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Walter Matthau was no stranger to the comic world of Neil Simon when hestarred in The Sunshine Boys (1975), the author's tale of a feuding vaudeville comedy team. To play the other half of the team, producer Ray Stark and director Herbert Ross chose a comedy icon, George Burns, who used the role to spearhead one of the most amazing comebacks in movie history.
The Sunshine Boys had been a hit on Broadway in 1973 with Jack Albertson and Sam Levene in the leading roles. With Simon's track record, there was little doubt that it would become a movie. Although there was talk of casting both roles with aging comics, Stark and Ross decided to go with Walter Matthau, who had scored as Oscar in both stage and screenversions of The Odd Couple and had more marquee value. Originally, they cast Jack Benny as his estranged partner, but when Benny fell ill, he suggested his old friend Burns for the role. Even though Burns had not made a film since Honolulu in 1939, they knew at once that it was the perfect choice. For his part, the comic was thrilled with the assignment but apprehensive. He showed up at the first rehearsal knowing the entire script by heart, figuring that would make it harder to fire him if they didn't like his work.
But there was never any chance of that. As filming progressed word of his comeback performance spread around Hollywood. The Sunshine Boys was as big a hit as anyone would have expected from a Simon adaptation, though it was barely mentioned in the end-of-the-year critics' awards. When the more populist Hollywood Foreign Press announced their Golden Globe nominations, however, the picture was up for five, including Best MotionPicture-Musical/Comedy and Best Supporting Actor, Richard Benjamin (as Matthau's nephew, who packages the reunion as part of a television special). At the time, MGM was promoting Burns as a leading player, so he and Walter Matthau were in competition for Best Actor-Musical/Comedy.The Sunshine Boys scored big at the Golden Globes, with the film and Benjamin winning awards. When they announced Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy, however, it was Matthau who was called to the stage. Burns went with him nonetheless, "I just came up here to help him up. That's all." The two got a standing ovation.
Then management decided that Burns gave them their best shot at an Oscar. Even Matthau agreed that it was Jack Nicholson's year to take Best Actor (for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). So they bumped Burns down to the supporting category, and he won the nomination. Although faced with formidable competition from Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon and Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Burns was unbeatable. At 80, he was the oldest winner in Oscar history to date (Jessica Tandy would be a few months older when she won for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989). He was also one of the funniest. He told the audience, "This is all so exciting. I've decided to keep making one movie every 36 years. You get to be new again." Afterwards he quipped, "I'm thinking of taking on Gentile roles and becoming the new Robert Redford."
The Sunshine Boys gave Burns a new career as a film star at the age of 80. He followed it with more great roles - in Oh, God! (1977) and its two sequels; Going in Style (1979), in which he and Art Carney played elderly bank robbers; and his last feature, Radioland Murders (1994). He always joked that he had booked an engagement in Las Vegas for his 100th birthday. He made it to the birthday, but was too ill to keep the engagement. Burns passed away in 1996, just six weeks after hitting 100.
Producer: Ray Stark
Director: Herbert Ross
Screenplay: Neil Simon
Based on his play of the same title
Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Art Direction: Albert Brenner, Marvin March
Music: Harry V. Lojewski
Principal Cast: Walter Matthau (Willy Clark), George Burns (Al Lewis), Richard Benjamin (Ben Clark), Lee Meredith (Nurse in Sketch), Carol Arthur (Doris), Rosetta LeNoire (Nurse), F. Murray Abraham (Mechanic), Howard Hesseman (Commercial Director), Ron Rifkin (TV Floor Manager).
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Frank Miller