The ‘Mad, Mad World’ Cast: 1963’s All-Star Game Of Comedy
Entertainment | March 11, 2019
Written by Guy Cruz
Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney panic at the controls of an aircraft in a still from director Stanley Kramer’s film ‘It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In the history of comedy films, few have boasted as much star power as It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World‘s cast. Spencer Tracy, though not himself known for comedy, leads a who’s-who of comic talent that includes Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers Terry-Thomas and Jonathan Winters. And that’s just the headliners! The supporting actors included Jim Backus, Jimmy Durante, and Peter Falk. These are all stars of a certain age, who rose to fame in the ’50s or earlier — for some of them, being in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World‘s cast was a last hurrah. (Falk and Backus were exceptions; they would play their most memorable characters after 1963, on Columbo and Gilligan’s Island.)
The set up to the story, directed by Stanley Kramer, was rather simple…a reckless driver, played by Jimmy Durante, causes a car accident and traffic jam on a busy freeway. As an odd assemblage of drivers approach Durante’s character, who lies dying in the street, he utters his final words. He mysteriously states that there is a fortune buried in Santa Rosita Park under the Big W. This touches off a mad, frenzied, greed-driven race to find the treasure. The plot is built to accommodate a plethora of stars and supporting actors, as well as plenty of cameos by the likes of Jack Benny, Stan Freberg and Buster Keaton — as well as Norman Fell and Don Knotts (yes, Mr. Roper and Mr. Furley in the same film!).
The zany style of comedy seen in the movie might seem dated, but as a snapshot of a generation of Hollywood’s best, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a must-watch for viewers of any age. Here’s a look at these legends of the golden age.
Jimmy Durante as ‘Smiler’ Grogan
Jimmy Durante in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” Source: (imdb.com)
It’s Jimmy Durante’s character, Smiler Grogan, who kicks off the mad dash for buried treasure. The immensely talented Durante could sing, play the piano, act, and do comedy, but he was perhaps best known for his unique appearance (the guy had a big nose) and wise-cracking New York accent. Long before being cast in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Durante was a ragtime piano player, Vaudeville comedian, radio star, and television. By the time It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was being cast, Durante was still considered to be a huge star, but his movie appearances had slowed down. After shooting It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Durante only made one more film, Frosty the Snowman, in which he played the narrator. Most of his time was spent doing television variety shows. He retired from show business in 1972 after a stroke left him incapacitated, and died eight years later in 1980.
Spencer Tracy As Captain T.G. Culpeper
Spencer Tracy in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” Source: (tmc.com)
Although he had previously appeared in some comic films, Spencer Tracy was not exclusively a comic actor. In fact, he is probably best known for his dramatic roles, including Captains Courageous, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Boys Town. As with Jimmy Durante, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the second-to-last film Tracy made. Following this flick, Tracy appeared in the 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? which was also directed by Stanley Kramer and addressed social changes in the Civil Rights Era. Just two weeks after filming wrapped up for this movie, Tracy passed away.
Milton Berle As J. Russell Finch
Milton Berle. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)
Funnyman Milton Berle was affectionately known as Uncle Miltie during the golden age of television. The former Vaudeville and radio star established himself as one of the premiere variety show hosts on television and rose to the pinnacle of his career. No all-star comedy romp like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would have been complete without Berle, and his star quality helped to light up the screen. Although Berle mostly worked in television toward the end of his career, several of his film appearances just before and after It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World involved him playing himself. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a refreshing change of pace for Berle. Berle , who died in 2002, stayed current with entertainment trends and in the 1980s and 1990s, he made memorable guest appearances on The Muppet Show, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Rosanne, and Beverly Hills 90210.
Sid Caesar As Melville Crump
Sid Caesar with Edie Adams. Source: (thenewswheel.com)
Sid Caesar’s forte was comic sketches on live television. His comedic genius extended to writing as well as performing. He created many of the hilarious and memorable skits for TV’s Show of Shows and for his own variety show, Caesar’s Hour. In It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Caesar is cast as a dentist named Melville Crump who is on a second honeymoon with his wife, Monica, played by Edie Adams. The pair make a perfect old married couple who are both in love with and annoy each other. After It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Caesar made appearances in other films. Did you know he was Coach Calhoun in the 1978 movie Grease? He also appeared in History of the World, Part I and Cannonball Run II. Caesar died in 2014 at the age of 91.
Mickey Rooney And Buddy Hackett As Ding Bell And ‘Benjy’ Benjamin
Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney. Source: (tmc.com)
In It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Mickey Rooney was partnered with Buddy Hackett and the two were cast as buddies, Ding Bell, and “Benjy” Benjamin, who were road-tripping to Vegas. Rooney enjoyed one of the longest show biz careers of any entertainer. He began his career as an impish silent film star and starred in vaudeville, stage, radio, television, and movies. Rooney and standup comedian Hackett made a perfect pair of bumbling friends, and their performances were punctuated with Rooney’s wise-cracking quips and Hackett’s hilarious facial expressions. After filming, both men went on to appear in more TV shows and movies. Rooney portrayed one of the crooked retiring security guards in Night at the Museum and its sequel, Night at the Museum II: Battle for the Smithsonian. Hackett supplied the voice of Skuttle the seagull in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Ethel Merman As Mrs. Marcus
Ethel Merman. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)
Dynamic singer and boisterous actress Ethel Merman was known for her commanding stage presence and domineering mannerisms. That made her a great choice to play the overbearing mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus, a dramatic contrast with Milton Berle’s mild, spineless salesman. In fact, Merman set the standard for the meddling mother-in-law with her appearance in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1980, Merman’s last movie role was in the comic farce, Airplane! In this movie, she played a soldier with PTSD who thought he was Ethel Merman, an odd twist.
Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, Jim Backus, And More
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was overflowing with comedic talents. Comedian Jonathan Winters, best-known for his various voices, appeared in the movie before going on to voiceover work in the Smurfs and Scooby-Doo. Don Knotts was more of a slapstick comedian with a goofy face. He was perhaps best-remembered for the 1966 movie The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and as the wacky landlord, Mr. Furley, in Three’s Company. Jim Backus, who played a lovable alcoholic in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, went on to TV sitcoms as Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. So many other hilarious entertainers lent their talents to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – Peter Falk, Buster Keaton, Dick Shawn – making this film one of the all-time star-studded comic romps of the groovy era.