I was about 11 years old or thereabouts when The Truism first occurred to me. I accepted The Truism at once as being resoundingly correct. And for the most part, I've never stopped believing its correctness. Here's the Truism:
Pretty much the best thing that a human being can do on earth with his/her life is to make people laugh.
I could go into a long and convoluted defense of that position, but I don't want to do it, and you don't want to read it. (If that is not true, we should both get hobbies as soon as possible.)
In any case, humor has pretty much been the hub of my life, both as an aficionado, fan, and student, and as a practitioner, performer, and purveyor. In other words, I think about it more than the average Joe. A few weeks ago, for no particular goddam reason other than my infatuation with concepts and subjects pertaining to humor, it occurred to me to make a list of THE BEST COMEDIC ACTORS OF ALL TIME.
We will, for logistical purposes, overlook the fact that I have no practical knowledge or record of the quality of comedic actors prior to the silent film era. We are known to be magnanimous that way.
As I am setting these arbitrary thoughts down, there is no particular order. Just as they pop into my mental line of fire.
Adam Sandler: Is mentioned here only because--and to recognize the fact that--he is the absolutely worst thing to happen to the entertainment industry in general and the comedic arts in specific, in my lifetime, or probably the lifetime of anyone since the 14th century, or at least since Torquemada stopped working the clubs. And yes, I'm including Carrot Top. In other words, this is our baseline, below which comedy by definition cannot exist.
Jack Benny: Had, was, and created possibly the best pure comic character of all time, and certainly since the dawn of electronic transmission. Unfortunately, this character did not translate to films even a little tiny bit, and I'm still not sure anyone knows why, but this was the fate of a lot of the great radio comics, Fred Allen and Red Skelton among others. Still, Benny's tightwad, age-ophobic, verbally mincing persona is unmatched in American comic theater.
Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin: I'm sorry, but I just don't believe you can be given serious, and/or fair consideration in the matter of acting if nobody ever heard you speak a line. This is, of course, not strictly true for either of these actors, but on that basis they would actually lose points. I regard them as vaudevillians caught on cinema, rather than actual film actors. The voice is a big deal, too. On this basis, I would include W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and Laurel and Hardy. They barely make the Best list, however, because of the all-important One Note Wonder demerit: they did not truly act in the accepted sense, but played one role which, in some cases, boiled down to being themselves (Fields and Groucho most notably).
W.C. Fields: One Note Wonder stigma notwithstanding, he played a harsh, cynical, dissipated note no other comedic actor has even tried to play, the acerbic yet engaging child- and dog-hater; his films still kick as funny, wry, snide and occasionally brilliant pieces of work.
Laurel & Hardy: Also one-noters, but milestone performers, they--and particularly Stan Laurel--are owed a comedic characterization debt by, among others, the Smothers Brothers, Abbott & Costello, Rowan & Martin, "The Honeymooners," even Martin & Lewis to a degree, all of whom drew upon either Laurel's befuddled innocent or Hardy's self-important bully or both.
Peter Sellers: For my money--a commodity I don't part with easily--probably the single best comedic actor of all time. The three roles in Strangelove plus Clouseau alone cement the honor, to say nothing of Being There and The Mouse That Roared. This just seems so beyond argument that I won't even bother doing the shoveling.
Jerry Lewis: Hard to like the guy, all the billions raised for kids in wheelchairs notwithstanding, but he was the cash money half, and indeed the "comedy" element, of the most successful comedy team of all time. Beyond that, he created a comedic archetype and in fact a franchise with his Nutty Professor, and pulled off a few serious drama roles along the way. Even the French are right sometimes. He was as innovative as he was annoying, and that's saying a lot.
Jackie Gleason: Was nominated for more than one Oscar, as I recall; was absolutely absorbing in The Hustler; and actually showed more range just in his TV hour--Kramden, Poor Soul, Reggie Van Gleason, Bartender guy, couple others--than most comics produce in their entire careers. Main drawback: Other than Kramden, he was superficial and unconvincing in all of them.
Art Carney: Now we're talking. Only three substantial movie roles I can think of, but one of them got him the Best Actor Oscar. And that was mere icing on the cake of having created one of the alltime primo comic characters, Ed Norton (later ripped as/by Yogi Bear, Barney Rubble, even Cosmo Kramer [the flinch as dialog]). A true comic acting genius, if such is thinkable. Certainly walks away with the Least Recognized award.
Woody Allen: He is perhaps what Chaplin would have been if Chaplin had been born when Woody was, in terms of creating and having total control over his screen persona, and using that leverage to portray an underdog on the make with widely divergent degrees of success. He is always Woody, true, just as Bob Hope was always Hope, but his screen persona established a comedy type that others would subsequently pursue, none of them successfully.
