A Thousand Clowns is a 1965 American film which tells the story of a young boy who lives with his eccentric uncle Murray, who is forced to conform to society in order to keep custody of the boy. The movie was adapted by Herb Gardner from his 1962 play, and directed by Fred Coe. Gardner based the Murray Burns character on his friend, Jean Shepherd, who is said not to have appreciated the gesture.
Unemployed television writer Murray Burns (Jason Robards), lives in a cluttered New York City one-bedroom apartment with his 12-year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). Murray has been unemployed for five months after walking out on 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 assignment on the benefits of unemployment insurance, his school sends social workers to investigate his living conditions. Confronted by investigators for the Child Welfare Board, Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris) and her superior and boyfriend Albert Amundson (William Daniels), Murray is threatened with removal of the child from his custody unless he can prove he is a capable guardian of Nick.
Murray charms and seduces Sandra, who convinces Murray to obtain employment. They begin a relationship. Although Murray tries to avoid returning to work, he finds himself in a dilemma: if he wishes to keep his nephew, he must swallow his dignity and go back to work; on the other hand, he can't let go of Nick until he thinks the boy has shown some backbone; he "wants a little guts to show." In a confrontation with his brother and agent Arnold (Martin Balsam), Murray states his nonconformist worldview. Arnold rejoins that his own goal, by contrast, is to be "the best possible Arnold Burns".
Murray realizes that he must get a job, and after walking out on several interviews, he agrees to meet his former employer the detested "Chuckles" host, Leo Herman (Gene Saks). Leo insults Nick, but Murray refuses to do anything, upsetting Nick. But Nick stands up to Leo, telling Leo he is the fool that he so obviously is, and Murray sees the boy has finally grown a backbone; the guts have shown. At that point Murray becomes able to join the crowds of people heading to their jobs. He knows Nick has come of age.
Awards and nominations
Martin Balsam won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film as Murray's brother and agent. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Music (Scoring of Music, Adaptation, or Treatment), and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium).
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