My uncle was Marty Feldman, the great comedian. Most people remember him for his hilarious performance as “Igor” in Young Frankenstein. I remember him as a wise and tender man – very intelligent, very deep, and especially loving toward his wife, my Aunt Lauretta, who until her death last year was also one of the emotional pillars of my life. Marty himself died 29 years ago this December. His end was very sudden; he had suffered a heart attack while filming in Mexico; but his comic genius is still widely celebrated.
He is also been commemorated in a thorough, brilliantly written new book, Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend, by Robert Ross. I highly recommend it; I was interviewed for the book. One selfish bit of satisfaction has been to look up where I’m quoted and discover that not only is it precisely what I said, but the context Ross has created from cover to cover is absolutely true to how Marty viewed his own life. He was a very private man. Not secretive; he had nothing to hide but he would have hated any attempt to heat up his life story with false melodrama. Ross has instead gone out of his way to build an accurate picture of the world around Marty, of the inspiring people he worked with. Among these were John Cleese and Michael Palin in Britain, before they became famous as Monty Python; and in America, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, just as they and Marty were about to become box-office giants for a time after Young Frankenstein.
Most satisfying of all is that Ross does not harp on that admittedly great success. He creates a portrait of Marty as a writer, director, producer and thinker. His madcap imagination on paper, writing endless sketches for the BBC and other outlets, was the engine of his first success in England. It was the backbone of what he did with his American popularity. Marty wrote, directed and starred in a very forward-thinking satire, In God We Trust (1980), co-starring the great Andy Kauffman and Richard Pryor. Marty was, by the way, the first filmmaker to ever cast a black man in the role of God. This film so cleverly takes on the rise of fundamentalist religion and its hypocrisies that it is still relevant, and ripe for rediscovery. What “lives on” in any comedian’s work is their fearlessness, their being true to their art. This is Marty’s great legacy.
Most moving to me is that Ross evokes the background of the period, especially Ronnie Scott’s legendary jazz club of the 1960s, which Marty found so nourishing and inspiring and which were part of my world 20 years or so later. I think any reader would be powerfully transported back to this place and time. Ross’s fine prose and eye for detail awoke a deep nostalgia in me for that period and a feeling of deeper connection to both Marty and Lauretta. What they shared as lovers, as a couple was between them. Ross honors that. But around them he creates a vivid sense of the turbulence and opportunities that made my uncle’s rise to fame possible, even inevitable. The world still needs his brand of comedy and the thinking behind a genius. This book makes a welcome case for that. Go out and buy it at Amazon!