To hear Richard Benjamin tell it, My Favorite Year was a charmed production. For his first film as a director, he had been looking for a comedy (“I’m just kind of bent that way,” he jokes) and the stars aligned to bring him a script that, he says, was everything he knew. He had Mel Brooks as the film’s guardian angel. He had a bona-fide movie star that his wife, Paula Prentiss, recommended after another actor regretfully declined the film’s plum role. And he heeded Carl Reiner, who gave him succinct advice about making a comedy: “Get funny people.”
Which he did. The film is character actor heaven, with Joseph Bologna, Anne de Salvo, Selma Diamond, Adolph Green, Basil Hoffman, Lainie Kazan and Bill Macy.
My Favorite Year is set in the mid-1950s when television was live and comedy was king. Mark Linn-Baker stars as Benjy Stone, a young comedy writer on a variety show reminiscent of Your Show of Shows, where he ardently pursues the show’s not-amused production assistant (Jessica Harper). During one life-changing week, he is assigned to chaperone the show’s guest star, his idol, former swashbuckling screen hero, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole in an Oscar-nominated performance), who has a penchant for drink, womanizing and otherwise behaving badly.
Benjamin spoke with TCM about casting O’Toole, trying to pin down Mel Brooks and why you should never end a comedy in a graveyard.
To quote Alan Swann’s great line, dying is easy, comedy is hard. With My Favorite Year, you make it look so easy. How did the project come to you?
Paula and I were in New York. My agent, David Gersh, sent the script by Norman [Steinberg] and Dennis [Palumbo, credited as co-writer due to the Screen Writers Guild arbitration]. I remember reading it in the hotel room and as I finished, I said, ‘This is everything I know.’ I was in high school when Your Show of Shows was on. I would get on the phone with my friend Shelley Berger, who I am still close to, and we would do all these routines they had done on the show on Saturday night. I grew up loving Errol Flynn and those swashbuckling movies. I had also worked at 30 Rockefeller Plaza [the film’s setting] as an NBC page and guide, and I knew every inch of that place. [The script] was right up my alley, as they say.
Brooksfilms produced the film, and Mel Brooks was a writer on Your Show of Shows. Did he serve as the film’s guardian angel or offer any input?
Guardian angel’s good. He kept saying he would give Norman and I two full days to sit down and go over the script to see if we could make it even funnier. The truth of the matter is that the script didn’t need much of anything, but he promised that. Trying to get Mel to stop moving is a feat. We went to his house, and he invited us in and then said he was going out. He said he had to walk the dog. Then he comes back, and he said he had to go, that there was a crisis at Fox. I said, ‘No there’s not,’ and he said, ‘Well, there could be.’ So, what he ended up giving us was two hours, but it was a great two hours. And the next thing you know, he was gone.
But Norman and I came up with one of the best jokes in the movie while we were standing in his driveway watching him drive away. It’s the one where Swann falls off the roof and plummets past the two elitist guys. And one says, ‘I think Alan Swann’s beneath us,’ and the other guy says, ‘Of course he’s beneath us, he’s an actor.’
I cannot imagine anyone but Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann. Was he the first choice?
Albert Finney had been offered the role, but he had not committed. He was up in Sausalito making SHOOT THE MOON . They told me I had to go up there and convince him to do the film; otherwise they couldn’t make the movie. The list of people M-G-M would go with was very short, because who are you going to believe with a sword in their hands? So, I’m on this mission, because if he says yes, I’m going to get to make a movie. We arranged to have lunch together. He’s completely charming. I get ready to ask the question – which could change my life, by the way: ‘Will you do it?’ He said, ‘Well…,’ and I could tell it was going to be a no. He thought the script was really good, but he had done two or three movies in a row and he said he wanted to get back to the theater. Then he said to me, ‘Why don’t you get O’Toole?’ He said, ‘We do this all the time. I turn something down, he does it, he turns something down, I do it.’ When I got back home, Paula who had made WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?  with Peter, said, ‘Get Peter. He is perfect for this.’ Finney said it, Paula said it. And I asked [co-producer] Michael Gruskoff if M-G-M would make the film with O’Toole, and Michael said yes.
What was the meeting with Peter like?
(Laughs) That meeting! That meeting was quite something. First of all, we couldn’t find him. We could tell we had the right person because the behavior was just like the character. He had a farm in Ireland with no phone. You had to call this pub to get a message to him. I called the pub and they said Peter wasn’t there. His agent didn’t know where he was. I called his manager and said, ‘We’re trying to find your client.’ He said, ‘He’s at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He’s been here for a week.’
