Kenneth Mars, who just died at the age of 75, played many roles on screen and in voice-over, but I’ll always think of him first and foremost as Franz Liebkind from The Producers, probably the most quotable character in a movie where almost every line is quotable. Amazingly, he was not the first choice for the part: Mel Brooks wanted the young Dustin Hoffman, who had first come to attention in New York for playing a German in an Off-Broadway play. Hoffman got the part in The Graduate (opposite Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft) so Brooks got Mars, who had done some small theatre parts as well as TV parts, and was either about to or already had done the pilot for the sitcom He & She.
Hoffman was too young for the part of an ex-Nazi, but so was Mars, who was only a year older than Hoffman, though you’d never know how young he was from the completely convincing — yet hilarious — Nazi he played. As Mars himself said, the key to his performance is that you believed he was genuinely crazy and maybe even dangerous, so when he comes into the producers’ office and starts shooting, you believe he’s actually a threat.
Everyone has other favourite Mars roles. I’m fond of He & She just because the show was such a milestone in sitcom history (the flop that paved the way for many hits) and because I like the concept for the character he played — a “drop-in” neighbour who was a fireman in full regalia. Among his many voice-over roles I like his brief performance in Freakazoid!‘s “Candle Jack”, because that epi