My Mentor: Marty Feldman
By David Weddle
For the last 17 years I have been working as a writer/producer in television, on such shows as: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Fearing Mind, The Twilight Zone, Battlestar Galactica, CSI and Falling Skies. I did not set out to be a science fiction writer. I came to the genre through a series of happy accidents. Originally, I wanted to be a comedy writer, and I found an unlikely mentor in the brilliant British comedian, Marty Feldman. As strange as it may seem, Marty, taught me many things that continue to serve me well to this very day.
So how did this come about?
I had a big, gruff, often terrifying father who had been a Marine in the Second World War and fought in some of the most savage battles of the South Pacific. He was volatile and had a volcanic temper and I spent a great deal of time trying to stay out of his way.
But we had one arena where we really connected: in front the television set or a movie screen, watching slapstick comedians such as Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and Dick van Dyke. My father had an incredible laugh, as big and overpowering as his rage; it came out of his thrown back head like a wind, a hurricane of hilarity that swept you away until your cheeks were cramped, your eyes streamed tears and your gut ached.
I was obsessed with clowns and, as I entered high school, fanaticized about being a gag man for a comedian. Like the great Clyde Bruckman, who wrote for Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be sitting in a gag room helping a comedian come up with great comedy sequences. It became an intense fantasy for me, much more appealing than the brutal everyday horrors of adolescence.
One night Dad’s roaring laugh came from the living room. “David!” he bellowed. “Get in here, quick, you’ve got to see this guy!” I came in to see a goggle-eyed, frizzy-haired English comedian doing a silent movie sequence on the television set. He was a cross between Harpo Marx and Buster Keaton – manic and fueled with by a hint of insane anarchy, and yet those golf ball eyes made it impossible to read exactly what was going in inside that head, there was an enigmatic quality that drew you in and a hint of melancholia as he desperately tried to retrieve his hat from a patch of grass against the wishes of a nearby cop who pointed to a “keep off the grass” sign, or tried to rescue a princess from a tower, or service a car, or escape his shrewish wife, or simply hit a golf ball into a hole. His comedy sequences often devolved into Kafkaesque nightmares, where the harder he tried to master the world he found himself imprisoned in, the further events spiraled toward disaster.
The show was called Marty Feldman’s Comedy Machine. It appeared as a summer replacement series for The Dean Martin Show. I saw every episode that summer. When I saw Feldman’s greatest silent comedy, “Loneliness and the Long Distance Golfer” I knew he was a great talent. The comedy started with a simple premise. Feldman tries to hit his ball into a hole on a golf course. But his wildly hooked shots carry him away from the course and through a city on an epic journey on the tops of dump trucks, through drain pipes, lady’s bedrooms, and train tunnels. Finally he appears on top of a train poised to hit the ball as it passes him on an adjoining train approaching from the opposite direction. For a moment, Feldman pauses to shield his eyes and gaze toward the horizon to try and spot the ball. This was a signature gesture of my greatest hero, Buster Keaton. I knew in that moment Feldman loved Keaton and knew his work.
Years passed. I went to film school. Feldman became an international star by appearing in the films of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and then finally starring in and directing a film of his own, The Last Remake of Beau Geste. This feature has some brilliant sequences, and the first half of the film is an excellent and hilariously scathing critique of British Imperialism and foreign military adventurism that is perhaps more relevant today than when it was made. But the latter half of the movie sagged into labored and uninspired routines. Still, it was a promising start for a first-time feature director and did not dampen my enthusiasm for Feldman’s work or his potential.
When I graduated from USC film school in 1978, I was determined to meet him. I knew he had a bungalow at Universal Studios. In those pre-911 days it was quite easy to sneak onto the movie lots. A friend of mine who worked as an errand boy for one of the big agencies showed me how. I drove up to the gate with a manila envelope addressed to Marty Feldman and announced I had a delivery for him. The guard directed me to his bungalow.
