On June 16, the Warner Archive will release the 1975 screen version of Neil Simon's comedy classic "The Sunshine Boys" as a Blu-ray special edition. The film stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as Lewis and Clark, a legendary vaudeville comedy team who have not been on speaking terms since they broke up their act eleven years ago. For their work in the film, Matthau was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, George Burns won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Richard Benjamin, who co-stars as Matthau's harried nephew and agent who tries the Herculean task of reuniting the team for a television special about comedy greats, won a Golden Globe award. Cinema Retro had the opportunity to speak with Richard Benjamin about his memories of working on the film.
Cinema Retro: "The Sunshine Boys" must have had a very personal meaning to you, given the fact that your uncle, Joe Browning, was popular vaudeville entertainer.
Richard Benjamin: Not only that, but here I had grown up listening to Burns and Allen on the radio and all those shows- and in those days, parents and children listened to the same programs. So it was Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and all that. So when we were filming ""The Sunshine Boys", George Burns used to ask me to go to lunch every day, which was a thrill. One day, walking with him to the commissary, I asked, "Did you know my uncle? He was in vaudeville" and he said, "What was his name?" I said, "Joe Browning". He said, "Not only did I know him, but I know his act. Do you want to hear it?" He started to do my uncle's act! It was incredible. I mean here I am walking between sound stages with George Burns and he's doing my uncle's act. He said, "You know, he was a headliner. We weren't the headliners on some of those bills, your uncle was." It was amazing to hear all that. Obviously, the movie is a love letter to vaudeville and all those guys, so it had a lot of meaning for me.
CR: You also got to meet another legend of comedy, Stan Laurel. How did that come about?
RB: When I went to see my uncle, who lived at the Beacon Hotel on Broadway and 74th Street, which was a block away from where we were shooting "The Sunshine Boys", he had a one bedroom suite in his hotel. There was a trunk in the middle of the living room, right as you walked in. It was a big steamer trunk with his initials on it: "JB", and the "J" and the "B" were intertwined, you know the way they would do that? He was ready to go! If he got a call, he was ready. So anyway, years and years later, my friend who I went to Northwestern with was out here at UCLA doing a master's thesis on Laurel and Hardy. One day he said to me, "I'm going out to interview Stan Laurel. Do you want to come?" I said, "Are you kidding?" So he and I went out there. Stan Laurel and his wife were in a six story apartment building facing the ocean in Santa Monica. This was a place that Jerry Lewis had put them into because they evidently had no money at all. People never knew it but Lewis did things like this, but he never broadcast it. He set them up in that apartment. When we got there, there was a buzzer downstairs and my friend Jerry buzzed it. A voice came on and said, "Yes? (imitates Stan Laurel). We told him who were were and he said, "Come right up!" I thought, "My God! Through this little speaker, I'm hearing Stan Laurel! This is unbelievable!". So we went upstairs and there in the center of his living room is his trunk with the "S" and the "L" intertwined. He was ready to go, too, just like my uncle. Those guys had a motto: "Have Trunk, Will Travel". It was life to them.
CR: Prior to working on "The Sunshine Boys", you already had a working relationship with Neil Simon...
RB: Yes, they were casting the national company of "Barefoot in the Park" with Myrna Loy. Fortunately, a friend of mine who I went to school with, Penny Fuller, said she was understudying Elizabeth Ashley. I mean, listen to how these things work...She asked if I was reading for the national company. I said, "For what?" I didn't know anything about it. She said, "Your agent didn't tell you about it?" I said, "No". So I called my agent at that time and asked, "Can you get me a reading for this? I'm really right for it." He said, "Oh, Oh, sure...that's a good idea." But it never would have happened had Penny not told me. So I went in there and I did a scene- actually I did it with Penny- and Mike Nichols was casting it. I had never met him but I recognized his laugh from his comedy records with Elaine May. After the reading, he came up to me and said, "Well, that's fine." I didn't know what that meant. When I was walking out, my agent was there and he said, "You've got it! They're casting you!". So that was my introduction to Neil, through being cast in the national company. Then he and Mike cast me in the national company of "The Odd Couple" with Dan Dailey. Then Neil asked me to do "Star Spangled Girl" with Tony Perkins on Broadway. So there was a ten minute audition and I'm working for three years and doing all these other things with Neil. I mean, if Penny didn't tell me that, I don't know if you and I would be talking today. You could just miss something by inches, you know? That's the thing about this business. You really never, never know. Anything you plan on never happens but something else happens.
CR: Prior to filming, you had also worked previously with director Herbert Ross on "The Last of Sheila" (1973).That must have put you into a pretty good comfort zone going into "The Sunshine Boys".
RB: Yes, I was. Also the material was just fabulous and funny. Being with Herb again was great.
CR: Jerry Lewis always said of Dean Martin that being the straight man was the hardest job in all of comedy. In the film, you're the straight man between Walter Matthau and George Burns. You obviously found the formula for not overshadowing the stars while not being overshadowed yourself, especially since you won the Golden Globe for your performance.
