Sunday, March 6, 2011

Remembering Kenneth Mars

Actor Kenneth Mars died recently, at age 75, after a long career in show business. He is best known for starring in films such as Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974), where he played the persistent police inspector with the prosthetic arm. He also had roles in TV shows, ranging from guest spots on such varied series as Harry O and Will & Grace to a regular part on Malcolm in the Middle. He also did voice work on the animated TV series The Little Mermaid and Fievel's American Tails. But it’s in two specific parts that I’ll always fondly remember him.

One of those roles, as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks’ uproarious 1968 film The Producers, was one of his earliest appearances, but I can’t imagine anyone forgetting the actor once they saw him do his stuff.  Liebkind is the fulcrum of the movie wherein shady producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and wound-up accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) plot to sell multiple shares in the worst theatrical production they can conceive. Their expectation is that it will tank and they can then run away with all the investors’ monies. Unfortunately for Bialystock and Bloom, the musical, provocatively called Springtime for Hitler, is a big hit. The scene where Liebkind, a former Nazi and current pigeon breeder, and the musical’s creator, entertains his two Jewish guests (who need him to sign onto the project) and fulminates about how ‘the fuhrer’ was a better house painter than Winston Churchill, is hilarious. Mars plays it straight in this comedy – a deranged guy who really believes in his cause and, somehow, dare I say it, makes this unlikely character, a Nazi no less, likeable. It’s a gusty performance in a bold satire that is usually acknowledged for its remarkable musical finale, with dancers forming a giant swastika on stage. It is Mel Brook’s raspberry to the all-WASP Busby Berkeley musicals of his youth. But it’s Mars, in his deft incarnation of Liebkind, who even more so than the perpetually hysterical Bloom and entertainingly conniving Bialystock, stands out in a performance for the ages.

Kenneth Mars in Fernwood 2 Night (1977)
The other Mars role I love, besides his Young Frankenstein turn, is that of his character on TV’s short-lived Fernwood 2 Night (1977), where he played a crazed UFO nut named W. D. ‘Bud’ Prize. The name gives you a hint of what Mars is up to on this faux TV talk show – created by All in the Family’s Norman Lear in the vein of his equally inspired soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which it briefly replaced in the summer of 1977. What I recall most about “Bud’ Prize wasn’t so much his ranting about extraterrestrial conspiracies, though those were funny enough, but the contraption he wore around his jaw, ostensibly to straighten it out. It was a prop but a brilliant one, forcing you to pay more attention to the actor playing the character. Mars shone in his five appearances on Fernwood 2 Night, which was a show chock-full of scene-stealing actors, from Martin Mull’s gleefully smarmy TV host Barth Gimble to the always spot on Fred Willard as Jerry Hubbard (Barth’s clueless Ed McMahon-like sidekick) to Frank De Vol as the dour “Happy” Kyne (head of the show’s house band happy Kyne and His Mirthmakers). There was just something about the way Mars played the part of “Bud” Prize, oblivious to how he came across but a fervent believer in the rightness of his beliefs, which was not that different from Franz Liebkind. It actually made you want him to be on each episode, and you missed him until he came back.

Mars didn’t have too many parts as juicy as those of Liebkind and Prize – what actors do? – but he made the most of those roles when they came his way. Sadly, he wasn’t one of the 41 people acknowledged in this year’s In Memoriam section of the Oscars, which pays tribute to those significant figures in the industry who died in the past year, but he should have been. It’s superb character actors like Mars who are the nuts and bolts of the profession, who offer valuable support to the leads in the movies and TV shows they grace with their presence. In that vein, it was Mars, despite only a few parts that actually cemented his reputation, who made his mark like few others.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He is currently teaching a course on film genre at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute. For more information click on to the Ryerson catalogue

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