The Sunshine Boys (1975) - Plot Summary Poster

(I) (1975)


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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?

  • Al Lewis and Willy Clark were once a popular vaudeville comedy team called Lewis and Clark, also known as The Sunshine Boys. After forty-three years as a team, they parted company over eleven years prior on not too friendly terms as Willy wanted to continue his career whereas Al wanted to retire. They have not spoken since. Willy's nephew, Ben - a talent agent - has been trying to find acting jobs for his uncle since with little success as Willy's age and declining ability is showing. But a lucrative opportunity comes up when one of the major networks is producing and airing a special on the history of comedy, and want The Sunshine Boys to appear. Ben has to try and convince the comedy team to reunite for just this one gig. Ben has to try and manage the individual quirks and personalities of each of The Sunshine Boys while putting on a good face to the network that there is harmony within The Sunshine Boys comedy team. Ben also has to manage the lives of two men in the twilight of their lives.

  • A vaudeville duo agree to reunite for a TV special, but it turns out that they can't stand each other.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Former vaudeville and burlesque comic Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is late for a television commercial audition and his agent and nephew, Ben Clark (Richard Benjamin), frets as he attempts to keep his uncle's try-out from being canceled. When he finally arrives, Ben pleads with the ad agency director to see Willy; but the cantankerous old performer is so unfocused and disagreeable that he ruins any chance he might have had to land the job.

    Later, at Willy's apartment, Ben gets blamed for being unable to find work for his uncle. However, Ben tells Willy of an offer to do a spot on a upcoming TV special about the history of comedy. The network wants Willy to re-team with his former stage partner Al Lewis (George Burns) and perform their trademark "Doctor Routine." Willy refuses, claiming he feels betrayed by Lewis, who decided to retire. It is revealed here by Willy that he and Al were once a popular vaudeville comedy act known as "Lewis and Clark" and also called the Sunshine Boys. After 43 years together, they parted ways 11 years ago on unfriendly terms and have not spoken to each other since then. The break-up was due, in part, to Al's intent to retire and Willy's desire to continue performing.

    After delicate negotiations in which Ben visits Al in the New Jersey suburbs, where he now lives with his daughter's family, he persuades Willy to meet Al at his New York City apartment, discuss their differences, and rehearse the routine. After Ben leaves, Al enters and meets Willy for the first time in 11 years. The meeting is a disaster, and Al annoys Willy with his old habits. An attempt to rehearse the Doctor Sketch starts with the two grudgingly getting re-acquainted, but goes only as far as Al entering the doctor's (Willy's) office, before Willy decides to change the scripted long-established "Come in" to "Enter!" This results in a loud shouting argument and Al's stormy departure.

    Ben eventually negotiates a detente so the former partners will not have to speak with each other: simply show up for one technical rehearsal on the day of taping and then do the show. Ben tries to salvage the situation, despite the objections of Al's daughter to her father being bothered any more about the special and manages to get them in the studio. In the dressing room, Al and Willy do not speak to each other as persons, just like they did in the last year they did their sketches. There is unpleasantness when Willy carelessly dumps makeup jars on Al, followed by Willy's usual trouble with doors, in the dressing room.

    After Phyllis Diller finishes her scene and Steve Allen speaks his introduction, the Doctor Sketch starts. The technical rehearsal goes no better than the earlier confrontation in Willy's apartment. It flows smoothly until Willy starts shouting about Al's spitting on him and poking him in the chest. Despite Ben and the staff trying to restore order, Willy finally storms off the set, shouting accusations and abuse, and Al also leaves (finding it impossible to work with the man). In the stairwell, Willy's ongoing temper tantrum results in him being felled by a serious heart attack.

    Even though Willy is allowed no visitors, Al comes to the hospital to stand vigil. Later, Willy is discharged from the hospital and recovers at his apartment with the assistance of a private nurse that Ben hires. Willy constantly argues and verbally squabbles with the nurse.

    With the now-frail Willy no longer able to look after himself in his New York apartment, Ben and his wife visit the Actors Fund Home in New Jersey and arrange for Willy to move there. When Ben comes to tell Willy about the plan, Willy finally lets down his guard enough to express his fear that Ben will no longer make his regular Wednesday visits when he is all the way out in New Jersey. Ben assures his uncle that he will still come by, and that Willy will be surrounded by friends and be able to participate with his fellow show business retirees in putting on shows for the residents. As Ben leaves, Al shows up for a visit, and tells Willy that his daughter is going to be having another baby and the family will need the extra room where he has been living, so he has decided to move into the Actors Fund Home. In the final shot, as Al talks, Willy slumps in his bed with dread. Seemingly joined at the hip for eternity, the long-standing feud between Al and Willy will continue.

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