Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Kenneth Mars (1936-2011)
Beloved character actor Kenneth Mars, forever identified with comedy and specifically the films of Mel Brooks, has died at 75. While most of his work tended to be on the side of laughter, he did appear in some noncomic works as well.
His first listed credited on IMDb actually is for voicework on the '60s animated series The Jetsons. Throughout his career he did lots of voice work, including on M-U-S-H, an animated M*A*S*H spoof that was part of Uncle Croc's Block in 1975; The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang in 1980; Challenge of the GoBots in 1985; The Flintstone Kids in 1986; Triton in Disney's The Little Mermaid; Tiny Toon Adventures; Rugrats; Animaniacs; and Grandpa Longneck in nearly all the multiple sequels to The Land Before Time. In fact, his final IMDb credit is the same character in The Land Before Time TV series.
Despite all that voicework (and I only listed a small portion of it), Mars received plenty of face time. He only appeared on Broadway three times, all in plays in the 1960s, including being the replacement actor for Gene Hackman in the comedy Any Wednesday.
The bulk of his early career came courtesy of appearances on episodic TV in the 1960s such as Car 54, Where Are You?, Get Smart and even Gunsmoke. The same decade brought his film debut in 1968 and it arguably remains his most famous screen role.
As the mad German playwright Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks' directing debut The Producers, which won Brooks an Oscar for best original screenplay, Mars was a riot. Liebkind, still faithful to Hitler and the Nazis (as well as the pigeons he keeps on the roof), writes the play "Springtime for Hitler" which down-on-his-luck theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) hopes to stage as a surefire flop in order to make a fortune by fleecing investors. Mars holds nothing back as the faithful fascist and it's hysterical as he sees that his precious play, meant as loving tribute to his fuhrer, has been received as a laughingstock.
The following year, Mars appeared with some major stars: Jack Lemmon in the comedy The April Fools and as a marshal opposite Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Other notable films included What's Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and The Parallax View with Warren Beatty.
Then, in 1974, he worked with Brooks again and scored another comic goldmine as Inspector Kemp, on the trail of the monster in Young Frankenstein. With his mechanical arm, he even incorporates an homage to Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove as well in what remains Brooks' greatest film satire.
The bulk of his career was spent on the small screen, with a few exceptions. He played the friend urging Gene Hackman's character to quit working on his own and join his detecting company in Arthur Penn's Night Moves. He got to co-star with Donny and Marie Osmond in their infamous feature Goin' Coconuts. He joined Tim Conway and Don Knotts in The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
He was part of the strong comic ensemble that still couldn't save 1983's Yellowbeard. Mars joined Goldie Hawn in Protocol and Chevy Chase in Fletch. He worked twice with Woody Allen in Radio Days and Shadows and Fog. He also appeared in Alexander Payne's first feature, Citizen Ruth.
His television work was downright prolific. Just a sampling of series he appeared on by decade:
Since 2000, Mars appeared on Nash Bridges, Just Shoot Me and Will & Grace, among others, but what really stands out in this period are the 27 episodes of Malcolm in the Middle in which he played Otto Mankusser, the out-of-his-element Swedish rancher where Malcolm's oldest brother Francis lives and works for quite a while. It was another great comic role in Mars' career, a career that was marked by a multitude of great comic turns.
R.I.P. Mr. Mars.
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