Monday, December 1, 2008

Dick Shawn, 1923-1987

TCM are spending today honoring director Woody Allen on his 73rd birthday. I'm not the biggest fan of Woody Allen's movies, so I'd prefer to spend the day honoring another birthday boy: the late Dick Shawn, who was born on this day in 1923.

Shawn was a comedic actor who did more of his work on stage than in Hollywood, and as such doesn't appear in quite as many movies as one might like. He's seen in the picture at left in one of his classics, the beach-bum son dancing with his girlfriend in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, oblivious to the fact that his mother (Ethel Merman) is trying to call him to let him know there's $350,000 buried under that Big W. Eventually, of course, he hears the phone ringing, and when he finds it's his mother, he thinks she's in terrible danger, and transforms from a beach-bum into the ultimate mama's boy. There's a lot to recommend about It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but Shawn's character might just be the best.

However, it's not Shawn's best movie; that would probably be The Producers, where Shawn plays the actor hired by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel to play Hitler in their sure-fire failure Springtime for Hitler. Shawn's portrayal of Hitler, drawing from the flower-child days of the late 1960s, is outstanding and probably the high point of the movie.

Another interesting movie of Shawn's, which unfortunately hasn't been released to video, is Way, Way Out, in which Shawn plays a Soviet cosmonaut stuck on a lunar base with his girlfriend, American astronaut Jerry Lewis, and Lewis' girlfriend. Shawn and Lewis are both way, way over the top, making for a movie that may not be so great, but is certainly intriguing.

Shawn's death is a sad one: he was performing in one of his one-man shows, doing a skit about being a politician, and how he wouldn't "lie down on the job". At this point, he suffered a massive heart attack and fell to the stage, leading the audience and crew to believe that he was in fact lying down on the job and this was the point of the joke. By the time that everybody realized this was no joke, it was too late, and Shawn eventually died of the heart attack.

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