The Comedy Teams That Weren’t, Yet Were

Tonight on TCM, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello team up, as they’re wont to do, for a few Abbott and Costello classics, Hold That Ghost, Buck Privates, and In the Navy.  Abbott and Costello were one of the greatest comedy teams of the classic era but there was plenty of competition.  Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges (the members changed in that one), and the Marx Brothers may be the most familiar (and the Marx Brothers definitely had the best movies, or at least, averaged out over time they did) but there were many others, some making appearances more often than not in otherwise dramatic movies.  One example would be Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) who showed up in two non-comedies, The Lady Vanishes and Dead of Night, and were never a comedy team in the sense that they carried their own series of movies like the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello.    But what about the greatest comedy teams of all time that weren’t comedy teams at all but kind of were for at least one great team up.  Sometimes they even tried to have lightning strike twice, and succeeded, still without actually becoming a team.  What am I talking about?  Let’s get started.


For the first great comedy team that wasn’t, I present Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert from It Happened One Night.  Sure, they never teamed up to do comedy again (but they were in Boom Town together) but they could have.  Watching Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night is watching two great comedians in total sync with each other.  Their timing is impeccable, their interplay flawless.  In fact, their chemistry is so great that many of the smaller throwaway moments get lost among the bigger, more famous moments.  Certainly Colbert’s car stopping leg show is justifiably famous but just before that moment, when Gable slumps back defeated, after having talked up his hitch-hiking prowess so much he figures he should write a book about it, and says, “I don’t think I’ll write that book after all,” Colbert pats him on the shoulder and, without missing a beat, says, “Yeah, but think of all the fun you had.”  It’s a deadpan delivery, cynical and ironic, and with a modern cadence and feel, revealing the comedy to be squarely rooted in the modern era of sound.  That was no moment of big, vaudevillian delivery, it was the assured punchline of a new, more sophisticated comedy.  And it all works because Gable and Colbert are still one of the greatest one-time comedy teams ever.

35 years later, another team consisting of two actors most people don’t associate with comedy at all, in a genre most people never associate with comedy (though it’s certainly had some great ones, and I don’t just mean by Mel Brooks), had such great chemistry most people still think of them in tandem, even though they only made one other movie together.  The actors were Paul Newman and Robert Redford and the movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I don’t care what you say, I think those two had some of the best timing the movies have ever seen.   “The next time I say, ‘let’s go some place like Bolivia,’ let’s go some place like Bolivia!”  “Next time!”  Or how about, “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”  When they teamed back up for The Sting, it wasn’t the two of them exchanging banter.  The Sting may be a better movie, or at least a better constructed one, but I’ll take there earlier buddy movie any day.


Now let’s shoot forward again a couple of decades to the comedy stylings of Robert de Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run.  Now that’s a comedy team!  I saw this one in theater and while I don’t really remember the plot, I do remember two things: Yaphet Kotto was, as always, great (that’s for you, Bill) and de Niro and Grodin were simply perfect together.  Great timing, great interplay, great chemistry.  They never became a comedy team delighting audiences with a new movie each year but, let me tell you, they could have and I wouldn’t have complained.

This time, let’s go back a few years.  Cary Grant made more than his share of comedies but in one of them, my personal favorite comedy of his, he’s one part of a great comedy trio that never graced the screen again.  Too bad, they were perfect.  That trio is Grant, Myrna Loy, and Melvin Douglas and the movie is Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.  Man, that is a great comedy team!

Plenty of actors have great chemistry in one particular movie and, naturally, Hollywood pairs them up again as soon as they can.  Sometimes, it works, sometimes, it doesn’t.  Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine made a great team in The Apartment but, for my taste, not so much in Irma La Douce.   And sometimes, it does.  Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau did great work together in The Fortune Cookie and even better work the next time around in The Odd Couple.  At that point, they became a true comedy team and, thus, disqualify themselves from this list, which is reserved for those one time great team ups.  It’s the one time teams that fascinate because one wonders what it would have taken to get them together again.  Anyone else ever thought Peter Sellers and Sterling Hayden may well be the greatest comedy team in history?  I have.  Hell, that may be the single best pairing of two actors who never worked together again ever.  As always, a complete list isn’t the point so feel free to add, add, add (and it doesn’t matter if they’re the leads or not).  That’s what the comments are for.  There are enough great one time comedy pairings that I bet we could come up with a hundred in less than a day.  It’s bittersweet when you realize that two actors were so great together, comedicly, that a whole comedy team career was missed out on by not having them work together again but that another movie just might have ruined it.  Better to have the one success than a minefield of failed attempts.  Here’s to the comedy teams that weren’t, yet were.  May they always be together.  Once.


20 Responses The Comedy Teams That Weren’t, Yet Were
Posted By Harmon : September 18, 2015 2:18 pm

What’s the Sellers/Hayden team up?

How about Wilder/Pryor?

Posted By Harmon : September 18, 2015 2:20 pm

Oh, Strangelove.

Posted By Cynthia Closkey : September 18, 2015 4:00 pm

I also think of Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, who costarred in two terrific movies but wouldn’t be thought of as a team: Foul Play and Seems Like Old Times (with the every-funny Charles Grodin).

Posted By Marty : September 18, 2015 4:46 pm

Interesting topic.
If Sellers and Hayden are a great comedy team, so are Sellers and George C. Scott as President Muffly and General Buck Turgidson in the same picture! But more on the topic.
I think that, although those pictures arent comedies, Tracy and Gable in Boom Town and Test Pilot make me laugh. How about:
-Tony Curis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
-The British “Carry On stock company
-The Warner’s stock company of Alan Hale, Jimmy McHugh, Alan Jenkins and the like — always in there to keep the pace moving and give people a laugh
-The John Ford stock company — they handled everything, drama, action and very broad compedy
-The Preston Sturgis stock company — Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin, Bill Demarest, Robert Grieg, Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn and of course, Rudy Vali

These actors weren’t night club comics or part of comedy teams such as Abbott and Costello or Martin & Lewis. They were terrific character actors who could make you laugh out loud, even in a dramatic picture.

