My Favorite Year, 1982, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna. Directed by Richard Benjamin. Color, 92 minutes.
It’s 1954, and live television rules the airways, much in the same way Hollywood legends ruled the movie screens in prior decades. Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), the youngest writer for the “King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade” show, is enthralled with his job. That thrill reaches its peak the week movie star Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) is the show’s headline guest.
Swann, however, is a drunk handful, and King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) is ready to fire him before rehearsals have even begun. Benjy talks King into letting Swann stay, but finds himself saddled with the responsibility of making sure the erratic actor shows up to all the rehearsals, sober.
In the meantime, local mob boss Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell) is incensed because of King’s recurring bit as “Boss Hijack,” clearly a caricature of Rojeck. He threatens to sue, and when that doesn’t stop King Kaiser from proceeding with the character, dangerous accidents start to occur on the set.
Benjy, too, is dealing with more than Swann. He’s in love with the program’s executive assistant, K. C. Downing (Jessica Harper), who considers him a “mosquito.” Plus, he has his overbearing mother (Lainie Kazan) to keep in check.
This is a witty, nostalgic, bawdy film about an era long gone, when television was in its infancy and movie stars hadn’t yet lost their glamorous image from too much exposure. O’Toole received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Alan Swann, but lost to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.
The character of Alan Swann is based on Errol Flynn, although perhaps not any actual television appearance of the famed actor. The film is inspired by the memories of executive producer Mel Brooks and his time as a writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”
Director Richard Benjamin later recalled his initial conversations with O’Toole about playing Alan Swann. Benjamin’s wife, Paula Prentiss, who had starred with O’Toole in What’s New Pussycat, was the first to suggest the veteran actor for the part to her husband. When he learned O’Toole was on the producers’ list of potential stars as well, he sent him a copy of the script.
O’Toole called him later, asking him about one point in particular in the film’s original ending (which ended up not being used). In it, Benjy visits Alan Swann’s grave annually. The script had the birth and death dates for Alan Swann, and O’Toole was curious about who had chosen those dates. As it turns out, the birth date was his birthday, and when he added it up, Alan Swann died at the same age O’Toole was then.
When he learned the scriptwriter had chosen those dates arbitrarily, with no actor in mind, O’Toole agreed to do the part, saying he was a strong believer in signs.
This was Benjamin’s first time directing a film. It is a wonderful start to a career that went on to include films such as The Money Pit (1986) and Mermaids (1990). He was an established actor of both screen and stage, and had done some television directing, but success was not guaranteed for him with My Favorite Year. However, he showed great instincts for the job and the film itself, and the result is a treasure.
Look for marvelous performances from not only the stars, but the supporting actors, including Bill Macy, Lainie Kazan and Cameron Mitchell. In particular, look for a scene in which Alan Swann dances with an older woman (Gloria Stuart) clearly enchanted by him. Meanwhile, a younger woman, also entranced, watches. In this scene O’Toole shows both the gracious and baser sides of a movie star’s character. It is a sweet moment that lands with a raucous laugh.
My Favorite Year is a rare comedy that balances sentiment, humor and nostalgia. It is a modern-day classic, well worth the watch.