Something of a precursor to Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Blazing Saddles (1974), this made-for-TV farce lampoons Wild West clichés by delivering jokes at a blistering pace. Alas, while Evil Roy Slade has strong elements, notably a cheerfully manic leading performance by John Astin of The Addams Family fame, the movie’s lukewarm one-liners, tepid running gags, and weak satirical concepts pale next to the outrageous brilliance (or brilliant outrageousness) of Blazing Saddles. That said, if you adjust your expectations appropriately, then Evil Roy Slade will provide you with 90-something minutes of rootin’-tootin’ silliness. After all, the project was written and produced by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall, whose other collaborations included transforming Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple into one of the most memorable sitcoms of the ’70s. Sure, most of the jokes in Evil Roy Slade are goofy (“Somethin’s on my mind and it hurts my head!”), but there’s something to be said for letting stone-cold comedy professionals take the wheel and going along for the ride.
Astin plays Evil Roy Slade, who was abandoned as an infant and then grew into a hateful criminal whose only friends are vultures. (As in, actual carrion-eating birds.) When Roy meets the lovely but wholesome Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin), he tries to go straight, taking a job at a store until his old compulsions drive him to rob again. Meanwhile, businessman Nelson Stoll (Mickey Rooney), the owner of a Western Union-type telegraph service that has been robbed countless times by Roy’s gang, determines to take Roy out permanently. Nelson hires a vain singing cowboy, Marshal Bing Bell (Dick Shawn), for the job. The gags fly furiously, ranging from the amusing to the groan-worthy. Bing Bell wears little bell earrings. Roy contemplates changing his name, with options including “Evil John Smith” and the like. During a montage sequence, the words “Time Passes” are superimposed on the screen. Much is made of Nelson’s “stumpy index finger,” which he wore out sending telegraph messages. You get the idea.
Notwithstanding an unfortunate trope of homophobia (such were the times), most of Evil Roy Slade is harmless nonsense. Astin excels at this sort of high-octane craziness, Rooney attacks his cartoonish characterization vigorously, Shawn commits to his ridiculous role, and they’re abetted by comedy stalwarts including Milton Berle, Dom DeLuise, and Henry Gibson. If nothing else, Evil Roy Slade is superior on every level to Astin’s other comic western, the 1973 theatrical feature The Brothers O’Toole.
Evil Roy Slade: FUNKY