Most people are going to remember comic actor John Astin for his role as Gomez Addams on The Addams Family television series. As Gomez, Astin swaggered onto the stage and delivered one-liners and off-beat dialogue with impeccable timing.
However, I remember him most vividly in the title role of Evil Roy Slade, a made-for-TV movie that came out back in 1972. On that first viewing, that movie became my favorite comedic Western, even outstripping James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff. It’s really unfair to group the two movies together in some respects. Support Your Local Sheriff tells a real story and Garner plays the character straight.
Some might want to throw Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles into the pot for consideration, and that’s fine. I just preferred the wit and quick turns of my two personal favorites. I enjoyed Blazing Saddles, just not as much.
With Evil Roy Slade, the humor is over-the-top and moves at a purely frantic slapstick pace. If you don’t pay attention to Evil Roy Slade you’re going to miss a snappy comeback, an offhand remark that is delicious, or a bit of physical comedy mugging for the camera that is to die for.
Where else can you get math problems like these:
Betsy: Evil Roy, if you had six apples and your neighbor took three of them, what would you have?
Evil Roy: A dead neighbor and all six apples.
Evil Roy: My definition of a nine-to-five job? Nine guys robbing five guys!
Poker Player: I got jacks with an ace.
Evil Roy: I got threes…with a gun.
Poker Player: You win! Wow, you are lucky!
The laughs are often deft puns and plays on words, with Astin mugging his way through them in true vaudevillian style. No one else could have played Evil Roy Slade.
Until the DVD arrived and I sat down to watch it with my son, I didn’t know that Garry Marshall and his long-time writing partner Jerry Belson had written the script. Looking back through the movie, it’s easy to see Marshall’s trademark of working with people he enjoys. He gave roles to his younger sister Penny Marshall (and later created Laverne & Shirley for her) and Pat Morita (and later cast him in the role of Arnold in Happy Days).
Anyone familiar with Marshall and Belson’s work (on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, and the adaption of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, to name a few) will recognize the snappy patter and quick plays on words. No one did it better than they did.
The movie has a familiar plot: bad guy falls in love with pretty woman who tries to make him turn good, but the unrelenting, quick pace of the humor transcends the rather staid storyline. Evil Roy Slade quite simply takes no prisoners.
Mickey Rooney plays Nelson Stool, the railroad tycoon chasing Evil Roy. Dick Shawn stars as Ding Bell, the singing cowboy marshal Stool sends for. Henry Gibson plays Stool's ne'er-do-well nephew. Edie Adams stars as the woman scorned by Evil Roy. Milton Berle plays a shoe salesman who tried to help Evil Roy go straight. In a hilarious role, Dom Deluise stars as a psychiatrist. In an uncredited role, Ed Begley has a brief walk-on that's funny. This talented cast all add to the timing and pacing of the movie.
If the rejoinders or the wry observations don’t get you, then the visual gags or Astin’s constant preening and monologues will. The actors and actresses move like clockwork throughout the movie. Even when you get ahead of the plot and see something coming (like Evil Roy getting stuck riding a Shetland pony with his boots dragging the ground), the sight of it being played out is goofball hilarious.
This is one of the most perfect family movies I’ve seen in a long time. There’s no profanity, no nudity, no innuendo. It’s just slapstick comedy in its purest form.
If you haven’t seen Evil Roy Slade, you’re in for a treat. And if you have seen the movie, treat yourself to a return bout with the best comedic Western film ever made.