So, I’m actually talking to Peter O’Toole, and he said he had heard about the project and to send him a script and we would get together the next day. I go over and there he is in a beautiful suite wearing a smoking jacket; he is the character. He said, ‘Here’s the thing…’ and I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ He said he liked it very much, but he hadn’t read the last ten pages and to please indulge him and he would call tomorrow. The next day, on the dot, he called and he said to turn to the last page of the script.
Now, in the original script, there’s a scene which I shot that would have played after what’s in the movie. It took place in a Hollywood cemetery, and Benjy is walking past the gravestones. He says in voiceover that Alan Swann made him promise he would do something on his birthday every year. Alan has passed away, and Benjy comes to his grave, kneels down and pours a bottle of Courvoisier over the tombstone. That’s what’s on the last page. Peter asked me to read the date that was on the tombstone. It was Aug. 2. He said, ‘Aug. 2 is my birthday; did you know that?’ I asked Norman if he knew that, and Norman said no, he had made it up. And Peter says, ‘Therefore, I must do the film.’
What happened to that scene?
I was terribly reluctant to take that out because Peter did the movie because of it. But people at M-G-M said I couldn’t end a comedy in a cemetery. We had two audience screenings, one with that ending and one without it. In the screening with it, the audience enjoyed the picture, but the scene put a pall over things. Then we had the screening without it and the audience was very enthusiastic and very up as they came out.
How did you find Mark Linn-Baker?
Our casting director Ellen Chenoweth said the first person to get was Mark Linn-Baker. Mark came in and read and was terrific. I said, ‘This is my first movie, I can’t cast the first person who walks in here.’ I saw maybe 25 to 35 more—some really good people—but she was right, so after all of that, I said to get him.
Peter and Mark had great chemistry.
They seemed to hit it off right away, but later, back in L.A. after we shot the long scene on the roof, which played like a mini-farce, Peter came up to me and said, ‘I like the lad, you cast him well.’
Was Peter game for the physical stunts?
I couldn’t stop him from doing them! The bathroom scene required him to fall headfirst into the wall. I came to him before we shot and I said, ‘The camera is so close, I can’t pad this wall.’ He said, ‘I was brought up in music hall. I can do this all day. Don’t concern yourself.’
Director Howard Hawks once said that a good movie was three or four good scenes and no bad scenes. I lose count watching My Favorite Year of how many great scenes there are in it. Between those driven by comic banter, the TV sketches, the physical comedy scenes, the quieter romantic scenes and even the dramatic confrontations, did you have a favorite type to direct?
I can’t say there was a favorite. It’s all of a piece. I will tell you that one of the scenes I like is in the Stork Club and getting to do something that reminded me of all these kinds of wonderful comic movies I loved growing up. I do remember that one of the first things we shot was the scene in Central Park where Alan Swann mounts the horse. It just seemed to lack energy. And I was thinking, ‘I have to go tell Peter O’Toole that he has to pick up the pace and it has to be lighter.’ I went up to him and said, ‘It’s good, but…’ and before I could finish, he said, ‘You want it faster and funnier.’ I said, ‘You’ve got it,’ and he said, ‘And you shall have it.’ And I thought, ‘This directing thing is not so hard.’ (laughs)
Were there directors you worked with as an actor who particularly inspired you when you became a director? For example, you worked with one of the best, Mike Nichols.
Mike, yes. He directed me in the national company of Barefoot in the Park and [the film] CATCH-22 . Mike’s thing was he’d come up to you very quietly and say, ‘Just like in real life.’ That was his main thing. It meant that there should be no ‘acting’ here; your character responds to situations as they would in life. It’s like what [critic] Walter Kerr once said about Neil Simon’s jokes: They have the truth in them. This is what funny people know: You can’t try to get a laugh, because you won’t get it.
At one point, Alan Swann says that doing the TV show was the most fun and the hardest work since the world was young. Was that what making My Favorite Year was like for you?
It was the most fun, there’s no question of that. It was a magical experience because of the screenplay and everyone involved. Everyone’s game came up because of Peter. You don’t need many takes with him, that’s for sure. But how all of this came about and got to the point where I would be offered this, and what has to happen in your life to come to that moment – you can’t make it up. And when that moment comes, you’re hopefully ready. I was really fortunate.