“Oh, you a funny man, Al, a pain in the ass but a funny man.”
THE SUNSHINE BOYS
"If they can be wonderful on stage, no reason they couldn't be just as good in a movie." Famous last words from producer Ray Stark when buying the rights of the hit play from Neil Simon - for a movie with the Broadway stars Jack Albertson and Sam Levene.
"Then," Simon told me in London, "he started to tell me what the costs of the picture would be and the chances of recoupment."
For the duo based upon comics Joe Smith and Charles Dale (née Sultzer and Marks), Stark's opening salvo was: Jack Benny - and Red Skelton, a very average comic whose TV fame allowed him to buy up Chaplin's old studios.
"Jack did great tests," Simon told me in London. "His only problem is that he lacked energy, starting to feel the effects of his illness. But just as sweet as could be - and terribly funny!
"Red did a magnificent test as Willy Clark. Brilliant!
“But Red Skelton had problems
- not sure what they were.”
"He wanted more money than they were willing to pay... [He said $115,000 was insufficient for three months' work]. He later accused us of having bad taste and publicly said that he'd never do a film in which he had to call his friend a bastard. I think he was just not able to work in pictures anymore."
Cameraman Joseph F Biroc shot ten minutes of silent makeup tests of Jack Benny and Walter Matthau on September 18, 1974,m but died at age 81 before production could begin. "He left us and I took his place," said George Burns. He topped Walter Matthau's short list of potential co-stars and launched a new career at 79, in his first film since 1944… and became the oldest winner of a supporting actor Oscar.
When asked to direct, Woody Allen said he much rather play Lewis - despite being far too young, at 39, for a retired vaudevillian. He was more suitable, twenty years later, when achieving his dream, playing Lewis in a flaccid, simply by-the-numbers TVersion with Peter Falk in 1995.
There had been a crazier idea…
Simon was playing tennis when he got a call from Bob Hope's agent, offering $1m for the rights. Hope and Bing Crosby wanted one last film together... The Road To Nowhere?
Simon admits to waiting and musing on the offer before saying: No. Then, he said to somebody:
“I've just turned down
a million dollars!”
I couldn't get over that. But I knew I was right. Hope and Crosby couldn't play a pair of aging, Jewish vaudevillians from New York."
The real guys were much closer, almost inseparable pals than their movie counterparts. In fact, when Dale died in 1971, Smith ordered identical tombstones for them. Each inscription read: Smith and Dale.