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Feldman, Marty (1934-1982)

Comedian, Actor, Writer, Director

Main image of Feldman, Marty (1934-1982)

With his manic, bulbous-eyed visage (the result of an operation to correct a thyroid complaint when in his late twenties) and a crooked nose courtesy of too many youthful boxing bouts, Marty Feldman (born in London on 8 July 1934) possessed a unique comedic appearance, which, allied with a natural gift for comedy writing and performance, made him one of Britain's most popular and influential (though now largely neglected) comedians of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Following a range of occupations after leaving school (including a lamentable attempt at being a jazz trumpeter), Feldman became part of the comedy act 'Morris, Marty and Mitch', with whom he made his television debut on 18 April 1955 in Showcase (BBC).

Those early years as a performer were not particularly successful, however, and it was as a comedy writer that Feldman made his name. Although he collaborated with Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney on Educating Archie (ITV, 1958-59), and on the radio version from which it derived, it was with Barry Took, whom he had first met in 1954 when both men were working in variety, that he was to forge the more fruitful writing partnership.

Beginning on radio in 1959, and in 1960 for television with some episodes of popular sitcom The Army Game (ITV, 1957-61), their prodigious writing partnership, encompassing both sitcoms and sketch material, endured until 1974, with the non-stop barrage of double entendres and risqué jokes of radio's Round the Horne (BBC, 1965-68) their crowning achievement.

Feldman's solo writing work in this period included a position as chief writer on The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67), for which he co-wrote the celebrated 'class' sketch featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.

Although he held no great desire to return to performing, he was tempted back for At Last the 1948 Show (ITV, 1967), at the urging of fellow cast members John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Co-written by Feldman, the show's bombardment of quick-fire, frequently surreal sketches not only laid the groundwork for Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) but brought Feldman himself to public attention.

The result was his own series, It's Marty (BBC, 1968-69), a not always successful but often inspired mixture of studio-shot and filmed sketches, the latter (invariably shot silent) winning particular acclaim. The series won awards for its scripts (largely written by Feldman and Took) from both the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and the Society of Film and Television Arts in 1969, with Feldman also winning a Society of Film and Television Arts award for his performance.

It was followed by two comedy specials, Marty Amok (BBC, tx. 30/3/1970) and Marty Abroad (BBC, tx. 1/1/1971), and the series The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (ITV, 1971-72), the latter winning the Golden Rose at Montreux in 1972.

With ambitions for film stardom, Feldman became convinced his future lay in America. Consequently, his next series, Marty Back Together Again (BBC, 1974), proved to be both his last for British television and his final collaborative work with Took.

His British feature film vehicle, Every Home Should Have One (d. Jim Clark, 1970) was crass and dull, and a deserved flop, despite being written by Feldman himself, together with Took and Denis Norden. His early work in America, however, promised greater things, with well-received appearances in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976), the latter winning Feldman a Golden Globe nomination. However, aspirations for Hollywood success came crashing to earth when his two starring vehicles, The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) and In God We Trust (1980), both of which he also directed and co-wrote, were unmitigated disasters. For American television he also directed one episode of Mel Brooks' short-lived When Things Were Rotten (ABC, 1975).

Feldman never achieved the same level of success in America he had enjoyed in Britain, and any remaining hopes of rectifying this were tragically dashed when he died from a heart attack in Mexico on 2 December 1982 while filming Yellowbeard (d. Mel Damski, 1982). He was 48.

John Oliver

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)

Sketch comedy series now seen as a dry run for Monty Python

Thumbnail image of Dick Emery Show, The (1963-81)Dick Emery Show, The (1963-81)

'Ooh you are awful...'. Skits and sketches from the cross-dressing comic

Thumbnail image of Frost Report, The (1966-67)Frost Report, The (1966-67)

Topical comedy show, a successor to the more famous TW3

Thumbnail image of It's Marty (1968-69)It's Marty (1968-69)

Marty Feldman's unjustly forgotten pre-Python sketch series

Thumbnail image of Stars and Garters (1963-66)Stars and Garters (1963-66)

Unpretentious, very popular pub-set variety show

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Thumbnail image of Took, Barry (1928-2002)Took, Barry (1928-2002)

Writer, Actor, Presenter