This new year has proven a costly one in the losses of superlative comedic stars, and sadly the brilliant character and voice actor Kenneth Mars has joined that list after losing his battle with cancer at age 75. Mars, a prolific performer on and off the screen, appeared in over 35 films but likely is best remembered for his work on two Mel Brooks-directed classics, zany Broadway satire THE PRODUCERS (1968) and the hilarious horror send-up YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).
Beginning his early career in television episodic appearances in the early 1960s with stints on GUNSMOKE and GET SMART, Mars reportedly got his iconic film role as ex-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind only after Dustin Hoffman turned it down to star in THE GRADUATE. Film history assured both actors got the roles they deserved and Mars succeeded mightily as the German ex-patriot who penned the “worst play ever written” with its inimitable show-stopping musical number ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ If only Mel Brooks could conceive and write such a character, surely only Kenneth Mars could make this Fuhrer-loving lyricist a fondly remembered role later reprised (but never topped) in Brooks’ Tony Award-winning Broadway adaptation decades later.
Mars followed up this stand-out performance with supporting roles in the Newman/Redford hit western BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and the Jack Lemmon romantic comedy THE APRIL FOOLS, both released in 1969. In 1972, Mars created another hilariously iconic character as the silly musicologist Hugh Simon in WHAT’S UP DOC? opposite Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, a fond salute to classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. A master of foreign dialects (both genuine and comically absurd), Mars made Simon both an imposing and inane personality, proving the perfect foil to wise-cracking Streisand and romantic lead O’Neal. Far too few movie fans know of WHAT’S UP DOC? though all who appreciate Mars’ work should consider it a must-own title.
No less iconic or hilarious is Mars’ Inspector Kemp from Brooks’ parody YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, a comedic triumph as a take-off of a similar one-armed investigator played by Lionel Atwill in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Kemp is Atwill’s Krogh but with the key character ingredients all twisted slightly askew, such as the mechanical arm prosthetic which is both Mars’ favorite prop and character foe, and Kemp’s monocle which stays carefully perched over his patched eye. Watch how Kemp polishes the monocle with care before returning it to his blind eye again for an educational primer in dazzlingly detailed character work.
Perhaps Mars’ greatest gift as a comedy actor was making these utterly absurd characters with their broadly daffy traits not only believable but beloved by audiences as their sides split at his antics. These characters, while obviously and delightful stand-out work in truly great American film comedies, all supported their stories and their stars to sublime effect. Mars may not have been the biggest name in these casts, but often he was the most memorable face and voice in the bunch.
Kenneth Mars filled the next three decades of his lengthy career with nearly countless TV series and voice-acting roles including King Triton in Disney’s animated classic THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) and his final voice-over character Grandpa Longneck in 2008’s THE LAND BEFORE TIME.
Tonight FilmEdge toasts the life and career of Kenneth Mars with “a little wine und a little sponge cake” as we remember one of our favorite comedic character masters.
Kenneth Mars as musicologist Hugh Simon in WHAT’S UP DOC?
Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN