By the time this Neil Simon comedy finally won a Golden Globe, Simon had already written ten movies that had been nominated, including his masterpiece The Odd Couple. What did the trick this time was George Burns.
The much-loved comedian was 80 when he was given this role of a lifetime. He and Gracie Allen were fixtures of musical comedies in the 1930s, the most famous being Fred Astaire’s Damsel in Distress, but it was their vaudeville routine and subsequent TV series that made them a household word. After Gracie’s death Burns did stand up in nightclubs, but it was his award-winning role in The Sunshine Boys that opened up a whole new career for him, starting with Oh, God! which prompted two sequels, all hugely successful. Burns was still active when he died at 100. But let’s not forget Burns’s inimitable costar Walter Matthau. They were a perfect match.
But maybe Burns would rather forget. When both he and Walter Matthau were nominated for the Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, Matthau won. Fortuitously United Artists submitted Burns in the Academy’s Best Supporting Actor category and this time he won. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his agent who “ten years ago advised me I had no business being an actor.”
The Sunshine Boys was indelibly a Ray Stark production. The prolific (and eclectic) producer would later win a second Golden Globe as producer of another Neil Simon screenplay (The Goodbye Girl). Although the original play was considered a middling Simon effort, Stark gave it the big screen treatment, including director Herbert Ross who was at the top of his game then. Stark originally wanted Bob Hope and Bing Crosby for the cantankerous pair, but Simon wanted Jewish comedians.
The film actually went into production with Red Skelton and Jack Benny, but then Skelton dropped out over money issues, and Benny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He recommended his friend Burns for the part. Supposedly Woody Allen was approached to direct but he preferred to play the Burns character.
Twenty years later a TV film of the play with Allen and Peter Falk barely made a ripple. The other Golden Globe nominees for Best Musical or Comedy that year were Warren Beatty for Shampoo, James Caan for Funny Lady, and Peter Sellers for Return of the Pink Panther. Ann-Margret won for Tommy. Her competitors were Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn both for Shampoo, Liza Minnelli for Lucky Lady, and Barbra Streisand for Funny Lady.