Book Review: Marty Feldman – Biography of a Comedy Legend by Robert Ross

“I was cut out to be poor however rich I am.” – Marty Feldman

Such was the belief of gone-but-never-forgotten English comedian Marty Feldman.  Most will recognize him as Igor from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, but the story behind the man is much more fascinating than his single biggest role in films. From a young age, growing up lower middle class in London’s East End, Feldman realized that despite his somewhat unique looks, he got an incredible rise out of performing and making people laugh.

The first half of the book covers Marty’s life growing up, and his rise to fame as a writer for the BBC and ITV in Great Britain.  As a young man, unable to properly focus his attention on anything he was supposed to, Feldman got kicked out of multiple schools, and eventually ran away to live on his own, basically as a hobo, at the tender age of 15.  Hanging around London jazz clubs, he had dreams of performing in his own band professionally, but lacking the talent to do so, he fell into performing for variety shows in small clubs for very little pay.

After a few years on his own, and a series of reunions with his family, Feldman fell into television writing at its infancy in the late 1950’s with his longtime writing partner Barry Took.  Took and Feldman quickly became known as the top sitcom writers in the country, and would eventually take under their wing the men who would go on to form the comedy troupe Monty Python, who arguably ended up having bigger careers than Feldman himself.

However, it was their work on shows like At Last, the 1948 Show that formed many of their comedic sensibilities and taught them how to write properly for television.  To this day, John Cleese still credits the start of his career as a comedy writer and performer to Feldman’s influence in those BBC and ITV days.

Like many British comedians before and after him, Feldman had a serious fascination with Hollywood, and when his fame rose after his show Marty, he made the leap and decided to come to America to find bigger fame and fortune.  This is when he caught the eye of Mel Brooks and landed his most famous, and arguably, most important role ever:  Igor in Young Frankenstein.  After the grand experience of working with Brooks, Feldman remained good friends with Gene Wilder, and went on to appear in his next film, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, which unfortunately didn’t match the success of Young Frankenstein.

It was about this time that close friends, like Barry Took, began to really worry about Marty’s declining health.  As it was well documented, Marty’s two main vices were coffee and cigarettes, addictions he started at 15 years old, and as an adult, he had a fascination with drinking and drugs.  In 1976, he again joined Mel Brooks for the film Silent Movie, a very Marty film, where he is allowed to do his favorite physical comedy shtick like his hero, Buster Keaton.  After these successes, Marty finally had enough clout to direct a film, and he chose The Last Remake of Beau Geste as his pet project, after signing a 3 picture deal in Hollywood.

Marty was no fool, however, he knew that directing would be make-or-break for him, and after The Last Remake of Beau Geste, Marty was confident in continuing his directing career, as the film gave him ultimate freedom to do what he wanted.  It was this freedom that did in his next project, though, the satirical In God We Tru$t, pointed directly at those who profit from religion.  The touchy subject was too much for most audiences, who stayed away from the film.  Despite the money made from Beau Geste, Marty was seen as a risk and never allowed to direct a major film again.

Ultimately, this was Marty’s downfall, he was so crushed by the fact that no one saw what he saw on In God We Tru$t, that he lost all confidence in his own work.  He returned to his ever-loving wife Lauretta, broken and dissatisfied.  He appeared in some specials with the Monty Python crew, who were ever-grateful for his presence, but his last film would be 1983’s Yellowbeard, with the Python crew and his new friends Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong whom he bonded with during filming.  However, Yellowbeard would be his last film, as he had a tragic ending in Mexico after shooting most of his scenes, which were able to be completed without him.  The full story of his death is worth the price of the book alone, a suitably depressing ending to a tragic life that touched so many people.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of Feldman’s work, or someone who has just discovered him in Young Frankenstein, this biography is a complete picture of the complicated man that made so many people laugh, and seems to have been unfairly forgotten after his untimely death.  Especially good for fans of comedy who are interested not only in the machinations of making others laugh, but what laughter means to the human race as a whole.  Feldman was a rare man that will never be repeated, and thanks to Robert Ross, no one has to forget him.


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