The original Igor: remembering Marty Feldman, the wild-eyed comedy misfit who left Monty Python behind

Marty Feldman in 1974
Marty Feldman in 1974 Credit:  ullstein bild

You hear him before you see him. A thudding presence getting ever closer on an almost deserted railway platform in deepest, fog-shrouded Transylvania. Scrape-thud-click, scrape-thud-click, scrape-thud-click. And then, as lightning throws up his frighteningly grotesque face into greater relief, he introduces himself to his new master, "Doctor Frankenstein…"

The camera lingers in close-up as both Dr Frankenstein and the audience take in the full-screen vision. "It’s Fronkensteen," says Gene Wilder. Pause. "You’re having me on," says Feldman, breaking the spell. "No… it’s pronounced 'Fronkenstein'." The rest is comedy history.

It was some introduction, both to the character Igor – pronounced Eye-Gore – in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ glorious black and white comic homage to the schlock horror of 1930s Hollywood and also, to many who grew up in the era of colour television, Marty Feldman.

Stand-up comedian Ross Noble is currently reanimating the role of the hunchback assistant in the West End stage adaptation of the movie but, despite the glowing reviews, Igor will always be Feldman.  While his co-star Wilder admitted he had written it with him in mind, Feldman's appearance alone almost suggested that he was born for the part.

The product of a working class East End family born between the wars, by the time Feldman arrived in Hollywood, his crazy corkscrew hair and prominent nose had been joined by a pair of eyes. And that’s "pair" in the loosest sense of the word, as one was protruding (the result of an overactive thyroid problem he claimed to have been brought on by a childhood accident) whilst the other kept itself busy looking in an entirely different direction.

Tim Brooke Taylor , John Cleese , Graham Chapman , Marty Feldman and Aimi MacDonald Credit: Getty Creative

He was anything but leading man material but then, as he put it, "If I aspired to be Robert Redford, I'd have my eyes straightened and my nose fixed and end up like every other lousy actor, with two lines on [70s TV cop show] Kojak. This way I'm a novelty."

He described his amphibian appearance, with mock self-deprecation, as "The sum total of the disasters of my life". But it was also the making of him; once seen, Feldman was never forgotten. But there was much more to him than that dazzling Young Frankenstein performance. In terms of influence alone, his career was second to none. There were, it transpired, many Marty Feldmans.

There was Feldman the comedy writer who co-wrote Round The Horne for the radio and TV sitcoms such as The Army Game and Bootsie and Snudge before arriving as script editor and writer on the seminal The Frost Report in 1966. There was Feldman the performer on At Last The 1948 Show and, in 1968, there was Feldman the manic physical comedian on his eponymous award-winning sketch show Marty (re-named It’s Marty for the second series a year later) and then Feldman the trans-Atlantic goofball on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine.

Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein Credit:  Bettmann

Inevitably, perhaps, they would subsequently be joined in 1974 by Feldman the Hollywood actor and a few years after that by Feldman the writer, star and director of several largely unlamented films including The Last Remake of Beau Geste and In God We Tru$t. The controversial subject matter of the latter - an affront to organised religion and the avarice of evangelical preachers in Ronald Reagan-era America - and the disappointing box office returns of the other films he had directed convinced Universal to cancel his contract. But, determined to make a comeback as a performer, he accepted a role in pirate caper Yellowbeard.

It was on the last day of filming in December 1982 that Feldman died, aged 48, of a massive heart attack in a hotel room in Mexico City. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Los Angeles, the same cemetery as his idol Buster Keaton.

"If life is like a game of cards," wrote a devastated Spike Milligan, his sometime co-star and co-conspirator, to Lauretta Feldman, the grieving widow, on his great friend’s passing. "Somebody is cheating." He felt, as many did, that his friend was a genius, taken too early. At the time of his death Feldman had started writing again, and was looking towards a return to the form that had made him one of the most highly-paid, and obviously recognisable, British stars in the world.

Feldman with his wife Lauretta Sullivan, in 1975 Credit: Archive Photos

The obituary writers had more words at their disposal but it was difficult to know which Feldman to remember. Was it the one who co-wrote the timeless "Class" sketch as performed by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett on The Frost Report? The author of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, often erroneously attributed to Monty Python but actually shown on At Last The 1948 Show? The lunatic dragging "a thing" into a vet’s waiting room on British TV screens? Or the actor who had subsequently become a tax exile in the United States? As with all things Feldman, it depended upon the age of the audience.

"I'm a socialist from way back," he told an interviewer in the late 1970s, "But in order to pay my back taxes I have to live in America to earn enough money to pay the back tax I owe to the socialist government that I voted in." The irony was not lost on Feldman, but perhaps it goes some way to explain why he is not remembered with the same fondness or degree of critical acclaim as those helped with their own careers: Kenneth Williams in Round The Horne; the Monty Python team; Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ronnies Barker and Corbett; and, of course, Spike Milligan.

The Pythons have generally favourable things to say about him, and Terry Jones in particular remembered how he had made himself and Michael Palin feel at ease as young comedy writers. But there seems to be a feeling that there are yet two more Marty Feldmans, the gag writer in the days before he left for America, their preferred Feldman, and Feldman the Rolls Royce-driving, fur coat-wearing Hollywood star who had "made it" before everybody else. It is not difficult to detect an air of resentment. 

Python would subsequently make the journey across the Atlantic and do well there. But the impetus to form Monty Python in the first place, as they saw it, came in part from Marty Feldman’s new found status and self-appreciation – "He started sending our stuff back," remembered Cleese, still almost incredulous decades later. Jones found the same thing happening, but remembered how accommodating Feldman had been in the beginning; he went on to direct a play about his life in Hollywood, Jeepers Creepers, in 2016.

Feldman came from a very different social milieu to the Cambridge Footlights ensemble and, at the height of his fame, described himself as "Strictly working class, then and now. The difference is that then I got on a bus, went to my job in the factory and returned at night to my tenement. Now I have a bigger house, and I ride to work in a Rolls. But I’m still working in a factory, only now it’s called Universal [Studios]." 

Marty Feldman in his 1980 film In God We Trust Credit: alamy

People stuck back in the rainy, repressed old England of the three day week didn’t take kindly to that kind of showboating. In a nod to the famous Class sketch he co-wrote, it seemed as though he didn’t "Know his place." Maybe he never had a place; he certainly cherished his misfit status.

Perhaps that accounts for his lack of contemporary resonance. It can be the only reason. His influence through the heart of post war British comedy, both behind and in front of the camera, and on the radio, is impossible to ignore.

As generations of new fans come to discover, his legacy amounts to something more than, as one critic described it, a "mischievious physiognomy". Perhaps it's time to revaluate our home grown wild-eyed comedy genius.