Thanet Writers Spotlight Marty Feldman

Luke Edley highlights the life, works and legacy of comedian and writer Marty Feldman, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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Marty Feldman was one of the most memorable comedians of the post-war generation. With his boggle-eyed appearance and gangly frame, Marty’s precocious talent as a comic performer started earnestly with a seaside stint in Margate, before it led to fame as a writer in the British satire boom of the 1960s, and eventually skyrocketed him to cinematic glory in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.

As with most great talents, Feldman’s rise would not have happened without great struggle in his early life. Born in 1934 in the East End of London to Jewish immigrants, young Marty suffered from many health afflictions—notably thyroid disease and Graves’ ophthalmopathy—which may explain why his eyes bulged so much. Feldman was a troubled youth—constantly bullied due to his ethnicity, he often lashed out, and was expelled dozens of times before leaving school at age 15.

With no qualifications to his name, Marty tried his hand at performing when he found a summer job at Dreamland Margate on the Thanet coast. While working on the rides and the stalls here, Marty met music hall performer Joe Moe and a dwarf called Mitch Revely and they formed a trio—Morris, Marty & Mitch—effectively kick-starting a comedy career right here by the seaside.

However, Marty’s oddball talent wasn’t just limited to performing alone—he was also a highly original comedy writer. By the mid-fifties, Feldman had broken into radio and television thanks in large part to the legendary Barry Took, a man who would go on to be Marty’s writing partner for most of his life. Together, they went on to write for TV shows such as ‘The Army Game’ and, later, ‘Bootsie & Snudge.’

By 1966, Marty Feldman’s comedy reputation had blossomed to such a point that he had been appointed head writer for satirical sketch show ‘The Frost Report.’ To highlight his massive contribution, it’s worth pointing out Feldman was responsible for writing the iconic Class sketch (‘I look down on him…’), now famous for starring a then-unknown John Cleese and both of The Two Ronnies (before they had become famous).

Marty Feldman later co-wrote and starred in another satirical sketch show, ‘At Last the 1948 Show.’ (a programme which also starred Cleese, along with his fellow Monty Python cohort Graham Chapman.) Feldman was listed as co-writer on the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (‘You try telling that to the youth of today, and they won’t believe you…’). Today, this is a skit most people tend to associate with the Python team, despite it pre-dating ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ by a number of years. Perhaps this is because the Pythons loved it so much they chose to perform it in their Live at the Hollywood Bowl stage show in the early ’80s.

Following a successful run on ‘Marty,’ his self-titled TV sketch show, Marty Feldman set his sights on Hollywood stardom and officially became a comedy megastar thanks to Mel Brooks’ horror spoof Young Frankenstein in 1974. Playing the role of Igor, Feldman’s freaky, bug-eyed appearance made a perfectly eccentric pairing with the wild-haired Gene Wilder as Dr Frankenstein. Feldman’s part in this film won him a Saturn award for Best Supporting Actor, and it’s now considered one of the biggest highlights of his whole career.

Sadly, however, Marty Feldman’s success in Hollywood was short-lived. His later films failed to capitalise on his elevation to the big screen—in particular, his 1980 film In God We Tru$t was a US box office flop, perhaps due to it being a vicious satire on organised religion. In the fallout of these career setbacks, Marty reportedly spent much of his final years wrestling with depression and drug addiction.

Despite being vaunted as a comedy legend by many of his peers, Marty Feldman’s demons took their toll and he sadly died of a heart attack at age 48 in December 1982. As per his wishes, he was buried in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills in the same cemetery as his all-time comedy hero, Buster Keaton. That’s a long way from Thanet, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it’s clear as stepping stones go, the seaside town of Margate had a small role to play in precipitating Marty Feldman’s rise to stardom. It’s just a tragic shame his life didn’t have as happy an ending as his comedy talents deserved.

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Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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