On my parents’ first date in 1968, they went to see Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” I often wonder how differently things would have gone if they hadn’t picked such a great movie. What if they’d gone to “The Love Bug” instead? Would I even be here now? Maybe not.
Not surprisingly, then, I have a soft spot in my heart for “The Producers.” My favorite scene has always been the one in which scheming Broadway entrepreneurs Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) go to meet the writer of the play they believe has the best chance to become the biggest flop in theater history. The play is “Springtime For Hitler,” a “gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.” The writer is former Nazi turned paranoid bird collector Franz Liebkind. Liebkind was played, in a Comedy Hall of Fame performance, by Kenneth Mars, who sadly passed away yesterday after a fight with pancreatic cancer at the age of 75. Here is that scene.
Mars’ role is maybe the most important role in “The Producers.” It’s certainly the trickiest, since he’s got to play a funny and even sympathetic Nazi. The film’s whole conceit falls apart if we don’t laugh at — and kind of like — Franz Liebkind. Mars made it work by striking just the right notes of madness and innocence. Franz’s intentions aren’t good, but they are, in a very twisted way, sort of pure: he just wants people to know “the real Hitler,” who was such a good dancer and painter (“Hitler, there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon: two coats!“). And that’s how Mars played him. Really, Franz is kind of sweet. You almost feel bad for the way these shysters are treating him. And he’s the Nazi!
That sort of charmingly harmless villain in the Liebkind-mold became something of a Mars trademark. He worked with Brooks again in “Young Frankenstein,” playing Inspector Kemp, the man on the trail of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster who is constantly at war with his own mechanical limbs (and thus poses no threat to our heroes). He did a lot of television, voiced a lot of cartoons. He often gave performances better than the material he was in deserved. By the time he joined the “Police Academy” series for “City Under Siege,” the franchise was totally played out. But that didn’t stop him from being hysterically funny as the Mayor and — SPOILER ALERT! — the film’s surprise twist villain. As the Mayor, he has a hilarious tic: he constantly forgets incredibly obvious words, letting Mars riff and fumble every line of dialogue he’s got. And when he’s finally unmasked, “Scooby-Doo” style, he giggles and taunts the heroes with infectious glee. Sure he’s evil, but he’s just having so much fun!
Mars made it look easy, but it wasn’t. For proof, check out the 2005 remake of “The Producers,” based on the very successful Broadway musical. Will Ferrell plays Franz Liebkind and, for one of the very few times in his career, he’s just not funny. Too much mania, not enough heart. Most of the “Producers” remake cast, imported from Broadway, had long made their parts their own. But watching the new “Producers,” we miss Kenneth Mars. Now more than ever before.