Trembling from head to toe, I got out of the car and walked up to the door of the bungalow. Swallowed hard then pushed through it. I was greeted by a very pleasant middle-aged woman sitting at the reception desk. I stammered out that I was a USC graduate and had written a script about Buster Keaton and wanted to have Mr. Feldman read it. I lucked out because she was a temporary secretary and didn’t kick me out with a cold admonition that Mr. Feldman didn’t read unsolicited manuscripts. Instead she said, “He’s not here right now. But give me your name and number and I’ll talk to him about it.”
I was so amazed that she didn’t throw me out on my ear that I blabbered on about what an admirer I was of his work. She said, “Would you like to see his office?” Sure! She ushered me in to an office that had a life-sized manikin Marty sitting on a couch, flipping you off. There was a mobile hanging from the ceiling with pictures of Laurel & Hardy, a portrait of Keaton on the wall, and a desk with an almost comically small portable manual typewriter. Even then, such a writing machine was almost an antique. I felt as if I had been delivered to the Promised Land.
The next day, I called back as instructed. The secretary told me she had spoken to Mr. Feldman. “He said if you called back, he would be happy to speak to you. And he’s here right now. Would you like to talk to him?”
“Uh… yeah.” I said in a voice that sounded like it belonged to a cartoon character. Then suddenly he was on the line. I stammered out an introduction, calling him Mr. Feldman. He said in a soft purring voice, “Call me Marty.” Sweat pouring from every clammy inch of my body, I launching into a stuttering description of my Keaton screenplay. When I ran out of words there was a beat of silence on the other end of the line then he said, “Well, I’m in preproduction on a feature right now. I don’t really have time to read anything.”
Not knowing what else to do, I kept on talking, describing scenes in my screenplay. He began to ask probing questions. Marty said there had already been a movie about Keaton, The Buster Keaton Story. Had I seen it? Yes – I responded. Then I quickly ticked off all of the gross inaccuracies in it and the reasons why it had been a failure. Then he asked if I had seen The Comic – a film Dick van Dyke and Carl Reiner had made about a silent movie comedian. I offered my assessments of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. He asked if there was a Fatty Arbuckle character in my script. I told him there was and described how the Arbuckle character fit into the story. “All right, I’ll tell you what,” he said at last, “send me the script and I’ll read it in my spare time. I’m so busy, it might take me a few weeks to get to it.”
A week later, I was alone in my miserable thread-bare L.A. apartment. The phone rang. It was Marty. He said, “I’ve just read your script and I think it’s brilliant. I’ve wanted to write a story about a silent movie comedian for years and you’ve done it.” He invited me to come to his office to talk about it. I hung up and danced around the apartment like chicken with its head cut off. I didn’t know then that Brits sling the word “brilliant” around with reckless abandon. It doesn’t mean they literally think something’s brilliant, just that they like it.
But even if I’d known that, it wouldn’t have mattered a damn. And so began a wonderful year in which I worked as an errand boy for Dino De Laurentiis. I would go off to make deliveries to various studios around town and sandwich in script meetings at Marty’s bungalow.
He was not like other comedians I’ve known, in that he never tried to win laughs or perform shtick and vie for attention. He was quiet, soft spoken, contemplative and the best mentor an aspiring writer could ask for. USC film school had been a shark tank. The professors took great joy in savaging your work, and the highly competitive students joined the feeding frenzy. I emerged from USC, bruised and shell-shocked and not at all certain I had any real talent.
Marty never went to college. He came from a working class background, and yet he was incredibly well read. He turned me onto F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories, which were about the life of a Hollywood hack writer, written in the late 30s and early 40s when Fitzgerald was afraid he was becoming the same thing. He was well versed in Beckett, Hemingway, foreign films and came off more as writer or filmmaker than as a comedian. Though he could also transition into a discussion of nightclub comics and dissect the strengths and weakness of their acts with great precision.
