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As a non-conformist comedy writer, Murray Burns (Jason Robards, Jr.) learns the value of compromise in A Thousand Clowns (1965). When Murray quits his job as head writer on the children's show Chuckles the Chipmunk, his ability to provide for his twelve year old nephew is drastically affected. Barry Gordon plays the young dependent who was dropped off on Murray's doorstep by his mother seven years earlier. It takes social workers (Barbara Harris and William Daniels) to prompt Burns to return to the rat race he has shunned, finding romance (with Harris) and a lesson about sacrifice along the way.
Though the themes sound serious, A Thousand Clowns sparkles with humor from a script by Herb Gardner, based on his play. Robards re-creates his Broadway role joined by Tony nominated Gordon and play producer Fred Coe, producing and directing the big screen version. A Thousand Clowns won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Martin Balsam who plays Murray's sympathetic agent/brother. The film was also nominated for three more Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Score (by Don Walker) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Herb Gardner attended Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, which obviously encouraged future writers; an amazing forty plus members of the Writer's Guild attended. And while he did not win an Oscar for this film, Gardner would garner a bigger prize in the writing world in 1986 -- a Tony for his play I'm Not Rappaport. Gardner also had a small part as a rabbi in the famous flop Ishtar (1987).
There's also a story behind the title song from A Thousand Clowns. It was written by saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, with lyrics supplied by his long-time lover, Judy Holliday. The comedic actress, who was diagnosed with cancer soon after completing her final film Bells Are Ringing (1960), continued to work on stage and in the record industry after retiring from Hollywood. Sadly, she died at age 43 before A Thousand Clowns was released. It was Holliday's last screen credit.
Director/Producer: Fred Coe
Screenplay: Herb Gardner
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Editor: Ralph Rosenblum
Art Direction: Burt Smidt
Music: Gerry Mulligan, Don Walker
Cast: Jason Robards (Murray Burns), Barbara Harris (Sandra Markowitz), Martin Balsam (Arnold Burns), Gene Saks (Leo 'Chuckles the Chipmunk' Herman), William Daniels (Albert Amundson).
by Stephanie Thames