by Mike Kuhlenbeck
THE SUBVERSIVE WISDOM of comedian Marty Feldman should be chiseled in stone, and his unique likeness carved into a monument celebrating his efforts to slay the Establishment with humor.
Martin Alan Feldman was born in north London’s Canning Town on July 8, 1934 to Jewish emigrants from Kiev, Ukraine. At 15, he left school and began to lead a bohemian lifestyle, wandering the streets of Soho and Paris and working in various lines of work. Feldman sought the life of a professional entertainer, whether as a comedian or as (self-described) “the world’s worst” jazz trumpet player, but success came to him first as a writer — often in partnership with another comic writer, Barry Took — for such popular British radio and television shows as The Army Game, Bootsy and Snudge and Round the Horne.
He gained in fame as the head writer for The Frost Report (1966-67) and as a performer on At Last the 1948 Show, on which he partnered with members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Soon he was signed to headline his own programs: Marty; Marty Amok; Marty Feldman All Together Again; The Marty Feldman Show; The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine.
Feldman hit a nerve with audiences (or at least rattled their funny bones) because he was a rebel who matured but never grew up, especially when it came to recognizing authority. Viewers also could not help being amazed by his
bulging eyes, which had resulted from a botched operation for Graves’ Disease.
The BBC documentary Marty Feldman: Six Degrees of Separation recounts Feldman testifying in the widely-publicized obscenity trial involving British counterculture publication OZ. Printed in the 1960s and ’70s in Sydney, Australia and in a London edition, OZ was subjected to obscenity trials in both countries, Australia in 1964 and Great Britain in 1971. Feldman’s testimony created nearly as many headlines as the trial. His refusal to swear on the Holy Bible angered the judge, and the exchange between the two later resembled a sketch from one of Feldman’s shows. Asked to define satire, he quoted a producer at the BBC saying he’d “be allowed two bloodies and one bastard” in a script “if he took out a tit.”
The London trial was trumpeted as a landmark case in the cause of free expression. Convictions for three of the magazine’s publishers and activists produced large demonstrations in London (the convictions were thrown out on appeal).
Voyaging across the Atlantic, Feldman was soon working with director Mel Brooks and actor Gene Wilder in the comedy classic Young Frankenstein. Feldman played the hunchbacked Igor (pronounced “Eye-Gore”), a role written specifically for him in this homage to the black-and-white Universal monster films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Feldman also played a supporting role in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975. He then teamed-up with Brooks again 1976 for Silent Movie (1976), in which Feldman was able to perform the kind of physical comedy championed by his film hero, Buster Keaton.
Notwithstanding his success, according to the U.K. Telegraph, Feldman in Hollywood “hated the gaudy rich and was most at ease when playing football with a group of Italian waiters he had befriended.” “Money can’t buy poverty,” he once quipped. Although Feldman was heralded as a kind of British Woody Allen or Mel Brooks, there was something more seditious about Feldman’s brand of comedy.
For example, he joined forces with writers Chris Allen and Sam Bobrick to create a send-up of the historical epic Beau Geste for his directorial debut, released in 1977. Film versions of Beau Geste, bed on the novel by P.C. Wren, were made in 1926, 1939 and 1966. The story revolves around the adventures of two brothers in the French Foreign Legion. Feldman added a madcap and subversive touch. As the title character, Michael York’s character laughingly rejects Digby’s proposition of military glory and rising up in the ranks: “Medals are like hemorrhoids. Sooner or later every asshole gets one!” Much of the film’s premise can be interpreted as a send-up of militarism and the notion that dying for a cause is nobler than living for one.
After reportedly poor test screenings before the film’s release, however, Beau Geste was taken away from Feldman’s control and was edited by a monkey-wrench gang hired by the studio executives.
Although not always inclined to talk about serious politics in public, even though he was an avowed socialist, Feldman used the opportunity of touring on behalf of Beau Geste to denounce the homophobic crusade of born-again Christian performer Anita Bryant, who was touring the country supporting ordinances rolling back gains made in the LGBTQ movement up to that point. “I do wish that more straights would come out against Anita Bryant,” Feldman said in People magazine (“Killer Looks” by Barbara Wilkins, August 29, 1977).
Feldman also took on the sacred cow of organized religion in 1980 with his second directorial feature, In God We Tru$t, or Gimme That Prime Time Religion, which he wrote. Feldman starred as Brother Ambrose, a monk who travels to Los Angeles to help raise money for his monastery. Ambrose soon meets televangelist Rev. Armageddon T. Thunderbird, played by Andy Kaufman. Dressed in a pearly white suit and crowned with a Jimmy Swaggart pompadour, Thunderbird delivers the following lines with a Southern-fried Baptist drawl:
“If God had not meant for some folks to be poorer than others, then He would not have published the Bible in paperback.”
“Money can’t buy happiness! Only POWER can do that!”
The film was years ahead of its time, anticipating the fall from grace of a horde of glitzy born-again pastors in the 1980s and ’90s. The Moral Majority and the Christian Conservative backlash against the progressive reforms of the 1960s were in full swing when the film came out, and given its controversial subject matter and poor notices from critics, Feldman was dropped from his Universal Pictures contract.
Not long after filming commenced on the ill-fated comedic saga Yellow Beard, starring and co-written by his friend Graham Chapman, Feldman died from a massive coronary in Mexico City on December 2, 1982. He was only 48.
Feldman never lost his sense of humor when challenged by the British ruling class or the bureaucratic corporate suits on the other side of the Atlantic. “I won’t eat anything that has intelligent life,” Feldman said, “but I’d gladly eat a network executive or a politician.”
Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union member based in Des Moines, Iowa.