Directed by Fred Coe
Written by Herb Gardner
Starring Jason Robards, Barry Gordon, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, William Daniels
Jason Robards has always been regarded as one of our best actors, both on stage* and in film and A Thousand Clowns is one of his most memorable film roles.
The movie follows the life of Murray Burns (Robards) who one day quits his job writing for a children's TV show to do what he pleases. Murray is the guardian of his nephew Nick** (Barry Gordon) as he gets away from the rat race and lives life fully.
But there are complications, in the form of two investigators from the Child Welfare Board, Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris) and Albert Amundson (William Daniels), who threaten to remove Nick from the Murray if he can't show he is capable of being a guardian.
The movie was a Broadway hit brought to film, with much of the original cast reprising their roles. Thus the acting is smart an assured. Robards is funny, very charming, mercurial, and a character you can't keep your eyes off, while Barry Gordon managed to be portray a smart kid in a way that's not too cute and not too artificial. It's something to watch him work with Robards; the two have a special rapport gained from doing the show on stage.
Barbara Harris, in her first film, is a charming love interest, while William Daniels portrays the strait-laced character that he's always known for. Both are great, but Martin Balsam, as Murray's brother Arnold, who tries to talk sense into him, won a supporting Oscar for the role. It could easily have gone to anyone else in the cast and, indeed, the film was nominated for Best Picture that year.
The movie did OK in the box office, and most of the cast made a real mark in films and Broadway. Even Gene Saks, who played Murray's former boss, was a big success, though as a director. And Herb Gardner, who wrote the play and screenplay, had several other Broadway successes, most notable, I'm Not Rappaport.**** Barry Gordon, while never a star, is still working pretty steadily, a major accomplishment for a child actor. Oddly, Fred Coe only directed one more file, though he did work in TV.
The play is revived from time to time, but the movie seems to become obscure. That's too bad, since it's an entertaining and funny film.
*Where he's considered one of the greatest interpreters of Eugene O'Neill.
**His name during the movie. Nick is allowed to choose his own name and has in the past used Wilbur Malcome Burns, Theodore Burns, Raphael Sabatini, Dr. Morris Fishbein, Woodrow Burns, Chevrolet Burns, Big Sam Burns , and Lefty Burns
***It was first a Broadway hit, with many of the original cast making it to the movie.
****Gardner's name appeared regularly in the New York Magazine competition, where readers were asked to submit small, funny bits on a particular theme. Gardner's entries seemed to show up just about every week, and someone once even used his name as one of the jokes.