Posted By Autist : September 18, 2015 5:11 pm

How about the one-time teams of James Garner and Joan Hackett in “Support Your Local Sheriff”, and Garner and Suzanne Pleshette in “Support Your Local Gunfighter”. At least, I don’t think either of those teamings was repeated.

Posted By armns : September 18, 2015 5:15 pm

William Powell & Myrna Loy is a great comedy team.

Posted By jojo : September 18, 2015 7:19 pm

Segal and Gould in California Split.
If they would have made six movies of them traveling the world (like Hope and Crosby, except they’re degenerate gambling addicts), I would have watched them all.

Posted By Emgee : September 18, 2015 7:27 pm

Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach have some great comic exchanges in the Good, etc. Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, almost too obvious to mention. Wayne and Mitchum in El Dorado.Leslie Howard and Bette Davis of course were paired up more than once, but unfortunately It’s Love I’m After is the only comedy they did.
Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century.
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.

Posted By Teach : September 18, 2015 9:22 pm

Emgee, neither Grant and Hepburn nor Stanwyck and Fonda were one time team ups. Grant and Hepburn also made Holiday and The Philadelphia Story together, and Stanwyck and Fonda had already made The Mad Miss Manton before they made The Lady Eve.

Posted By Qalice : September 18, 2015 9:59 pm

Nobody ever talks about Midnight Run and how funny DeNiro and Grodin are! Thank you for that.

Posted By Doug : September 19, 2015 1:00 am

Melvin Douglas in a trio brought to mind one of the finest screwball comedies-Jean Arthur, Douglas and Fred MacMurray in “Too Many Husbands”. “My Favorite Wife” inverted with Arthur having to choose which husband to keep after one comes back from…well, you know the story.
It’s great fun.

Posted By gregferrara : September 19, 2015 2:37 am

You’re welcome!

Another great team: Charles Grodin, again, and Dyan Cannon in HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

Posted By swac44 : September 19, 2015 10:56 pm

Maybe the trio of Loy, Grant and Douglas never worked together again, but at least we have Loy and Grant in The Bachelor & the Bobby Soxer, which I saw for the first time only recently on TCM. I felt bad for ignoring the film for so long, it was an utter delight,and Loy is radiant as ever in it.

I had heard that Redford’s recent outing A Walk in the Woods was intended years ago as a project to reteam him with Newman for one last hurrah, but was put on the shelf when he became ill and subsequently passed away. It’s getting OK reviews for it’s pairing of Redford & Nolte, but I wonder what kind of film it would have been with Newman on board.

As for Charters & Caldicott, they did get their own film, Crook’s Tour and also turn up on another set of rails in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich and also appear in Sidney Gillat’s Second World War morale booster Millions Like Us. I guess the British public loved those characters. Not only that, but the characters were revived (with a different pair of actors of course) for a British mystery comedy TV mini-series called Charters & Caldicott in the mid-’80s. Haven’t seen the latter, but I’d be curious to compare it to the original pairing.

Posted By Wendy Merckel : September 20, 2015 4:04 am

I love Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh in The Mystery of the Wax Museum. They don’t have very many scenes together, but the ones they do have are ‘cherce’. Their comic banter and timing is perfect! You’d think they’d been together for years.

They re-teamed in Heat Lightning, adding the great Ruth Donnelly to the mix, and I believe they are in Havana Windows together as well, but I can’t remember if they have any good scenes. I sure do wish there were more movies with them as a couple.

Posted By swac44 : September 20, 2015 11:32 am

Phew, I’m not the only one who calls it Havana Windows. When I made a DVD-R of it off of TCM, that’s exactly what I wrote on the disc.

Posted By tolly devlin : September 20, 2015 12:42 pm

Charlie Ruggles & Mary Boland in several films, including the classic Ruggles of Red Gap. Elliot Gould & Donald Sutherland in MASH (and to much lesser returns in SPYS).Jeff Bridges & John Goodman in The Big Lebowski. Goodman & William Forsythe in Raising Arizona. Bill Murray, Geena Davis & Randy Quaid in Quick Change. Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom in some of the Pink Panther sequels. These are just a few of the ” comedy teams” I could think of off hand.

Posted By swac44 : September 20, 2015 1:32 pm

Also thought of L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin, who are great together in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, among other films. I’ve read they were great friends in real life too, what I wouldn’t give to hang out with those guys for an hour.

Posted By swac44 : September 20, 2015 1:35 pm

What a shame that one of my favourite comedy teams, The Goon Show trio of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Seacombe, only did film work that could only best be described as minor (Down Among the Z Men is a curio at best). If only Richard Lester had been able to corral them for at least one Goon-inspired feature, but perhaps it’s best that their flights of fancy were restricted to the radio airwaves, film might have ruined the illusion(s).

Posted By robbushblog : October 8, 2015 7:49 pm

The first I thought of when I read the title of your article was De Niro and Grodin in MIDNIGHT RUN. So great. In addition though, I submit Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen in GUNGA DIN. Those three were great together. So much so, that the creators of the western TV show Laredo used them as the model for their three rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith.

Posted By Fred : March 11, 2018 10:29 am

I loved Grant and Hepburn in their first team-up, the underrated and seemingly-unknown SYLVIA SCARLETT. I wish Criterion would give it their patented treatment, or at least put it out on Blu-Ray.

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