The Peter O’Toole movie that launched Woody Allen

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pussycatWhen Peter O’Toole died over the weekend, all of the obits of course referenced “Lawrence of Arabia,” the 1962 classic that introduced the Irish actor to movie audiences and made him an instant international star.

O’Toole would go on to make other epic historical dramas, such as the marvelous “Becket” in 1964 and “The Lion in Winter” four years later.

But the actor made a wide variety of films during his long career, including two musicals (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Man of La Mancha”).

A key movie that I haven’t seen any references to in the outpouring of tributes is “What’s New Pussycat?,” the 1965 box office smash that was much more than the frivolous comedy it now appears to be.

“Pussycat” was part of the big changes that took place in Hollywood in the 1960s — it was racier than the comedies that had appeared just a few years earlier, was shot in an often eccentric style that borrowed heavily from French filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut, and it introduced the edgy, neurotic humor of Woody Allen to the movies.

The real Hollywood revolution would come with the release of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1966 and “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, but “Pussycat” proved that there was big mainstream money to be made in a comedy that threw out the Doris Day-Rock Hudson Pussycat Starsplaybook.

Producer Charles Feldman was impressed by Woody Allen’s stand-up comedy appearances and his growing TV variety show fame.

Feldman gave Allen his first movie break both as a writer and a performer with a project that was originally intended for Warren Beatty (the title was taken from what was apparently the star’s standard first comment if you called him on the phone).

The offbeat appeal of Allen as a screen personality paved the way to his own director-actor career that would commence in 1969 with “Take the Money and Run.” (Feldman would also hire him again for the bizarre 1967 James Bond film “Casino Royale”).  Allen’s undisguised New York Jewish neuroses combined with his undeniable charisma also helped to open the Hollywood door to Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman a few years later.

Beatty eventually bowed out of the project — he was about to produce and star in “Bonnie & Clyde” — and O’Toole stepped in, proving that he was as good at frazzled comedy as he was at historical drama.

“What’s New Pussycat” had all sorts of fresh 1960s hooks, including the hiring of Burt Bacharach to do the score. It was the pop songwriter’s first major movie credit and he gave many of the visuals a contemporary charge reminiscent of what The Beatles music did for Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” a year earlier.

There’s not as much fun in the movie now as there was 48 years ago — a lot of what it tried to do was co-opted by other movies and then turned into 1960s cliches — but it has an amazing cast (Woody Allen and Peter Sellers) and it remains a wonderful souvenir of a time when Hollywood was eager to become more adult.

Joe Meyers

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