Jack Benny was signed for the role eventually taken by George Burns. Ill health forced Benny to back out of the project due to being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Benny recommended his friend Burns to replace him.
Based on the lives and careers of vaudeville comics Joe Smith and Charles Dale (né Sultzer and Marks). Unlike the characters in the Broadway play and later film, Smith and Dale were almost inseparable friends. In fact, when Dale died in 1971, Smith commissioned a single tombstone to be prepared for them both, ordering that the inscription read "Smith and Dale." The pair's strained relationship is based on another old-time vaudeville duo, Gallagher and Shean, the latter of whom was Groucho Marx's uncle.
Red Skelton was originally suggested for the role of Willy Clark, but when he was approached, he wanted what the producers felt was too much money, so they withdrew their offer. It has also been suggested that Skelton withdrew from the picture because the work was too "blue".
The film was made and released about three years after its source play of the same name by Neil Simon was first performed in 1972. The original Broadway production of "The Sunshine Boys" opened at the Broadhurst Theater in New York on 20th December 20 1972 and ran for 538 performances until 21st April 1974. During its run, the play transferred to two other theaters, the Shubert Theatre on 30th October 1973 and then the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 11th February 1974. The play was nominated for three Tony Awards in 1973 including Best Play, Best Actor in a Play (Jack Albertson) and Best Direction (Alan Arkin), but failed to win any. The play's setting is described in its introduction as: "An apartment in an old hotel on upper Broadway in New York City, a television studio and Willie's apartment." The play was Simon's ninth long-running hit.
First feature film for George Burns for thirty-six years. Burns had not appeared in a movie since 1939 where he had starred in Honolulu (1939). The picture was considered Burns comeback movie, the comeback being considered one of the most significant ever in Hollywood film history.
When George Burns won the Oscar, at his acceptance speech he said: "This is all so exciting. I've decided to keep making one movie every 36 years. You get to be new again." Later Burns added, "I'm thinking of taking on Gentile roles and becoming the new Robert Redford."
"The Sunshine Boys" play opened in London's West End on 17 May 2012 and ran for a 12-week run until 28 July 2012. It starred Danny De Vito' and Richard Griffiths. The season was de Vito's West End debut.
The film has been remade four times for German television, in 1982, 1995, 1999 and 2001. Each time it has been known as "Sonny Boys". Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" was first remade in 1977 with The Sunshine Boys (1977), this being only about two years after this cinema feature was first released.