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Mars on Life: Kenneth Mars

by Dale Dobson

Actor Kenneth Mars has contributed memorable performances to such films as The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Radio Days. His voice has also given life to King Triton of Disney's The Little Mermaid and Grandpa Dinosaur of Universal's long-running Land Before Time series. Mr. Mars recently discussed his long and varied career with dOc on the eve of Universal's release of The Land Before Time: The Big Freeze. Our conversation has been edited for continuity and clarity.

dOc: Hello, Mr. Mars...

Mars: I used to look at my fingers a lot too. I look at my digits all the time. I'm looking right now, and they need to be trimmed some.

dOc: Thank you for spending a little time with us... how much time can you spare?

Mars: I can spend about six days. Not a second more.

dOc: Okay, then. Let's talk about your work in animation, first of all...

Mars: I do Grandpa Dinosaur, and I also do King Triton in The Little Mermaid.

dOc: As an actor, how is developing an animated character different from a live-action performance?

Mars: Well, I don't think it's a whole heckuva lot different. Except that the characters are less complicated in terms of character [in animation]. They tend to be kind of one thing. Grandpa Dinosaur is kindly and wise, and usually has an opinion that is aimed at protecting the little ones, Littlefoot and the others. It's kind of... I don't want to belittle the character, but it's sort of a one-track thing. All of these animated things touch on misbehavior of the leading character, and finding out that the adults are not necessarily always wrong in their judgments of what you should and shouldn't do. So that's the kind of moral lesson, if you will.

dOc: And you've played Grandpa Dinosaur in some seven Land Before Time sequels now, as the same character...

Mars: Sometimes you're asked to double a character, and that's fun to do. But something that's too bad that's going on now in cartoons... as you know, the producers of cartoons have decided that it makes more sense for them to pay maybe a half or a quarter as much for the performance of a movie star, and to pay much less money for a voice person.

dOc: I know Disney has a reputation for paying "scale"...

Mars: Most of them do. Except that they're not paying scale to movie stars. Their agents wouldn't allow that to happen. It's too bad that people who have worked hard to become good voice people are kind of being elbowed out of the way. I have worked with so many voice people that are absolutely incredibly facile and talented, and I don't know whether they're working as much. But it's a lot of fun when you do it.

dOc: What do you remember about developing the character of King Triton?

Mars: It was very well-written. What impressed me when I first saw the picture was, when you first see the kingdom, and you go from the surface of the water down, if you recall, the tilt from the surface of the water down to the kingdom takes an incredible length of time. And you get a wonderful sense of how far down you're going. I was quite impressed with that, I thought it was one of the cleverest things... you were made aware of how much ocean there is, and how far under the water the kingdom is. And I think the writing is extremely clever.

dOc: Triton was a fairly complex character... he had a temper...

Mars: That's true. As opposed to Grandpa Dinosaur, who was always very patient. Grandpa Dinosaur was played older in a certain sense than King Triton. King Triton has this great body, these great abs!

dOc: Did the character change at all during the Little Mermaid TV series of the mid-nineties?

Mars: I wouldn't say so. It's always been quite well written. And I think the drawing is just as good as it is in the features. I think it's a very good show.

dOc: You've had a long association with Hanna-Barbera as well... as far back as 1962 with The Jetsons, and as recently as Cow and Chicken...

Mars: That was a lot of fun. Those were all people that you worked with, and they were masterful. Some of these voice guys, and I don't include myself in that number, some of these guys were absolutely masterful.

dOc: Do you ever find that more people recognize your voice than your face nowadays?

Mars: No... you know, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, What's Up Doc?, all these roles have kind of caught up with me. I'm surprised at how many people do recognize me and want to talk about these movies. Nobody much recognizes your voice!

dOc: You've worked with a couple of heavy hitters over the years... Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. The Producers was your first major film role...

Mars: Yes, it was.

dOc: What was it like working with Mel Brooks at that time?

Mars: Madness. Madness, and wonderful fun. I was so impressed by Zero [Mostel]. I had seen Zero in some things, for example, in Rhinoceros, and he became a rhinoceros without benefit of... When it was done in England, they did it with masks—he was no mask, he went ahead and became a rhinoceros. One of the great performances of all time, in my opinion. He just was wonderful, wonderful... he had that little trot that rhinoceroses do, sometimes they trot forward and sometimes sort of sideways, and sort of... look from one eye to the other. He just had... he WAS a rhinoceros, what can I tell you? It was just so amazing. So when I first met him, I was just... put away by him, that was so fabulous.

Mel saw me in a show on Broadway that lasted one night. I was playing a very wacky psychiatrist, and he was very taken with that performance. From time to time I'd see him in New York, and he'd say, "I'm writing a picture, and you're in it, you're going to be wonderful, I'm writing a part for you..." Well, the part he wrote for me, actually wrote for me was the part of the Director, who, as you recall, wears a dress, and was ultimately played by Christopher Hewett. Anyway, I went in there, and he said, "don't you love the part?". I said, 'well, I love the part and everything, but the German's my part.' So I auditioned for that thing three or four times. Finally, his assistant—Alpha Betty Olson is her name, oddly enough—his assistant said, "Hire him, he's terrific!" And Mel said, "All right, you can do it!" That sort of established the working relationship.

