R.I.P., Kenneth Mars

Brilliant character actor Kenneth Mars has died at the age of 75. His career spanned decades, and he is perhaps most-remembered for his roles in Young Frankenstein and Thr Producers, but to me, he will always – ALWAYS – be “Hugh Simon” in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?.

When I was a little kid, my parents let me and my brother stay up past our bedtime only twice: once to see The Sting, and once to see What’s Up, Doc?. Both of those movies hold a special place in my heart because of the memories associated with them. Hugh Simon is a brilliant creation, a long-haired snotty musicologist with an incomprehensible vaguely Serbo-Croatian accent, who slowly becomes convinced that he is being snowed by “Mr. Bankister and Miss Burns” (played by Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand), and is a man on a mission to reveal the truth. He sneers and snorts and flips his hair back imperiously. He murmurs incomprehensible epithets under his breath, before plastering a huge brown-nosing smile on his face. He is entirely ridiculous, in every moment, and yet, you know what? Hugh Simon is right. As he says in outrage at one point, “I don’t know who HE is. But SHE is de-FINN-itely NOT HERSELF.” Hugh Simon is ambitious, obsequious, obnoxious, haughty, self-consumed, and vain. At the big party where all hell breaks loose, he gets a pie thrown in his face. Twice.

Kenneth Mars’ comedic sensibility was on another plane entirely.

He was my kind of actor. He could do things other people, flat out, could not. Every gesture was orchestrated/found/explored to not only expose the surreal inner workings of his characters, but to mine the depths of them for comedy. This is talent that was in the stratosphere. I don’t call many people geniuses, but he was one. Best thing about it? I know ZERO about him personally. ZERO.

Many actors can become movie stars (as rare a breed as they are). Many actors can have careers where they play valid and believable leading men and leading ladies.

But only HE could do what he did.

“Movie stars” WISH they could even APPROACH what he did in his roles.

I have a soft spot for funny people. I often prefer comedic actors to more serious dramatic actors, because comedy cannot be taught. It cannot be faked. We all know what it feels like to be in the presence of a person who THINKS he is hilarious, when he obviously is not. It’s painful. People who are as funny as Kenneth Mars are are “touched” by something, something Divine. Not that he didn’t work his ass off, and make conscious choices. I am sure he did. He worked those characters. But like I said: many people can cry on cue, can look beautiful in close-up, can act convincingly enough that they are cast as leading men, leading ladies. But Kenneth Mars’ gift makes those movie stars look like a dime a dozen.

His talent was original, specific, deeply absurd, and true. As funny as he often was, his characters and his immersion in them reminds me of that quote from Humphrey Bogart: “Good acting is six feet back in the eyes.”

Kenneth Mars went further back than that.


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14 Responses to R.I.P., Kenneth Mars

  1. jayne says:

    Beautifully written, Sheila.

  2. sheila says:

    “Don’t touch me, I’m a doctor.”

    God, he was great.

  3. sheila says:

    “I love your hair….”

  4. jayne says:

    “Oversimplifying? Oversimplifying? I NEVER oversimplify! There is an old Croation saying, Bollixer – ”


  5. sheila says:

    Bollixer … hahahahaha

    “My natural curiosity was aROUUUUSED!”

  6. Charles J. Sperling says:

    Well, maybe no one would ever tell Hugh Simon that he was very, very sexy, but you’re certainly shown that Kenneth Mars was at least as terrific an actor as the Fuhrer was a painter! And all without a single “baby”!

    He was good, he was kind, he was OUCH…

    For that, potage au gelee for you, though it is hard to digest…I really can’t recommend the sandwich d’knuckles…

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  8. Shelley says:

    Characters that are driven to the edge by circumstance and yet draw their egos up around them like a Roman toga in order to try to hold on to what’s left of their sanity–John Cleese-like characters, and Kenneth Mars–take “funny” to a heavenly plane.

  9. Jaquandor says:

    I watched “What’s Up Doc” when I was seven years old, the one year we had HBO. I barely remember it, really, but for some reason, a few months ago I suddenly remembered it and wrote it down on my “Movies to revisit or catch up on” list. I think I’ll move that up on the list…especially after watching that art gallery fight just now. I’ll watch just about anything that has a pie in the face in it!

  10. phil says:

    Aw, sad, just found out.

    He had that great cameo in Radio Days as Rabbi Baumel. Kind of creepy, sitting in that dark class room.
    ‘Don’t hit the boy.’

  11. sheila says:

    Yes – great cameo!!

    My thing about truly brilliant comic actors is that they are also usually brilliant in drama as well, if they get the chance. (My theory is that Meryl Streep is, at heart, a brilliant comedienne – but she made her name in dramatic parts. She can do anything. Because of her comedic sensibility. She innately goes deeper. Just a theory.)

    Kenneth Mars could also do anything.

    God, Young Frankenstein. I laugh just thinking about it.

  12. sheila says:

    Jaquandor – Oh my God, you are in for such a treat. I can (obviously) recite the movie. It never gets old. Austin Pendleton is HILARIOUS.

  13. sheila says:

    And it’s Madeline Kahn’s debut – I wrote about it in my “20 most surprising female performances” piece – along with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, I think it is one of the best debuts by an actress in cinematic history. If she debuts with THAT creation, then you know that this actress can, basically, do anything.

  14. Sharon says:

    I saw him in the television program “He and She.” He plays such a different type of character. He plays a firefighter that is such as sweet as can be. So different from Hugh Simon. Great actor.

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