RB: You couldn't be in a better environment. I mean, all these people and the experience they all had. With that material and being at MGM and having everything that you needed, it was pretty special- and I knew it at the time. I was grateful to be in it. It was really great and Herb was terrific.
CR: As you know, neither Walter Matthau or George Burns were originally envisioned for the film. Phil Silvers had auditioned for the role of Willy that Matthau ended up playing and Jack Benny had been signed to play Al but he dropped out when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. (Screen tests and make up test of Silvers and Benny appear on the Warner Archive's Blu-ray release of the film.) I presume you weren't involved with the production in these early stages...
RB: No, no, I wasn't. I saw on this new Blu-ray those tests but I wasn't on the film at that time.
CR: When George Burns took over the Jack Benny role, you, Matthau and Herb Ross got together with him to go over an initial reading of the script. Can you relate what that experience was like, especially since Burns hadn't made a movie in over thirty years?
RB: His character doesn't appear until about fifteen or twenty pages into the script. So he was just sitting there, kind of looking off into the distance. We were wondering why he hadn't opened his script. It was right in front of him in a folder. Well, we're flipping pages and reading and every once in a while we would look over at George and think, "Well, he should be opening that pretty soon." Then we started to worry that maybe he was just out of it and didn't quite know what was happening here. He didn't touch the script. He was just staring out the window. Finally, we got to his first page and we thought, "If he doesn't open it now, it's going to be kind of sad." I had the line before his so I said my line and without missing a beat he said his line. Then he said the next line, then next and next and next and next. He was just ripping those lines out there. He's not missing anything and he's very funny. So Walter says, "Wait a second! What the hell is this???" So George said, "Aren't you supposed to learn the script?" Walter said, "Yeah, yeah- but you don't have to learn the whole thing!" So George said, "Well, don't you know your lines?" I thought, "We're in for it now! We'd better be on our toes because there's no fooling around with him!"
CR: I understand you were on the set every day, even when you weren't required.
RB: Yes, because George wanted to go to lunch with me every day.
CR: As a native New Yorker, you must have appreciated all the locations that were used in the film.
RB: It was right where I grew up. But the scenes in Willy's apartment were a set. We shot that in California.
CR: It's really a terrific piece of work. It really looks like an apartment, right down to the set decorations. Al Brenner, the production designer, did a great job.
RB: Yes, that's the brilliance of Brenner and people like him. He was just fabulous. I think the lobby was the Ansonia in New York but the apartment was all a set. It was a tremendous amount of work. You know, the play is set all in the apartment except for the scene where they go to the variety show. The New York locations were great- like going to the Friars Club and the street scenes and Willy going to that garage when he is lost and where we shot the commercial for Frumpy's potato chips.
CR: I never realized F. Murray Abraham was in the garage scene.
RB: Yes, he was the mechanic who gives Willy directions.
CR: He was a decade away from winning a Best Actor Oscar for "Amadeus".
RB: I know. Isn't that incredible?
CR: A unique aspect of the film is that there is no musical score.
RB: Only that vaudeville scene that opens the credits- and then I think there's something at the end, but there is no music throughout the film. That's because nothing needs to be emotionally enhanced. It's all real.
CR: As an established director in your own right, don't you find it fascinating that there was a time when you could make a major commercial film that contained so many long sequences of nothing but dialogue?
RB: It would be a challenge to find actors who could do it. We had Walter from the stage and George from vaudeville who could both do long, long takes. What's great about that is that you build up power during those takes. It's like being out on a wire because if anybody screws up, you have to go back to the beginning. Stage actors love the challenge but there are other actors who can't do it. They can only little short things. You don't trust anybody when all they can do is all those little quick cuts because it's not life real life.
CR: It must have pleased you when the film opened at Radio City Music Hall.
RB: It was great because my wife's (Paula Prentiss) first picture, "Where the Boys Are", opened there. That was the first time I saw her on the screen. That was- and maybe still is- the biggest screen in the world. The theater seats thousands so it was quite something. Having grown up in New York and having walked past that theater my entire life and then having all that happen was thrilling. It's still thrilling to me.
CR: You've said that "The Sunshine Boys" is a valuable filmed record of a bygone era - vaudeville- that might otherwise be forgotten.
RB: I don't know if people even know what that era is any more. Those people lived more on stage than off. They did eight shows a day, seven days a week. They were on the road for fifty weeks or something like that. They knew audiences better than anybody because of that tremendous experience. There's nothing like it today. What gives anybody that kind of experience? But Neil wrote an extraordinary play. He's quite extraordinary. I think it was Walter Kerr who once said about Neil, "Yes, they are jokes but why they are so funny is because the truth is in them."
CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER "THE SUNSHINE BOYS" BLU-RAY FROM AMAZON. (AVAILABLE ON JUNE 16)
(Thanks to Carol Samrock of Carl Samrock Public Relations for her assistance in arranging this interview.)