Most people would probably recognize Kenneth Mars as the voice of King Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. My brother and I loved him in What’s Up, Doc? as the Croatian Musicologist Hugh Simon. He was a brilliant comedic mind and had a flair for strange foreign accents. He was very versatile and had great parts in the movies, on TV, on Broadway and as a voice-over actor. He racked up over 200 credits before cancer took him in 2011.
To list his “must-see” films, I would definitely go to his big 3; The Producers (1967), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Young Frankenstein (1974) . In the Producers, the role of Franz Liebkind was originally given to Dustin Hoffman, but he eventually declined when he got the part of Benjamin in The Graduate (1967). Brooks only allowed Hoffman the chance to go off to the audition for the film because his wife (Anne Bancroft) was in it, and Brooks was familiar enough with the role of Benjamin to know Hoffman was utterly wrong for it (as written) and would never be cast. Great bit of luck for Kenneth Mars who inherited the role and even better luck for us, who got to watch him be utterly brilliant in it. He was so good, Gene Wilder wondered if Kenneth Mars really was crazy throughout filming and not just acting because of some of his antics.
I think it takes a special director comfortable with letting the performers loose during comedy that can bring out the best in some people. Mel Brooks definitely had that ability. Another is Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Kenneth in What’s Up, Doc?. He was given the freedom on that film to completely make up a fake foreign language. Much of Hugh Simon’s “foreign” language was Mars’ made-up interpretation of Serbo-Croatian, director Peter Bogdanovich’s native language. He was also a brilliant improviser. According to Peter Bogdanovich on the dvd commentary, the line ” I would like to say I love your hair”, spoken by Mars was improvised.
He would work again with Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein as the German Inspector Kemp. The movie has so many good actors (like Cloris Leachman, Gene Hackman, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle) that nearly steal the scenes they are in, and Kenneth was no different. He’s fantastic. Interesting to note that he had strange accents in all of these movies, and after this third one, was known as the actor who could do foreign dialects, even though he made up most of the foreign languages and accents he did.
Kenneth would go on to do over 30 years on TV and doing voices for a ton of cartoons. In my opinion he was under-utilized over the years, even with over 200 credits. He was that good.