After the Oscar-winning success of Raging Bull, the legendary actor-director team of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese reunited for a fifth time on 1982’s The King of Comedy. It was the first time the iconic duo had turned the attention to something funny – but, being De Niro and Scorsese, the film in question is considerably darker and edgier than your average slice of light entertainment, as it centres on a deeply disturbed would-be comedian who kidnaps a famous talk show host in the hopes of achieving fame. Here are some facts about The King of Comedy you might not have known.
10. De Niro convinced Scorsese to make it instead of The Last Temptation of Christ
For many years, Martin Scorsese had been longing to make a film based on the controversial novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Originally, the director wanted this to be his next film after Raging Bull, and tried to persuade Robert De Niro to take the title role of Jesus Christ.
De Niro felt differently, and instead suggested they film Paul D Zimmerman’s original screenplay The King of Comedy. Scorsese would later come close to making The Last Temptation of Christ with Aidan Quinn in 1984, before finally making it in 1988 with Willem Dafoe.
9. It was a major influence on 2019’s Joker
The King of Comedy tends not to be as celebrated as other De Niro/Scorsese collaborations like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Cape Fear, but it did have a significant impact on Todd Philips, writer-director of Joker.
Philips has admitted The King of Comedy was a huge influence on his acclaimed 2019 DC Comics movie, in which De Niro plays a character similar to Jerry Lewis’ in the 1982 film.
8. De Niro prepared for the role by talking to his own stalkers
As a committed method actor, De Niro did his usual intensive research and preparation for the role of deluded would-be comedian and obsessive stalker Rupert Pupkin. As part of this, the actor took the perhaps surprising step of approaching and talking to his own real-life stalkers.
On top of this, De Niro also spent a lot of time studying stand-up comedians to get a sense of comic timing.
7. Scorsese was very unwell throughout the shoot
The King of Comedy proved to be a fairly gruelling shoot for a number of reasons. Because a Writers’ Guild strike was coming up, production was rushed ahead of schedule to avoid clashing with this – even though Scorsese was not well at the time.
Despite his poor condition, Scorsese pushed through. He wound up being hospitalised with exhaustion and pneumonia after the King of Comedy shoot ended, and because of this the director took an extended break before making his next film (1985’s After Hours).
6. De Niro shocked Lewis by using anti-Semitic language
Seasoned comedy actor Jerry Lewis was cast alongside De Niro in the key role of talk show host Jerry Langford (Lewis himself suggested the character have his real first name). As a star from an earlier time, Lewis had never worked with a method actor like De Niro before, and was taken aback by his approach.
First, De Niro refused invitations to have dinner with Lewis to keep them unfamiliar with one another; then, when shooting a scene that required Lewis to get angry, De Niro bombarded the Jewish actor with anti-Semitic slurs. Though shocked, Lewis admitted this had the desired effect.
5. Sandra Bernhard was cast as Masha after Meryl Streep turned the part down
For the part of Masha, another unhinged fan of Jerry Langford’s, Meryl Streep was initially in the frame but declined. The part instead went to comedian Sandra Bernhard, in what was her first major acting role.
Years later, Bernhard would become best known for her recurring role of Nancy on hit sitcom Roseanne.
4. Rita actress Diahnne Abbott was De Niro’s real-life wife at the time
The King of Comedy sees De Niro’s Rupert date bartender Rita, played by Diahnne Abbott. De Niro and Abbott were married at the time, having met several years earlier when Abbott took a minor role in Taxi Driver.
Abbott’s few other film credits include Richard Pryor‘s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling and Before Night Falls. She and De Niro divorced in 1988.
3. It bombed hard at the box office, but critics liked it
The King of Comedy did not go down well with audiences on release in 1982. Having cost $19 million to make, it only made $2.5 million at the box office, rendering it a huge flop.
This was despite the fact that the film was favourably reviewed – and despite his misgivings, Scorsese has said that he thinks De Niro’s performance is the best from all their collaborations.
2. Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra were considered for Jerry Lewis’ role
Originally, Scorsese’s first choice for the role of Jerry Langford was Johnny Carson, America’s best-loved talk show host of the time. However, Carson had never acted before and turned the part down.
After this, Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack cohorts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr were also considered before Jerry Lewis finally took the role.
1. Michael Cimino or Bob Fosse could have directed
Early on in The King of Comedy’s development, it was poised to be directed by The Deer Hunter’s Michael Cimino. This deal fell apart when Cimino went massively behind schedule and over-budget on his notoriously troubled film Heaven’s Gate.
After Cimino, Bob Fosse (Cabaret) considered making The King of Comedy with comedian Andy Kaufman as Rupert Pupkin, but the director eventually decided against it.