Tuesday, February 5, 2013

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Casting Coup Month: The Sunshine Boys

Best Actor - Walter Matthau
Best Supporting Actor - George Burns (WON)
Best Adapted Screenplay -  Neil Simon
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Albert Brenner/Marvin March

Neil Simon was having quite the 1975, wasn't he? First, there was Prisoner of Second Avenue, starring screen legend Jack Lemmon and shoulda-been-nominated Anne Bancroft. Then there was The Sunshine Boys, the adaptation of his hit play about former vaudeville partners reluctantly reunited for a TV special. Lemmon's usual partner in crime, Walter Matthau, took the lead -- Willy Clark, still stubbornly showing up for auditions even though he can't read the copy, remember his lines, or even find the damn studio.

Matthau was doing the usual Matthau thing, and it either works for you or it doesn't. It's an all right performance, but one gets the feeling that Matthau was going through a lazy period -- sleepwalking through The Front Page, hamming it up bizarrely in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and alternating between both modes here. Sure, he got the nomination, but the Academy has often overlooked fine performances in favor of a familiar face.

It's fine, though; everyone knows this isn't Matthau's show.

George Burns was a vaudevillian known for being the straight man to his wife Gracie Allen. They were big on the radio, big on TV, and beloved by all, but Burns hadn't appeared in a film since 1939. Television, sure -- but even that started to wane after Gracie's death in 1964. Then came a big break -- which sounds bizarre when you're talking about a man who'd been in showbiz about 50 years. Anyway, vaudevillian Jack Benny was originally cast in the role of Al Lewis, the retired half of Lewsi and Clark, but ill health prevented him from continuing on. Fortunately, he had a replacement in mind...

Burns is terrific in the film. He's subtle, he's sincere; all those years as Gracie's straight man make him the perfect scene partner. He listens, and when he's not listening, he's underplaying. And walks right off with the film. It revived his career, paving the way for the Oh, God! trilogy and the heist flick Going in Style. And besides all that green he was seeing, he also got some gold out of the deal. And  I ain't just talkin' about the Golden Globe.

The Sunshine Boys was later remade as a television movie starring Peter Falk as Clark and Woody Allen as Lewis, keeping with Neil Simon's wish that Jewish comics play the title roles. Well, I'm a pretty lousy listener sometimes, so excuse me while I ignore that and imagine some other living legends of comedy in the roles. Besides, if they can update the original to reflect TV comics, can't I do the same?

Who is He: Willy's forever-harried nephew/agent. He gets Willy the deal to appear on TV...with Al.

Originally played by: Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (The Sunshine Boys)
Richard Benjamin (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Deconstructing Harry)

My Choice:
Alfonso Ribeiro ("Silver Spoons", "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air")
Plays flustered quite well, and is always a welcome presence on the Silver Screening Room.

Who is He: Former member of comedy team of Lewis and Clark. Lewis is the straight man of the duo. He left the partnership when it was no longer fun, opting instead to be a husband and father. He doesn't hate Willy, but he can't stand him.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor, Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Musical/Comedy (The Sunshine Boys)
George Burns (Oh, God!, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

My Choice:
Robert Guillaume ("Soap", "Sports Night")
Now, let me honest. Sherman Hemsley was my first choice, and I originally had a Sunshine Boys casting coup ready to go. The next day, he died. So I thought, what other comic legend could play Al Lewis? Who else could hold his own as a straight man against my Clark? It had to be Benson.

Who is He: Clutching on to his former vaudeville fame, even as he gets lost on the way to an audition, is unable to read his scripts, and refuses to cooperate with anyone else, be they director, nephew, or former partner. Refuses to work with Lewis, so deep is his bitterness against him.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (The Fortune Cookie), BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actor (Pete 'n' Tillie, Charley Varrick), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Musical/Comedy (The Sunshine Boys)
Walter Matthau (Goodbye Charlie, Kotch)

My Choice:
Bill Cosby ("I Spy", "Cosby Mysteries")
A no-brainer. There's no one else who so perfectly embodies the Great American Comic. It'd be a casting coup, indeed, just as significant as Burns playing Lewis, only this time we'd get to see one of the most beloved TV fathers as an hostile, bitter former funnyman. It'd be poignant, it'd be funny, it'd be CLASSIC.

Best Actor - Bill Cosby
Best Supporting Actor - Robert Guillaume, Alfonso Ribeiro

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