A Forgotten Steve Martin Comedy Gave Us The Best Cameo In Movie History
While young people today may primarily know Steve Martin as “Selena Gomez’s senior citizen buddy,” of course, the legendary comedian has a long and illustrious film career, appearing in classic movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – plus less-than-classic movies like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Sgt. Bilko. Yeah, he’s 0 for 2 when it comes to movies with “Sgt.” in the title.
One of Martin’s most famous films, of course, is The Jerk, directed by the great Carl Reiner and featuring Martin as titular dumbass Navin R. Johnson. After its success, Martin went on to collaborate with Reiner several more times, including in the paranormal romantic comedy All of Me, with Lily Tomlin, and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the film noir parody that went to painstaking pre-digital (and Oujia board-less) lengths to make it seem as though Martin were interacting with old Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart.
Less celebrated, though, is 1983’s The Man With Two Brains, co-written by Martin, director Reiner, and George Gipe – who also, incidentally, wrote the surprisingly horrifying novelization of Back to the Future. The aggressively goofy film concerns a brilliant brain surgeon named Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, who marries a beautiful, yet cruel, patient played by Kathleen Turner. Things take a ‘50s pulp sci-fi left turn halfway through the movie when Martin’s character falls in love with a disembodied brain being kept in a jar by a mad scientist, voiced by an uncredited Sissy Spacek.
There’s a lot to love about The Man With Two Brains; the scene where Martin barks orders at a four-year-old girl at the site of a car accident, for instance, is arguably an all-timer –
– but there’s also a lot about the movie that … doesn’t hold up so well. One could argue that the climax, in which Dr. Hfuhruhurr very nearly resorts to murder in order to obtain a sexy host body for his lover’s brain, was intended as a criticism of misogyny and male superficiality – but considering that the entire movie ends on a dumb fatphobic joke, it’s hard to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Regardless, The Man With Two Brains has – and we refuse to budge on this – the best damn celebrity cameo in movie history.
At the risk of spoiling the film (seriously, stop reading now if you haven’t seen this 39-year-old movie and wish to enjoy it completely untarnished), much of the action takes place in Vienna during a medical conference. A random (although ultimately pivotal) B-story involves a mysterious stranger who murders women in elevators, which the locals have dubbed, somewhat unimaginatively, the “Elevator Killer.”
When we witness the Elevator Killer take down his first victim, we pointedly never see his face – just that he’s wearing a trenchcoat and ominously carrying a syringe.
When the killer corners his victim, she seems to know him and is seemingly pleasantly surprised to see him. In true whodunnit form, before she is able to further reveal the identity of the mystery man to the audience, he strikes!
Towards the end of the film, Kathleen Turner’s character also ends up in an elevator with the murderer, and she too seems to know him – who could it be?? Well, when Martin appears on the scene, it’s revealed that the Elevator Killer is none other than … talk show host Merv Griffin, playing … Merv Griffin. Yup, the long-time TV personality bashfully admits that he’s the culprit, revealing that: “I’ve always just loved to kill. I really enjoy it.” He goes on to say that his predilection for homicide has been difficult due to his fame. He can’t even “lurk” anymore without someone saying: “Who’s that lurking over there? Isn’t that Merv Griffin?” (Hence why he’s now operating in Vienna).
While Griffin promises to turn himself in, we learn at the end of the film that he didn’t, thanks to a title card indicating that he is, in fact, still “at large.”
This zany gag is expertly executed; while seemingly random, it doesn’t totally come out of nowhere and was subtly foreshadowed more than an hour prior to the reveal when Dr. Hfuhruhurr and his new bride are briefly seen watching The Merv Griffin Show.
While Merv Griffin is less well-known today, at the time, he was a major TV star. This would be like if a comedy today included a twist where Jimmy Fallon was quietly moonlighting as a modern-day Jack the Ripper in order to quench his raging bloodlust.
Of course, this basic premise has perhaps become more commonplace today; celebrities routinely play themselves in cameos, often in an unflattering light, like Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle or the laundry list of stars who show up as petty jerks in Extras or how Carl Weathers plays a cheap grifter named Carl Weathers on Arrested Development (which, itself, felt like an homage to a plotline from the classic sitcom Newhart, involving actor Tim Conway).
But The Man With Two Brains took this idea to perhaps its furthest possible extreme – which is what makes it so funny. Merv Griffin isn’t just acting slightly rude or revealing that he’s surprisingly thrifty, he’s confessing to slaughtering innocent people in an Austrian hotel for the sheer giddy thrill of it. And is weirdly bemused about the whole thing.
Shades of this joke are also present in Martin’s most recent project, Only Murders in the Building, in which our heroes briefly suspect Sting might be a cold-blooded killer.
But that one seems less hilariously far-fetched, to be honest. Sorry Sting.
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Top Image: Warner Bros.