A Thousand Clowns

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For the rap group, see 1000 Clowns.
A Thousand Clowns
Thousand clowns.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Fred Coe
Produced by Fred Coe
Herb Gardner
Ralph Rosenblum
Screenplay by Herb Gardner
Based on A Thousand Clowns 
by Herb Gardner
Starring Jason Robards
Barbara Harris
Martin Balsam
Music by Gerry Mulligan
Don Walker
Cinematography Arthur Ornitz
Edited by Ralph Rosenblum
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • December 13, 1965 (1965-12-13)
Running time
116 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2,400,000 (Rentals)[2]

A Thousand Clowns is a 1965 film adaptation from a 1962 play by Herb Gardner, and directed by Fred Coe. It tells the story of an eccentric comedy writer who is forced to conform to society to retain legal custody of his nephew.

Jason Robards starred in both the original Broadway version on stage and in the film. Martin Balsam won an Academy Award 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 illegitimate son of Murray's 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.

Murray charms and seduces Sandra. He convinces her to join him 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 dignity and go back to work.

Murray also feels that he can't 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 doesn't laugh at Leo's pathetic display of comedy, Leo insults Nick. Nick 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]

Award Category Nominee Result
38th Academy Awards[4] Best Supporting Actor Martin Balsam Won
Best Music Don Walker Nominated
Best Picture Fred Coe Nominated
Best Writer Herb Gardner Nominated
American Cinema Editors Best Edited Film Ralph Rosenblum Nominated
Golden Globes[5] Best Motion Picture - Musical/Comedy Nominated
Best Actor - Musical/Comedy Jason Robards Nominated
Best Actress - Musical/Comedy Barbara Harris Nominated
Laurel Awards[6] Best Male Supporting Performance Martin Balsam Won
National Board of Review Top Ten Films Won
Writers Guild of America Best Writer Herb Gardner Won

Music in the film ranges from rudimentary drum cadences to Dixieland arrangements of "The Stars and Stripes Forever". "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.


  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 2012-08-03. 
  5. ^ "The Golden Globes". thegoldenglobes.com. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  6. ^ "Laurel Awards 1966" (PDF). elkesommeronline.com. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 

External links[edit]