Kenneth Mars

d. February 12, 2011

Kenneth Mars, the comic actor best known for his roles in the riotous Mel Brooks movies “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein,” died Feb. 12 of pancreatic cancer at his home in the Granada Hills area of Los Angeles. He was 75.

Mars played the demented German playwright whose paean to the glories of the Third Reich becomes a grossly tasteless musical titled “Springtime for Hitler” in 1968’s “The Producers,” the first and the most audacious of Brooks’ big-screen works.

In 1974’s “Young Frankenstein,” a lovingly crafted sendup of Universal’s 1930s horror films, Mars played the village police inspector who wears an eyepatch and a monocle over the same eye and sports a false arm that he can’t control, a takeoff of Lionel Atwill’s role in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein.”

Mars broke into acting in New York in 1962, in an off-Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” that also had Hal Linden and Barbara Lang in the cast. He made his Broadway debut later that year in “The Affair,” and got his first TV job in an episode of Car 54, Where Are You?, the Nat Hiken comedy series filmed in New York. He also appeared in an episode of Peter Falk’s New York-based series The Trials of O’Brien. In 1965, he replaced Gene Hackman in “Any Wednesday” during that show’s long Broadway run.

Mars was soon on the west coast winning roles in Gunsmoke, Get Smart, Mannix, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Room 222, The Debbie Reynolds Show, Love American Style, The Paul Lynde Show, That Girl and Ironside.

In 1967, Mars was signed as a regular in the new comedy series He & She. The show starred Richard Benjamin as Dick Hollister, creator of a comic-strip hero named Jetman, Paula Prentiss as his zany wife, and Jack Cassidy as a narcissistic actor who plays Jetman on TV. Mars played a fireman stationed in a New York firehouse next door to the Hollisters’ apartment. He made his entrance in every episode by walking across a plank from the firehouse window to theirs. The series, created by Leonard Stern, was expected to be a huge hit for CBS but lasted only one season.

Mars was in two 1975 TV productions involving better known super-heroes. He was a raving Nazi again in “The New, Original Wonder Woman,” the ABC Movie of the Week and pilot for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman series. And he appeared in an astoundingly low-budget TV version of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman,” the musical adventures of the man of steel that flopped on Broadway in 1966. Mars portrayed oily Daily Planet gossip columnist Max Mencken, a role created on Broadway by his He & She co-star Jack Cassidy.

Mars’ other films included “The April Fools,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Viva Max,” “What’s Up, Doc?” “The Parallax View,” “Fletch,” “Radio Days” and “Shadows and Fog.”

He appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies, including 1989’s “Get Smart Again,” with Don Adams and Barbara Feldon recreating their series roles. He also made several unsold pilots, one a comedy titled “Hello Mother, Goodbye” that starred no less than Bette Davis. It aired on NBC in 1974 but never sold.

Mars was also in a TV adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman’s off-Broadway play “Steambath” whose cast included Bill Bixby, Stephen Elliott and Herb Edelman. The show, perhaps best remembered for Valerie Perrine’s pioneering TV nude scenes, was broadcast in 1973 by just a handful of brave Public Television stations.

His later TV appearances included episodes of McMillan and Wife, Columbo, Barney Miller, Police Woman, Magnum P.I., Fernwood 2-Night, Murder She Wrote, Remington Steele, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, L.A. Law, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Becker, Just Shoot Me and a recurring role on Malcolm in the Middle.

Mars started doing animation voice work as a sideline in the 1970s and eventually did hundreds of TV cartoons over the last three decades, as well as the voice of King Triton in Disney’s 1989 blockbuster “The Little Mermaid.”


Kenneth Mars in “Young Frankenstein,” above; with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in “The Producers,” left; as dirty rotten Nazi Colonel von Blasko in “The New, Original Wonder Woman,” below.