Forget T. E. Lawrence. Forget King Henry. Forget any sonorous display of Shakespearean angst. I will remember Peter O’Toole instead for the 1982 movie in which he played Errol Flynn – um, I mean Alan Swann – and set a new standard for comedic courage.
MY FAVORITE YEAR is sly and clever, just like the zoo-cageful of comedy writers it depicts working on something very much like the pioneering Sid Caesar (in the film, “King Kaiser”) variety show. This was where soon-to-be-legendary young writers including Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Mel Tolkin passed through their crucible of fire trying to please the imperious, appropriately-named Caesar (done to goombah perfection here by Joseph Bologna). A more polite, milquetoast version of the same writers’ room is the office setting of the old Dick Van Dyke show, but this depiction is rawer and funnier as the weisenheimers keep topping each other, to their and our delight.
However, the back-and-forth amusement leaps into gasping peals of laughter the instant this week’s guest star arrives: a roaring-drunk (I’m talking LION IN WINTER roaring!) past-his-prime star of classic swashbuckler movies who welcomes himself by doing a forward flip and passing out on the writers’ conference table. Say, who is that clown who’ll try anything for a laugh? You can’t take your eyes off Peter O’Toole, and he’s the star of the show even when he’s off screen.
As in any good sitcom, there are several plot fireworks going off at once. The junior writer, “the Kid” (played by Mark Linn-Baker), a devoted Alan Swann fan, is assigned to keep O’Toole as sober as possible until show time. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make time with a cute colleague. Then there’s a neglected-daughter undercurrent that O’Toole uses brilliantly to prevent the character from becoming a two-dimensional cartoon. Finally, he’s a veteran ladykiller, perhaps weary of the grind but nonetheless taking advantage of his stardom in two gorgeous setpieces: in a ritzy nightclub and, over the Kid’s mortified objections, at his working-class mother’s Brooklyn apartment (Lainie Kazan, who kills in this role, welcomes Swann to her “humble chapeau”).
The director, Richard Benjamin, who earns a lifetime achievement award for MY FAVORITE YEAR alone, understands that it’s a story composed of wonderful little sketch-comedy moments (true fans can quote them all), and it’s O’Toole who has most of them. You can consider a line on the page and wonder how it would have sounded coming from a lesser throat. In his first scene, while Swann is passed out, King Kaiser wants to fire the sot immediately, but the Kid successfully pleads for him, even bets against a crotchety old writer that he can make it all work. We didn’t think Swann was listening, but after he’s righted, his exit line is, “Double the lad’s bet for me, you toad.” (Later, he explains: “There’s out, and there’s out.”) Nobody could have landed those words better.
The one line that everybody remembers comes when Swann discovers, after the final dress rehearsal, that the King Kaiser show will be broadcast live. No retakes. His eyes get as big as they were when he woke from a boozy night with two cute stewardesses to discover a teddy bear in their bed, in his hands. He swings his prop sword in terror and bellows, “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!”
What other actor of O’Toole’s stature could have retained an amount of boozy dignity (when he’s sober, he is dashing, and his requested dance with a radiant Gloria Stuart, whose featured roles ranged from THE INVISIBLE MAN years earlier to James Cameron’s TITANIC years later, is quite touching) while searching for the nearest banana peel? And what other actor of any stature could play so broadly and still deliver a fully realized, fully understandable, fully human interpretation? Alan Swann earned O’Toole his seventh Oscar nomination. And as we pay tribute to the distinguished career of a magnificent artist, I’ll have to be honest: that’s the role I’ll recall with the greatest fondness. Farewell, lad. You were an actor and a movie star.
2/12/14: And today we learned that Sid Caesar himself has passed away. Ave atque vale.