LOS ANGELES -- Peter O’Toole was famed for his commanding, Oscar-nominated turns. Mark Linn-Baker was a fledgling stage actor. Richard Benjamin, who’d made a leading-man splash in “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Westworld,” had a few TV directing credits.
The sum of these unlikely parts was the zesty 1982 movie comedy “My Favorite Year,” starring O’Toole and Linn-Baker, directed by Benjamin and produced by Mel Brooks. It paid loving tribute to the original golden age of TV in the mid-20th century and the variety shows that were the “Saturday Night Live” hits of their day.
When Benjamin read the screenplay credited to Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, he immediately turned to his wife, actor Paula Prentiss.
“I hope they want me for this, because it's just great,” Benjamin recalled saying.
The film, marking its 40th anniversary, is set in 1954 and topped by O’Toole as faded but still-glam movie idol Alan Swann, who's appearing on “Comedy Cavalcade” only to pay off his IRS debt. Linn-Baker plays Benjy Stone, an energetic young writer tasked with keeping Swann out of trouble (read: sober) until the broadcast.
The inspirations for “My Favorite Year” included Sid Caesar, the decade’s reigning TV comedy star, and “Your Show of Shows,” the hit he topped from 1950-54 and was followed by “Caesar’s Hour.” The movie also is infused with the spirit of Errol Flynn's swashbuckling films such as “Captain Blood,” with Swann's “Captain from Tortuga" seen in a faux clip.
Brooks, who wrote for “Your Show of Shows” alongside another future giant of stage and screen, Neil Simon, said in his 2021 memoir “All About Me!” that the movie represented “my love letter to Sid Caesar and the early days of television, and it was also a damn good story.”
“It’s one of the three best productions about live TV that I’ve ever seen,” said David Bianculli, a TV critic for NPR's “Fresh Air” and author of “Dictionary of Teleliteracy.” His other top picks: “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and Simon's play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor."
“My Favorite Year,” which is available on streaming services, had a respectable box office opening in October 1982, coming in third behind “An Officer and a Gentlemen” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
Joseph Bologna plays the talented, manic (and sexist) King Kaiser. Others in the impeccable cast include Lainie Kazan ( “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and sequels ), Jessica Harper ("See"), Bill Macy (“Maude”) and Selma Diamond. A character actor on sitcoms, among them the 1980s “Night Court,” Diamond's TV roots were in writing and included “Your Show of Shows."
Benjamin was a teenage fan of Caesar's program and recalled how he and his equally devoted friends would get on the phone after it aired Saturday nights to recap and reenact the highlights.
“The show changed everything. Comedians used to stand up and tell jokes, but here was comedy that was behavior” and unfolded in extended sketches, Benjamin said. “It seemed like a miracle that this (film) would come to me.”
His agent had talked him up for the job, and a meeting with Brooks and producer Michael Gruskoff convinced them that Benjamin could handle it.
The role of Swann had yet to be cast, and it was a quirk of Hollywood fortune that it went to O'Toole, yielding his seventh of eight leading-actor Oscar nods (he lost to Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi”). O'Toole received an honorary Academy Award in 2003.
Albert Finney had been offered the part but was dragging his feet. Benjamin was dispatched to the San Francisco area, where Finney was working on another film, to talk him into it — or risk seeing the project fall apart.
Finney said he liked the script for “My Favorite Year." But after making several movies in the United States, he longed to get back to the London stage despite the fact he'd earn only “£125 pounds a week,” as he put it.
“Why don't you get O'Toole?” Finney helpfully suggested. “We do this all the time. I turn something down, he turns something down" and the other one takes the role.
Prentiss, who'd starred opposite O'Toole in the 1965 film “What's New Pussycat," seconded the idea. So did the producers, who again tasked Benjamin with getting an actor to say yes. O'Toole deemed the script excellent but was curious about a scene that included Swann's tombstone, with the birthdate of Aug. 2.
O'Toole asked if the date been tailored to each actor who'd been pitched the project. When told it wasn't, he replied, “That's my birthday, and that's how old I am. Therefore, I must do the film.”
(The cemetery scene was filmed but cut when test audiences had a more upbeat response to what now concludes the movie, Benjamin said.)
O'Toole proved a breeze during filming. Benjamin recalled expressing concern to him about a scene in which the actor's head would hit an unpadded tile wall. "I was trained in music hall, ” the English-born O'Toole said, referring to his country's version of vaudeville. "I can do this all day.”
Linn-Baker (TV's “Ghosts,” “Perfect Strangers”) found O'Toole a kind and generous mentor and remains awed by his body of work, which includes “Lawrence of Arabia," “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter.” O'Toole died in 2013 at age 81.
“The relationship that Benjy and Swann had on film is pretty much the relationship that we had off screen,” said Linn-Baker, currently on Broadway in “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman. “He took me under his wing. The little I know about film acting, I know from watching him and listening to him.”
Kazan, who played Belle Steinberg Carroca, Benjy's widowed and remarried mom, recalls meeting O'Toole for the first time when she and Brooks knocked on the actor's dressing room door, heard a muffled “come in” and found an underwear-clad O'Toole seated at the sink and washing his hair.
"He stands up and says, ‘Miss Kazan, my extreme pleasure,'" the actor and singer recounted with delight. “I fell in love with him. He was so wonderful to me.”
Kazan, who earned a Tony nomination for reprising the role of Belle in the 1992-93 musical adaptation of “My Favorite Year," said she based the outspoken Jewish mother on her relatives, including an aunt who was “a real dominant figure” and Kazan's mother, a beautiful woman who wore "all these fantastic clothes.”
A Brooklyn dinner invitation from Belle to Swann results in a culture clash of epic comedy proportions. At one point, Benjy's middle-aged aunt Sadie enters wearing an elaborate wedding gown, prompting a dubious compliment from sister Belle.
“You like it? I only wore it once,” replies a beaming Sadie, while Swann, amused, looks on.
For all its entertaining punchlines and slapstick, “My Favorite Year” is a deserved Valentine to the groundbreaking creativity of early TV makers. The templates they created remain copied and popular, even amid the medium's drastic 21st-century changes.
The movie's plot is fanciful, but “the world in which it is set is the zany reality, and it's just so good," Bianculli said. “I show ‘Your Show of Shows’ in my class (at Rowan University), and it still works.”