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.