Marty assured me I had talent and paid me many, many compliments that helped rebuild my self esteem. But at the same time, he pushed me. My script may have been “brilliant,” but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be improved. He gently pushed me through rewrite after rewrite. I think I did about five drafts. Time after time, he nudged me to dig deeper into the characters’ psychology, to be more daring with structure and style. And he did this without ever sapping my enthusiasm or sense of fun. Instead of tedious, the writing became ever more exciting. After each notes session he would say, “Well, David, I hope I haven’t dulled your pencil.” He never did, he always sharpened it.
The Buster Keaton project never got made. By the time I finished writing it he had released In God We Trust, which bombed at the box office. Marty lost his bungalow at Universal, and his shot at directing major feature films was over.
We continued to work on a couple more projects. Marty asked me to write a treatment for a World War One fighter pilot story. We had some marvelous brainstorming sessions at Musso and Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard and in his new little office on Highland Avenue. I remember when I turned in a draft of the treatment, I spoke with him a few days afterwards on the telephone. It was not my last conversation with him, but it is the one that haunts me.
Marty said, “I was so high after our meeting the other day, I sat down and wrote several pages. But then I saw yours and they were so much better I threw mine away.” Imagine a big star saying that to a nobody writer who’d never sold anything? I said, “You know, Marty…” I was about to tell him how much I thought of his work, how talented I thought he was, what a great comedian, and how much he had done for me and what he meant personally and how grateful I was to him. But just as I was about to launch into it, his secretary interrupted to ask him a question. He answered it then returned to the phone. “You were saying?” he asked. I hesitated, not wanting to sound like an ass-kisser — embarrassed by my emotion. He sensed my hesitation and said, “Well, anyway, I’ll talk to you soon.”
The moment slipped away. I lost my opportunity. Never told him any of those things.
Now, almost 30 years after his death, I remain convinced that he was a great comedian. He played an indelible role in Young Frankenstein, arguably Mel Brooks’ finest film and an indisputably great comedy. His pieces for television – “Loneliness and the Long Distance Golfer,” “Putting the Cat Out,” and several others, rate as some of the finest physical comedy ever done. And his adrenaline-charged anarchistic comedy is the missing link between the Goon Show and Monty Python, a historical stepping stone in the evolution of British Comedy. His influence can still be felt in the sight gag comedy of Rowan Atkinson, particularly in his Mr. Bean comedies.
Marty thought of himself as a writer first, but he also thought of himself as a clown and he was equally accomplished at both.
When Marty died, my dream of becoming a gag writer died too. I realized there was going to be no second flowering of the 1920s, the era of great sight gag pantomime comedians was over and I would never be Clyde Bruckman. It had been an insanely romantic and hopelessly adolescent dream all along and now I woke up to that.
I drifted into journalism and spent 20 years writing magazine feature stories and a couple of books then drifted into television writing by a fluke and became something I never aspired to be: a Science Fiction writer.
Eventually I went to work on Battlestar Galactica — a show that has won a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and rave reviews from just about ever major publication. My office was about a mile across the Universal lot from Marty’s old bungalow. Every month or so I would walk down there, stop and look at it and remember.
The odd thing is, writing a TV show, you end up sitting in a room with six other writers brainstorming episodes and the sessions are not that different from the first ones I had with Marty 30 years ago — full of laughter, bristling with ideas. Today I am a writer/co-executive producer on Falling Skies. My co-writer, Bradley Thompson and I rewrite our scripts over and over again, constantly digging deeper to find new dimensions, more daring ways to attack the story. Marty taught me not to be afraid of this process or to dread it. You can always go back to what you had before, and as good as the scenes you have written seem to be they can always be better. I sometimes stop to think about it in the writers’ room and I realized I got to where I wanted to go after all. I joined a community of writers, creating something that will continue to live long after I’m gone.
Marty Feldman taught me how to do that. He also believed in me when no one else in this town did. I spent many years working every kind of terrible job you can imagine: unloading fiber glass insulation from semi trucks, counting screws in hardware warehouses, polishing airplane hanger floors, waiting tables. So many times I wanted to quit. Get a real job, a real career. Forget this crazy dream of being a writer. But one of the things that helped me hang on was the fact that Marty Feldman saw value in my work. For that I am in forever in his debt.