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Lewis and Clark were famous comedians during the vaudeville era; off-stage, though, they couldn't stand each other and haven't spoken in over 20 years. Ben, Willy Clark's nephew, is the producer of a variety show that wants to feature a reunion of the classic duo. How will Ben convince the crotchety old comedians to put aside their differences before the big show? Written by
The Final "Voyage of Discovery" of Lewis and Clark
Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE set up a model for many of his later plays. Felix Unger and Oscar Madison were the unsuitably paired roommates in the original, the former being picky and neat, the latter being slovenly and loose. Simon would rewrite (less successfully) the play in the 1990s as THE NEW ODD COUPLE, with female roommates. He made it a mixed couple (a woman with her daughter, and a man) in THE GOODBYE GIRLS. He also gave it an additional twist in 1973 with THE SUNSHINE BOYS, a Broadway hit starring Jack Alberson and Sam Levine as Al Lewis and Willie Clark, the aged, semi-retired Vaudevillians. Here the "apartment" problem is reduced to a teaming of two men who can't stand each other. The 1976 film starred Walter Matthau as Willie, and George Burns as Al.
In actuality, Al probably does not think totally badly of Willie - Willie is pathological on the subject of Al. First Al had little habits, such as accidentally spitting slightly when pronouncing words beginning with the letter "t", and slightly jabbing Willie with his index finger, on stage. Secondly, Al retired when his wife died. Willie was not ready to retire (and has been forcing his nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin) to try to get him jobs in commercials. But Willie can't remember lines unless they are funny, and keeps flubbing them. So he rarely is able to stay to the end of a rehearsal for a commercial.
Ben is asked to get the two back together for a live scene of their most famous sketch on a television show about American Comedy. He does bring Al to see Willie, and the sparks begin flying, as neither can figure out what the other is doing (and this is just in rehearsal. On top of that, Willie is insisting on changes (minor ones, but they throw off Al) such as saying "ENTER!!!" when Al knocks on the door. The initial rehearsal is a failure, but Ben manages to get them to the taping of the show. The question is if they will complete the scene in the finished program or will Willie wring Al's neck?
The three leads, Matthau, Burns, and Benjamin, do very well with the one-liners, frequently reminiscent of vaudeville patter (example: "Chest pains...I'm getting chest pains Uncle Willie. Every Thursday I come here and get chest pains!" "So, come on Fridays!"). Benjamin strives to prove his deep affection for his uncle, although Matthau's rough outer shell makes it difficult (he only smooths down when he discusses the glory days of vaudeville). Matthau has a little better grasp on reality (at first) than Burns, who seems senile by his repeating himself - but in actuality Matthau's sense of rejection by the world that once applauded him make him less willing to behave properly. Burns is not senile - he takes things slowly. But he seems far happier in accepting his retirement.
I call this a final "Voyage of Discovery" for our modern Lewis and Clark. Al and Willie transcend their old skits, as they gradually end up realizing that they have more in common in their old age than they thought. Even the irascible Willie admits that Al may be (to him) a pain in the ass, but he was a funny man.
Burns was not the original choice for the part of "Al Lewis" (supposedly Dale of the team Smith and Dale). Jack Benny was. Benny probably would have done a good job, but ill-health forced him out (he died in 1975). Burns (whose last involvement in any film was in THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC in 1956 as the narrator) turned in such a fine performance that he got the "Oscar" for best supporting actor, and was to have a career in movies in the next decade in such films as OH GOD!; OH GOD, YOU DEVIL; and GOING IN STYLE. He died in 1996 age 100, having proved that he was more than just a brilliant straight man for his wife Gracie Allan.
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