Joseph Bologna passed away last week. Funny name, huh? Never heard of him?
Maybe he wasn’t a huge movie star, but his achievements were quality, if not quantity.
People behind the scenes aren’t as celebrated as those who appear on the screen. Joe did both. Besides acting in many movies he wrote and directed some pretty popular works. In many of these, his wife (Renee Taylor) was his creative partner.
I stopped to think of all the pleasure Joe had given me, mainly from a sentimental favorite of mine, “My Favorite Year.”
This 1982 movie isn’t remembered by many — not like Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz. But it is a gem and meant a lot to me. It’s a great piece of writing and acting, as well as a nostalgia piece and a tribute to one of the greatest shows ever to air on TV in the golden age, and a tribute to several great talents that made that show great and went on to do other great things.
Premiere Magazine (a big glossy magazine I call “The Rolling Stone Of Movies”) voted this movie as one of “The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” back in 2006. Of course, I agreed with them.
The movie is a behind-the-scenes story of a comedy variety show based on “Your Show of
Shows.” It was produced by Mel Brooks’ company and the protagonist is an aspiring young comedy writer named Benjy based on Brooks (played by Mark Linn Baker).
The comedy comes from Benjy’s big opportunity. You see, a huge film idol has been booked as the guest star on the show and Benjy (being low on the totem pole) is tasked with making sure this hero is kept sober, out of trouble (he’s a womanizer), and makes it to rehearsals and the live TV show on time.
Of course, that’s an impossible task for anyone.
But Benjy is star struck and ambitious — by golly he will do it!
The star is Eric Swann — magnificently played by Peter O’Toole and based on late-career Errol Flynn (the movie is set in 1954). O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor Oscar but didn’t win.
The TV show is the star vehicle of Joe Bologna, playing King Kaiser (get it — a thinly disguised Sid Caesar?). King is absolutely the King of Television and knows it, and his comedy show has been poking fun at a labor union boss (perhaps even a mobster) named Rojack. When Rojack learns that the comedy show is featuring an unflattering comedy skit ridiculing him (with a character named Boss Hijack), he sends some goons to the studio to rough up King Kaiser and disrupt the show.
But Benjy has enough problems keeping Swann in line, so he decides to take him home and keep him under wraps. Of course, the young man lives with his eccentric family — dominated by his stereotype Jewish Momma (Oscar nominated Lainie Kazan) who is reduced to a fluttery, flirty girl around “Swannee” (as she calls him).
The movie has a wonderful climax as the errant movie star is missing at showtime, the union thugs break in to the studio while the show is on LIVE and Benjy is having a breakdown because he just knows his career is shot before it starts.
A decade after the movie, there was an attempt to bring the story to Broadway as a musical, but it flopped and only ran something like 45 previews and 36 performances. It did win several awards — all for Andrea Martin (the legendary SCTV diva) who made her Broadway premiere won a Tony and some critics’ awards.
And although Joe Bologna’s character was the star of the TV show within the movie, it wasn’t “his” movie. He did a stellar job, though — you ought to see him handle those mob goons!
Joe had a long list of credits and won many awards for writing as well as acting. He worked steadily, but today’s audiences probably know him best as Adam Sandler’s father in “Big Daddy.”
But I remember Joe fondly for making “My Favorite Year” which is one of my favorite movies.