Lucille Ball: A comedy icon, or perhaps iconess, but it somehow never worked for me. The scatterbrain was a terrific comic character, and it was great acting in the sense that Lucille Ball, as opposed to Lucy Ricardo, was actually as shrewd and sharp as a straight razor, but theatrically it was all she had.
Judy Holliday: See Lucille Ball. Holliday's ditzo was much more finely crafted and nuanced than Lucy R., but if she ever played another role, I haven't seen it. Also, she owes a lot to Gracie Allen
Mary Tyler Moore: She had real comic talent, and Ordinary People proved she could act the hell out of a part, but in both of her sitcoms she was basically the straight man to Van Dyke and to most of the MTM Show repertory cast. Still, could be the best of the comedic actresses.
Jack Lemmon: I've never seen anybody cover the drama-to-farce range better, across the board, from China Syndrome and Save The Tiger (it was a drama, he did win Best Actor) to Mr. Roberts and The Odd Couple and Some Like It Hot. The Apartment was probably the best pure dramatic-and-comedic role of that era. I'd rank him second only to Sellers.
Walter Matthau: I'm sorry. Wish I could rank him. Just can't, though. As a comic actor he was always Mr. Irascible; as a dramatic actor he was always mediocre. Wonderful man, sure, but just doesn't belong in this particular pantheon.
Steve Martin: He's done mostly crap lately, and if you ask me--a singularly unlikely occurrence--trying to fill Sellers' gigantic Clouseau shoes was the kind of advice I would shoot my manager / agent for, but I think it's fair to say that The Jerk and Roxanne and The Two Of Us and a couple of other efforts--hey, Trains Planes, right?--easily qualify the comedy polymath of our generation.
Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, I know, she's always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, too. Nonetheless, she won her theatrical and comedic spurs doing a variety of characters and, although they tended toward the cliche, she did them proficiently. Plus there's that Best Supporting Actress Oscar. All in all, you'd have to rank her in the top several, comedic-actress-wise.
Bob Hope: The unctuous, sleazy, wolf-without-teeth persona that he buffed to a fine sheen in every entertainment medium extant in his lifetime--stage, radio, film, TV--so dilutes with its ubiquity the possible genius of its construction that it cannot be considered for Comedic Actor Greatness at this time. In short: Ixnay, inoseSkay. This has been a recorded message.
Alan Alda: Yes, MASH was a major long-running TV hit and an American cultural phenomenon. Yes, Paper Lion was a pleasant, even engaging movie. And yes, he looked like he might have carried upwards of 25 states in The West Wing. But no, he is not a notable comedic/acting talent. Sorry.
Jonathan Winters, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor: And others I could name. Absolutely brilliant, in some cases nearly beyond description, on stage in a standup comedy context and performance, but when it came to anything resembling serious acting? All ashore. Perhaps the most dispiriting case in point: Winters, who was at least groundbreaking and at best unapproachably brilliant in his ability to conjure up comedic characters during standup performances, but somehow retreated into a kind of sparkless neutrality when it came to films and TV roles.
Robin Williams: As nice a guy as you could give so much raw talent to, and a bona fide dramatic Oscar recipient, but the fact is that other than (and maybe even including) Good Morning Vietnam, his quality acting performances--Good Will Hunting, The Bird Cage, Dead Poets Society--weren't comedies, or comedic in nature. In fact, his comedy films have for the most part ranged from disappointing to ghastly, on the amusement scale.
Phil Silvers: A real sleeper, especially to anyone born after, say, 1955, but his Sergeant Bilko was one of the timeless gems of comic characterization, even if it was a familiar posture for him, which won him three Emmys to go with the--you could look it up--two Tonys that he won for Broadway portrayals in Top Banana and A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way To The Forum. In terms of peer recognition, audience approval (ratings), and range, maybe the actual best comedic actor, American wing, mid-20th century category.
Sid Caesar: But this is my boy, my personal vote-getter. True, he was forgettable at best in the only feature film I know him to have been in--MadMadMadMadWorld--but in Your Show of Shows he never played any recurring characters, would tackle almost any parody role, probably had no real peer in the Facial Expressions category, and his work holds up very well today.
Imogene Coca: I never saw a single episode of Grendl, her Hazel knockoff sitcom, but it was gone soon enough that it's hard to consider it a major plus. She was really quite good in a broad range of characters playing off Caesar, but Sid simply engulfed the stage, and it was like reading Shakespeare next to an erupting volcano; you could be Gielgud and nobody would notice you.
Good God, look how I've gone on, here. This has surely become hugely tedious to any poor soul who's happened across it. On the upside, however, nothing about Dom DeLouise, Pee Wee Herman, or Chevy Chase.
More to come? Eh, who knows.