Woodython Five (5): The Early Years

“It was unspeakably agonising. All day long I would shake and tremble, thinking about standing up that night before people and trying to be funny.”

Woody Allen, 1966


Allan Stewart Konigsberg was born in Brooklyn on December 1st, 1935. From an early age he was drawn towards the fantasy worlds depicted in the cinema. He changed his name while he was in the final years of school when he was already producing a steady flow of jokes for publication in newspapers. He established a reputation for a witty turn of phrase, and before long he was a sought after writer. Much to the alarm of his mother, he flunked college, but was soon earning more than his parents put together. She wanted him to be a lawyer, but he was too easily distracted by jazz, sports and magic tricks to do the work required.

He soon realised that he couldn’t be a gag factory all his life, despite the regular money coming in from writing for Sid Caesar’s TV programme. He began to develop a cabaret, stand-up act. He was inspired by Mort Sahl who bucked the normal tuxedo-clad comic who did the circuit by having a more relaxed manner and appearance to deliver comedy with an education. Sahl’s comedy was delivered like of stream of consciousness, with many digressions, his most famous routine involved describing the different factions across the political spectrum.

Woody’s routines are still available on the album STAND UP COMIC, they are a mix of the well practiced patter that we are familiar with from his films, with clever subversions and infused with sex, politics and educated allusions that appealed to his audience of baby boomers. During this time, Woody signed up with his managers/ producers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe and his was circulating in the show business world that he would recreate splendidly in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)

He also began to establish himself as the ‘go to’ guest for television chat shows and was a popular regular on the Dick Cavett’s TONIGHT SHOW. It was through his television contacts that he was invited to write WHAT’S NEW PUSSY CAT …

Writer and performer in WHAT’S NEW PUSSY CAT (1965)

The kitsch soon wears off and it is now almost impossible to watch this 1960s sex comedy. It is remarkable to think that such a great deal of talent was invested into it and how popular it was on its release, when to modern eyes it seems patchy, poorly acted and terribly directed. Even Peter Sellers in a comedy wig can’t rescue this rambling mess of a movie.

Originally conceived as vehicle for Warren Beatty, impossibly blue-eyed Peter O’Toole was drafted in as the charming womaniser when the star fell out with the producers. Despite his best efforts to remain faithful, O’Toole’s character proves irresistible to women.

Woody is the best thing in it as he gave himself all the best lines, so much so that the studio insisted on a redistribution. The film taught him the importance of artistic control and that studios can only mangle, not make, great films.

No doubt, the Russell Brand remake is in development hell as I write.

Sort of writer, sort of director and sort of performer in WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966)

I’ve never seen this before. Woody took the Japanese spoof-James Bond film KEY OF KEYS (1964) and re-edited and redubbed it to make a story about Phil Moskowitz who is on the hunt for the stolen recipe for the best egg salad.

There are some bookend appearances by Woody as well as some animated bits; he sits eating an apple, ignoring the strip-tease by China Lee at the end of the film. They are probably the best bits of a TV sketch that out-stays its welcome.

Actor in CASINO ROYALE (1967)

Riding on the coat-tails of the narrative confusion and phenomenal success of PUSSY CAT, the ensemble cast was regrouped with some additional actors and no less than six directors (just to make sure that it was particularly messy).

Woody is a great comic presence, even in the company of Sellers, Orson Welles and David Niven. There is no expense spared to deliver a spectacle and a complicated story that doesn’t really add up to much.

Woody is little Jimmy Bond who is the nephew of David Niven’s James Bond (a British spy, brought out of retirement to tackle SMERSH who have been bumping off agents). Woody is the real evil behind the labyrinthine plot. He has a biological warfare plan to make all women beautiful and eliminate all men over 4 foot six inches tall, therefore making him the irresistible ‘big man’. The scene where he is dumb-struck by the appearance of his uncle is very funny.

Writer and actor in PLAY IT AGAIN SAM (1972)

Having played the role for months on broadway, Woody didn’t want to take the directing role for the film adaptation of his popular play about a divorcee trying to reawaken his mojo , helped by his friends and Humphrey Bogart.

There is a real rapport between Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts and Woody as they work through the various set-ups and blind-dates. Inevitably Keaton and Woody realise that they have feelings for each other (as they did during the Broadway run), but ultimately walk away from the situation as they realise that their relationship is doomed (as they did after making this film).

This is the first film that I saw of Woody and I once thought that it was the best that I’d ever seen.

Writer, actor and director of DON’T DRINK THE WATER (1994)

While he was holed up in his hotel room during the production of CASINO ROYALE in 1966, he was busy writing pieces for The New Yorker and this play that was an instant hit on broadway. It was made into a film in 1969 starring Jackie Gleason (which is really difficult to find). He returned to the material and made this TV film during the highly productive custody-battle period.

Woody leads the Hollanders, a group of tourists that get trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He isn’t the best in the film on this occasion, this time it is Michael J Fox as the American Ambassador’s son.

That said, its not Michael J Fox’s best television appearance in a Jewish-American farce … Oh no … Not by some degree …

One response to “Woodython Five (5): The Early Years

  1. Pingback: Woodython Five (12): Woody’s Round-Up! | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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