Wednesday, 28 March 2012

My 12 favourite comedy performances by serious screen actors

What made the movie Airplane! so funny – apart from the jokes, of course – were the host of well-known, uniformly po-faced B-movie actors brilliantly parodying their standard stolid screen personas. Successful comedy performances by serious actors have always been one of cinema’s great delights.

Of course, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges were just the latest in a long line of actors to make us laugh by confounding expectations. Here’s a list of my twelve favourite “Great Comedy Performances by a Serious Actor”. The only criteria are that the actor’s comic performance had to come as a bit of a shock to the audience – and he has to show a genuine talent for comedy (i.e. it's not just down to how the director cut it together).

1. Gene Hackman as the gay, blind hermit whose lonely hut the monster happens upon in Young Frankenstein (“My, you must have been the tallest one in your class”).

2. Christopher Walken as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction, in which he delivers his dead Vietnam PoW colleague’s watch – which has spent years hidden up the bottoms of various military bottoms. (Watch it here.)

3. Robert De Niro as Jack Walsh, the former police detective turned bounty hunter in 1988’s Midnight Run – one of the funniest films of the last 25 years. De Niro’s performance is a masterpiece of sustained comic timing. De Niro had already appeared in Scorcese’s King of Comedy as the would-be stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps famous comic Jerry Lewis (giving a great straight performance) – but I don’t think it was actually a comedy. Midnight Run, on the other hand, is hilarious from start to finish.

4. I don’t know if William Shatner qualifies as a serious actor – but as Captain Kirk and TJ Hooker, he wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs (well, not intentionally). And then came Airplane 2: The Sequel, and this superb performance:

5. Henry Fonda was miscast as the lead in the film version of the stage-play Mister Roberts (too old, too wet) – but Jack Lemmon was reliably amusing as the hapless Ensign Pulver, and James Cagney, playing Captain Morton, a ridiculous, puffed-up little bully of a US Navy ship’s captain, was brilliant. (I’ve already written about Cagney’s extraordinary screen presence - see it on display here).

6. Whatever else Tom Cruise may or may not be, he is certainly one of the most annoying of Hollywood actors, and quite possibly the only one uncooler than Kevin Costner – but he triumphantly redeemed himself with his performance as film producer Les Grossman in the Ben Stiller comedy, Tropic Thunder (the quality of this clip is horrible, but it’s worth it just to hear Grossman demonstrate his hostage negotiation technique). The same film also contained splendid comic performances from Robert Downey Jr and Nick Nolte - it's just that Cruise's turn was the most surprising.

7. The odd thing about Leslie Nielsen’s relatively minor role in Airplane! is the way it revealed that, despite thirty years as a distinctly limited straight actor, he was in fact an absolute master of comedy – and what a relief it must have been no longer having to bother covering up the fact that he had spectacularly bandy legs. (You can see a montage of some of the great man’s best moments here.)

8. The normally morose Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove is another revelation – and a reminder of what a tremendous director Stanley Kubrick was before going a bit tonto after A Clockwork Orange. (George C. Scott is the movie’s other big surprise.)

9. Rod Steiger is excellent as a Broadway-theatre-director-turned-serial-killer being hunted by cop George Segal in 1968’s No Way To Treat A Lady – Steiger dons a variety of disguises and accents when stalking his victims, most memorably as a fantastically camp blond-haired wig-maker (“Well, it doesn’t make you a bad person!"). I presume qualms about  audiences roaring with laughter as vulnerable women are bumped off is the reason this comedy classic rarely turns up on TV.

10. Marlon Brando was surprisingly good as one of a pair of conmen  in the rather crude 1964 film, Bedtime Story. The scene where his partner-in-crime David Niven – posing as a doctor - whacks Brando on the soles of his feet with a cane when the latter is pretending to have lost the use of his legs is tastelessly hilarious. (I can’t find the exact scene on You Tube, but you can see the lead-up to it here.)

11. Basil Rathbone as John F. Black Esq in 1963's Comedy of Terrors, in which Vincent Price keeps trying to kill him, but Rathbone keeps regaining consciousness and spouting random lines from Macbeth – “What place is this?” The film, which also stars Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre shouldn’t work – but it somehow all comes together.

12. Jack Palance as Curly the Cowboy in Billy Crystal’s 1991 mid-life crisis comedy, City Slickers. Palance won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and he deserved it. Watch him being amusingly menacing here.


  1. 13. Humph in The Big Sleep. Amazing what you can do with a pair of glasses and a snap brim hat. So he does comedy. And sex scenes. Nobody has ever accused Mr Bogart of acting at all, have they, but here is doing it twice, in the same film.

    Do they make bookshop girls like Dorothy Malone any more? (Did they ever?)

  2. I'm going to disallow Bogart as it's neither a cameo nor a sustained movie-long comic performance. Besides, it's appallingly homphobic - any more suggestions like this and we may have to send you the Francis Maude Academy for Brand Detoxification. Of course, the worst Bogart film for homophobia was The Maltese Falcon, where both Joel Cairo and the gunsel, Wilmer, were evidently members of the LGBT community.