two television movies.
Married for 53 years, he was a proud father and a diligent worker for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild and local theatre groups. He and his longtime friend Joseph Schildkraut were the co-founders of the prestigious Hollywood Playhouse.
Feld's favourite film was Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which he played a monocled, Teutonic psychiatrist with the unlikely name of Dr Digby. 'The most beautiful scene ever written' was his description of a scene he shared with Katharine Hepburn. 'She's sitting in the chair, and I analyse her. The scene ends up that I am sitting in the chair and she analyses me.'
My own favourite among Feld's more than 500 films is the Marx Brothers' romp At the Circus (1939). He played Jardinet, the imperious, bearded symphony conductor brought from Paris by the socially prominent Mrs Dewksbury (Margaret Dumont, of course) to entertain at her lavish Newport party. While Feld is conducting his orchestra on a floating bandstand by the ocean, Chico and Harpo cut him loose. The film ends with the oblivious Jardinet ecstatically waving his baton as the bandstand sails back to France.