A Thousand Clowns

A Thousand Clowns is a 1965 American comedy-drama film directed by Fred Coe and starring Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, and Barry Gordon. An adaptation of a 1962 play by Herb Gardner, it tells the story of an eccentric comedy writer who is forced to conform to society to retain legal custody of his nephew.

A Thousand Clowns
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Coe
Produced byFred Coe
Herb Gardner
Ralph Rosenblum
Screenplay byHerb Gardner
Based onA Thousand Clowns
by Herb Gardner
StarringJason Robards
Barbara Harris
Martin Balsam
Barry Gordon
Music byGerry Mulligan
Don Walker
CinematographyArthur Ornitz
Edited byRalph Rosenblum
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • December 13, 1965 (1965-12-13)
Running time
116 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.4 million (Rentals)[2]

Jason Robards starred in both the original Broadway version and in the film. Martin Balsam won an Oscar for his supporting performance in the movie.


Unemployed television writer Murray Burns (Jason Robards) lives in a cluttered New York City studio apartment with his 12-year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). Murray has been unemployed for five months after quitting his previous job writing jokes for a children's television show called Chuckles the Chipmunk. Nick, the son of Murray's unwed sister, was left with Murray seven years earlier.

When Nick writes a school essay on the benefits of unemployment insurance, his school requests that New York State send social workers to investigate his living conditions. Investigators for the Child Welfare Board Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris) and her superior and boyfriend, Albert Amundson (William Daniels), threaten Murray with removal of the child from his custody unless he can prove he is a capable guardian.

Charmed by Nick and seduced by Murray, Sandra rows with Albert. Murray convinces her to join in his delusional charade, in which seeking work is a kind of joke used to keep the conventional, conformist, and inhumane state from his doorstep. Sandra rationalizes her growing relationship with Murray as encouragement for his attempts to seek employment. Although Murray tries to avoid actually getting a job, he finds himself in a dilemma: if he wishes to keep his nephew, he must swallow his pride and go back to work.

Murray also feels that he cannot let go of Nick until the boy has shown some "backbone". In a confrontation with his brother and agent Arnold (Martin Balsam), Murray expounds his nonconformist worldview: that a person must fight at all costs to retain a sense of identity and aliveness, and avoid being absorbed by the homogeneous masses. Arnold retorts that by conforming to the dictates of society, he has become "the best possible Arnold Burns".

Murray agrees to meet with his former employer, the detested Chuckles host Leo Herman (Gene Saks). When Nick does not laugh at Leo's pathetic display of comedy, Leo insults Nick, who quietly but firmly puts Leo in his place. Nick becomes upset with Murray for tolerating Leo's insults, and Murray sees the boy has finally grown a backbone. Realizing that Nick has come of age, Murray resigns himself to going back to his old job, and the next morning he joins the crowds of people heading off to work.



Sandy Dennis won a Tony for the 1963 stage version.[3]

38th Academy Awards[4]Best Supporting ActorMartin BalsamWon
Best Adaptation or Treatment ScoreDon WalkerNominated
Best PictureFred CoeNominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayHerb GardnerNominated
American Cinema EditorsBest Edited FilmRalph RosenblumNominated
Golden Globes[5]Best Motion Picture - Musical/ComedyNominated
Best Actor - Musical/ComedyJason RobardsNominated
Best Actress - Musical/ComedyBarbara HarrisNominated
Laurel Awards[6]Best Male Supporting PerformanceMartin BalsamWon
National Board of ReviewTop Ten FilmsWon
Writers Guild of AmericaBest WriterHerb GardnerWon


Music in the film ranges from rudimentary drum cadences to Dixieland arrangements of "The Stars and Stripes Forever". The song "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" is used in several places.

Judy Holliday wrote the lyrics for the theme song "A Thousand Clowns". This was her last film credit, as the film was released after her death on June 7, 1965.


A Thousand Clowns premiered on the Broadway stage at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 4, 1962 in previews, officially on April 5, 1962 and closed on April 13, 1963 after 428 performances. Directed by Fred Coe, the cast featured Jason Robards, Jr., (Murray Burns), Sandy Dennis (Sandra Markowitz), Gene Saks (Leo Herman), Barry Gordon (Nick Burns), William Daniels (Albert Amundson) and Larry Haines (Arnold Burns). Sets and lighting were by George Jenkins, and costumes were by Ruth Morley.

The play received two 1963 Tony Award nominations: Featured Actor in a Play (Barry Gordon) and Best Play, and Sandy Dennis won the Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play.[7]

Walter Kerr, in his review for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote of Sandy Dennis: "Let me tell you about Sandy Dennis. There should be one in every home."[8]

The play ended with Murray alone in his apartment, realizing his life had come to naught. The film opted for a more equivocal finish: he surrendered to the rat race, but at least he would have something to do and an income.

See also


  1. "A THOUSAND WORDS (U)". United Artists. British Board of Film Classification. October 13, 1966. Retrieved October 1, 2013.
  2. "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p 8
  3. 1963 Tony Awards
  4. "38th Academy Award Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  5. "The Golden Globes". thegoldenglobes.com. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  6. "Laurel Awards 1966" (PDF). elkesommeronline.com. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  7. "'A Thousand Clowns' Broadway" playbillvault.com, accessed November 13, 2015
  8. Shelley, Peter. "1961" Sandy Dennis: The Life and Films, McFarland, 2013, ISBN 1476605890 (no page number)
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