At one point, I said, 'listen, y'know, I'm up there with the pigeons, and I've got on the helmet and everything. Mel, I think I should have three or four spots of pigeon s--t on the helmet.' "Oh, now, there you are, y'see? That's the kind of taste you have! I put you in this great part, gonna make you a big star, and now you want three or four spots of pigeon s--t on your helmet? I'll give you two!" I said, 'I'll take five.' "Okay!"

It was just madness, that kind of madness. Then when I did Young Frankenstein, I was up in Buffalo, doing a play in Buffalo in the winter, and the snow was up to my thigh, truly. And Mel called at half-hour [before curtain], he said, "what are you doing in Buffalo?" I said, 'Nome was too warm.' He says, "Okay, okay. Listen. You're wearing an eyepatch... and on top of the eyepatch, on top of the eyepatch you've got a monocle. Is that too much?" And I said, 'no, Mel, that is not too much.' He says, "Good! You got the part!" And that's how I got the part in Young Frankenstein.

There are so many stories, you know, of Mel Brooks madness. Completely different from working, of course, with Woody... Woody is a pretty serious guy, and he has to be, because, you know him, he's doing forty-three different things! He's writing the film, he's directing the film, he's usually in the film, and he's got his saxophone gig. It's astounding what this guy can do, what he does do.

dOc: You played a Nazi playwright in The Producers, and Rabbi Baumel in Radio Days... that's almost the definition of a character actor!

Mars: I suppose so, yes!

dOc: In Shadows and Fog, you played the Magician...

Mars: That's right. I saw this picture, and I thought, oooh, this is very interesting, this is like a Bergman picture. And I know how much Woody loved Bergman. So I said to him, when I first went in, I said, 'y'know, Woody, how 'bout if I do this with a Scandinavian accent?' And he said, "Oh, can you do that?" 'Yeah, I can do that.' "All right."

dOc: Allen often reserves the closing lines of the film for himself, where he often does his summing up, and in this case those lines were given to your character.

Mars: Yes. It's a great line.

dOc: Was it hard to find the tone for that scene?

Mars: I don't think so. I think we did maybe two takes of it. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. Sometimes you wish you could do certain things over again. There are certain parts of that I wish I could do over again. Some of it is pretty good. Other things, I wish I could do it differently.

That's the pleasure of film, that you can see a performance you like again and again and again. But it's also a little difficult, because you see something you're not that crazy about... Young Frankenstein, it's a fabulous film, and parts of what I do in it I'm not that fond of. That's one of those I'd love to do again.

dOc: I always think comedy on film must be more difficult than comedy in front of a live audience...

Mars: Well, I don't know that I feel that way about it. Actually, I think... either you got that thing, or you ain't got that thing. In the sense that... either you know how to make something funny, or you don't. Nobody can teach you a whole hell of a lot about it. It's just one of those things that somehow you got, or you don't got.

My favorite picture of all time, by the way, is something you never saw called Desperate Characters with Shirley MacLaine. It's a fabulous picture, and one of Shirley's very best. In fact, I saw her recently at a book signing... it's amazing, I went to this book store that I go to, and I arrived, and I wanted to get a book. And I'm in the parking lot, and there's a line going from the bookstore all around the building and into the parking lot. It's a book signing... who could it be? And then I thought, I know who it is! I knew it was Shirley MacLaine, because she is, above all people, the most beloved actress there is, probably, in the world. We went to Berlin with Desperate Characters, and we won some Golden Bears there. And everywhere we went, they would shout after Shirley, "Irma! Irma!", from Irma La Douce. They were just mad for her, and with very good reason. I can only say that they have the best of taste, because there's nobody in the world, in my opinion, that is more incredibly talented than Shirley MacLaine. It starts with singing and dancing, and goes on from there, there isn't anything she can't do.

dOc: What's next for Kenneth Mars?

Mars: I've been doing television. This year, I did a couple of episodes of Becker... the last one was the one that was more fun, because we were in court... and just did a Will and Grace and did a Drew Carey and a Nash Bridges earlier in the year. That was a lot of fun, actually, to go there—San Francisco is great, I enjoyed that.

My daughter, on the other hand, she's making me into Robert Alda, she's so talented. She just closed two weekends ago—she did four weeks of Gypsy up in Portland in the big theatre there. And she is undoubtedly the youngest person ever to play Mama Rose. I went up there, and started thinking about it, this is the musical theatre version of [King] Lear... in terms of its emotional content, even in terms of the heroine being the mother, and the two daughters. And it's just a huge part in terms of singing, the part is immense, she's always onstage and always singing! Unbelievable! And she is fabulous. She's got a CD out, she's got another one she's working on, and she was at the Gardenia earlier this year, and she'll be back sometime in November. Whenever they do a big musical up in Portland, she's the star of it. She's outshining me, I'll tell you that!

dOc: That's wonderful. And it's been great talking to you.

Mars: Tell your little ones that you talked to King Triton!