She left us much too soon. The first time that I took notice of Madeline Kahn was in Peter Bogdanovich‘s classic screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? (1972). For me, it is a perfect film, with Kahn playing the hysterical, overbearing Eunice Burns, fiancée of yummy Ryan O’Neal‘s Howard Bannister. I had never seen such an original comic presence. What an introduction and what a feature film debut. It is a fearless performance and Kahn took the focus from Barbra Streisand, another funny girl, not the easiest thing to do because Streisand is also at her comic best in this film.
It’s hard to believe but young Kahn had a tough time getting her career off the ground. Her first professional job was in the mostly forgotten musical How Now, Dow Jones (1967), but her role was written out before the show even reached Broadway, as was her role in the original production of the underrated Burt Bacharach / Neil Simon musical Promises, Promises (1968). She finally earned that first big break on Broadway with the revue New Faces Of 1968. That same year, Kahn performed her first leading role, in a special concert performance of the charming Candide in honor of its composer Leonard Bernstein‘s 50th birthday. In 1970, Kahn had a swell supporting role in another forgotten Broadway musical, Richard Rodgers‘ Noah’s Ark-themed Two By Two, opposite Danny Kaye, hitting a High C nine times a week for the 10 months of show’s run.
Another funny lady, Lucille Ball, had her fired from the film version of the musical Mame in 1974. This wouldn’t be the last time that Kahn would get the boot.
I was lucky enough to have seen Kahn on Broadway in the original production of the brilliant, bon-bon Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Cy Coleman musical On The Twentieth Century (1978) opposite Kevin Kline in his first big role. I thought her performance was absolute genius, but after just two months, Kahn departed the show under murky, still controversial, circumstances. Some of my sources say she was fired, but others suggesting Kahn quit after sparring with legendary director Hal Prince.
In 1977, I saw Kahn in the lovely musical She Loves Me opposite hunky Barry Bostwick and as a sad go-go dancer in David Rabe‘s drama In The Boom Boom Room. I caught her Off-Broadway in John Guare‘s nutty Marco Polo Sings A Solo with Joel Grey and Sigourney Weaver. Oh, those zany New York City 1970s; what a great era for theatre.
Kahn’s lasting legacy will be the close succession of three great film comedies: Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and High Anxiety (1977), all directed by Mel Brooks who was always able to bring out the very best of Kahn’s special comic gifts. She was nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award for Blazing Saddles and for her amazing turn as the quietly desperate Trixie Delight in Paper Moon (1973), with Bogdanovich directing.
In the 1990s, Kahn had steady work, giving terrific off-kilter performances on stage, film and on television. I especially appreciated her spot-on Martha Mitchell in Oliver Stone‘s Nixon (1995).
It now seems kind of creepy that she was within arm’s length of Bill Cosby in her final project, the television series Cosby (1996-2000).
Kahn took that final curtain call in 1999, taken by the damn cancer. Her diagnosis came in 1998, and while undergoing chemotherapy, Kahn continued to work on Cosby. The series did a special episode with the cast, out of character, paying tribute to her. It is my fervent prayer that the star of that show kept his grubby paws off Kahn.
She is one of those great comic actors who never seemed to work too hard to get a laugh. Kahn is funny because her characters are deadly serious. In real life Kahn was reserved and somewhat prudish. But, her comic instinct brought laughs simply by walking on stage or her first shot in a film. Her creations were neurotic, cerebral, but sexy. Kahn steals scenes by being minimal in her inventive details. It was her idea to loftily rest her hand on nothing but air in the endlessly re-watchable I’m Tired musical number from Blazing Saddles. It was her suggestion that her character, Elizabeth, break into Victor Herbert‘s operetta chestnut Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life as the monster makes love to her in Young Frankenstein.
Madeline Kahn is missed. She would have been, should have been, 78-years-old today.