Thirty-three years after his death, the memoirs of a comic legend have come to light
How odd to publish an autobiography — and it is an autobiography, not a ghosted effort — 33 years after your death. But Marty Feldman was always jotting things down (poems, jokes, memories, aphorisms) and told his wife he was writing an autobiography. Then he died, suddenly, of a heart attack, in 1982 when he was only 48. He just had time to call his friend Graham Chapman, who was a doctor before he was a Python, and Chapman dashed to his hotel room, but he was beyond resuscitation. His wife, Lauretta, was so distraught she could never face going through his papers. But when she died in 2010 she left them to a friend, Mark Flanagan, who found this autobiography, all neatly typed and ready to go.
An odd book, then, about an unforgettable and lovable man. Eric Idle says in the preface that when he went on the internet to ask who remembered Feldman, he was inundated with thousands of replies. Everyone who met him, who worked with him, loved him — he, in turn, hardly ever had a bad word to say about anyone, except perhaps British journalists, who kept asking about his eyes and why he and Lauretta never had children.
Obviously his eyes (which he spells eyEs) were the first thing you noticed. They became bulbous after a thyroid operation in his twenties, but one of them was also “lazy” or, as he said, non-competitive. But he never lamented his strange appearance. On the contrary, he felt: “My looks are my comic equipment… I have the right packaging for a clown.”
He was born in the East End in 1934, and was evacuated to the country during the war, where he saw animals being slaughtered and became a lifelong vegetarian. He went to 11 or 12 schools, but never flourished in any and left at 15. He also broke his nose many times boxing for the Jewish Lads Brigade. The only prize he ever won at boxing was Best Loser, and he writes: “I’m still the best loser and still get up when I should have sense enough to lie down and stay there… Winning doesn’t interest me.”
Before he became a comedian, he worked as a runner for an ad agency, as assistant to a Red Indian fakir at Margate’s Dreamland and as a jazz trumpeter. He hung out in Soho, picking up gigs here and there, making friends everywhere. One of his Soho friends, John Law, enlisted him as a gag-writer, and soon he teamed up with Barry Took and was writing for The Army Game, Round the Horne, and Julian and Sandy, which was remarkable for being about a gay couple when homosexuality was illegal. (Years later, Feldman ran into Francis Bacon who started quoting Julian and Sandy dialogue by the yard. He was such a besotted fan he wanted to paint Feldman, but, alas, never did.)
In 1966 David Frost hired him as the chief writer and script editor on The Frost Report, where his protégés included John Cleese, Chapman, Michael Palin, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Idle. Then Cleese told him he was setting up a television programme, At Last the 1948 Show, which he wanted him to write and perform in. Frost thought this was a terrible idea (Feldman was too weird-looking for telly), but Cleese insisted. The show made him a star and he was given his own series, Marty. He bought a house in Hampstead, and hung out with the Beatles. But by now he was getting offers from Hollywood, and went over to make Young Frankenstein (1974) with Gene Wilder. Moving to Los Angeles, he said, felt like moving to colour from black and white, and he sold his Hampstead house when Mrs Thatcher was elected: “England was over for me.”
He married Lauretta in 1959 and from then on she was always by his side. The great thing about Feldman, Idle says, was that he blew away the stereotype of the tragic clown: “He was a very happy clown: indeed, the clown prince. He lived a very full life doing what he loved doing, making people laugh, with the love of his life beside him.” This is a warm and engaging memorial.