26 November, 2015
HE was born in University College Hospital, St Pancras, the grandson of Jewish Russian emigrants, and grew up in the East End declaring, aged four, that he was Bing Crosby’s brother, dropped into London as a spy, and that he wanted to be an airplane pilot.
He died following a heart attack on the Mexico City film set for the pirate spoof Yellowbeard, aged only 48, and lies buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park, next to the grave of his hero, Buster Keaton.
And he squeezed Hampstead into his life in the years in between, having early on met his wife, Louretta, in the El Toro nightclub in Finchley Road, and later living in a slice of The Logs, former home of Thomas Crapper, the Victorian flush lavatory pioneer, in Well Road.
But the jokes that Martin Alan Feldman, otherwise known as Marty, wrote were not crap, they entertained millions in still-remembered radio and TV shows like Round the Horne, the Frost Report and helped give birth to the Pythons.
After an initial haphazard life, he regarded himself primarily as a writer with a lust for laughter.
And, of course, he is remembered for his film performances such as Young Frankenstein, when those unmistakable bulging eyes, the result of a thyroid condition perhaps brought on by a boy accidentally sticking a pencil in his eye at school, stared out from the screen.
Now, more than 30 years after his death in 1982, Marty’s incomplete autobiography has been discovered hidden away in the attic of his late wife’s Los Angeles home, and brought to life by family friend and nightclub owner Mark Flanagan.
In eyE Marty, he has transcribed Marty’s personal saga, in parts a mishmash of letters, poetry, photos, short stories and prose, to reveal Marty’s wit and imagination, candidly recording a career of memorable success plus much stress and strife.
Indeed, after an unhappy childhood during which he was beaten by teachers for being boisterous and suffered from anti-semitism, Marty led a madcap early existence, describing himself as a “rebel without a clue”.
After a succession of odd jobs and at times sleeping rough, he bummed his way round clubs in London and Paris, a jazz fan scratching a living poorly playing the trumpet, then the saxophone, meeting up with gangsters, drinking, smoking and indulging in drugs.
“Being a misfit always suited me,” recognising that his broken nose and pop eyes were to become his key to fame as a comic genius.
David Frost admired his writing talents but insisted Marty was too grotesque to appear on TV. It was Tim Brooke-Taylor who persuaded him to perform.
“My looks are my comic equipment and they are the right packaging for the job,” Marty recalls. “Not the right packaging for a brain surgeon or the pilot of a 747, but I have the right packaging for a clown.
“I need comedy and there’s nothing degrading about playing the fool. When the looks fade I will still have the writing to fall back on.”
And what wonderful writing and ideas. Many can never forget classic sketches such as Toulouse Lautrec asking a model if she minds him painting her in the nude or the Four Yorkshiremen sketch in the At Last the 1948 Show, which Monty Python too often gets the credit for.
Writing in collaboration with others, Barry Took among them, was important to him. A determination to educate himself after leaving school too early resulting in a huge library of books and a voracious search for enlightenment. Like so many comedians, a serious thinker.
He had his own religious philosophy, very appropriate for today’s terrorist outrages.
“All religions claim to be telling the truth, so all other religions, by definition, are lying,” he writes. “Every Christian is calling every Buddhist a liar and vice versa. The Jews are indeed liars, but we are pragmatic liars. We have learned to make palatable lies and have even changed our names and identities to fit in. Again, it goes back to basic survival.”
Marty’s account of growing up is the most poignant section of his story. “I knew I’d learned nothing that would help me cope with the world,” he says. “I could not matriculate so I forged my final report. I erased things and inserted my version of how well I’d done.”
And, of course, didn’t he do well…
“Before my time the breaking point came when the king ordered, ‘Off with his head!’ after the jester had gone on too long or wasn’t fulfilling his purpose. Nowadays the public is king and they have a knob on their telly to get rid of our heads. I am still a court jester and the hump on my back, one hopes, won’t become a smoking time bomb – as long as I’m being funny or at least bloody trying.”
Marty’s life may have been saved if Mexico City traffic hadn’t delayed the ambulance called to take him to hospital. As Spike Milligan wrote to Lauretta at the end: “If life is a game of cards, somebody is cheating.”
Today, as you walk down Hampstead High Street, you might spot the cul-de-sac called Marty’s Yard, a tribute to him inspired by a Ted Levy development there.
Do have a giggle and give Marty a special smile.