‘1000 Clowns’: In Praise of Nutty Uncle With Heart

We haven’t had a true movie iconoclast for some time--one of those guys who delight in telling the world to go to hell out of one side of his mouth while giving it a big smooch with the other.

So it’s about time to pay another visit to Murray Burns, brought to giddy life by Jason Robards in 1965’s “A Thousand Clowns”: a human tonic for Angst of all sorts, the scourge of pomposity and convention, friend of the shirker, the hooky-player, the goofball.

The squarest of square pegs, Murray has thoroughly indoctrinated his nephew, whom he is raising, with his anti-work, pro-nuttiness ethic but finds he may lose the beloved Nick to the child-welfare authorities if he doesn’t agree to knuckle down and get a real job.

Murray has done time in the trenches as a TV gag writer and looks on his current state of unemployment as a kind of deliverance from purgatory. A Mr. Micawber (“something will turn up”) with the sensibility of a holy fool, Murray sits in his alcove and plays the ukulele while below in the street the world scuttles by.


Never mind that reality is closing in. Murray believes with all his heart that there isn’t a problem so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.

Robards plays Murray as a confetti-spewing juggernaut who flings paper streamers at cruise ship departures just for the heck of it and whose philosophy is neatly summarized in the way he answers the phone: “Hello, is this someone with good news or money? No? Goodby!” He’s the fool with the heart of a lion, but even he can’t maintain his grin in the face of Bureaucracy, played with priggish relish by William Daniels, and a sympathetic but insistent brother (an Oscar-winning role for Martin Balsam). Fortunately, along with Daniels comes Barbara Harris, ripe for conversion to careless glee at Murray’s hands.

Meanwhile, orbiting around the action like a pint-sized Jerry Seinfeld is Barry Gordon as Nick, wise beyond his years but panicked at the thought of leaving Murray.

If at the end of this picture you aren’t inspired to take your sweetie down to the dock and yell goodbys to all the people you don’t know on the Love Boat, you just haven’t been paying attention.


“A Thousand Clowns” (1965), directed by Fred Coe. 118 minutes. Not rated.