The Sunshine Boys
Sunshine boys.jpeg
Theatrical release poster by Al Hirschfeld
Directed byHerbert Ross
Screenplay byNeil Simon
Based onThe Sunshine Boys
1972 play
by Neil Simon
Produced byRay Stark
StarringWalter Matthau
George Burns
Richard Benjamin
Lee Meredith
CinematographyDavid M. Walsh
Edited byJohn F. Burnett
Music byIrwin Fisch
Distributed byUnited Artists (United States/Canada)
Cinema International Corporation (international)
Release date
  • November 6, 1975 (1975-11-06)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Sunshine Boys is a 1975 American comedy film directed by Herbert Ross and produced by Ray Stark, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and based on the 1972 play of the same name by Neil Simon, about two legendary (and cranky) comics brought together for a reunion and revival of their famous act. The cast included real-life experienced vaudevillian actor George Burns as Lewis, Walter Matthau as Clark, and Richard Benjamin as Ben, with Lee Meredith, F. Murray Abraham, Rosetta LeNoire, Howard Hesseman, and Ron Rifkin in supporting roles.


Al Lewis (George Burns) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) are two elderly comedians who were once a popular vaudeville comedy act known as "Lewis and Clark" and also called the Sunshine Boys. After 47 years together, they parted ways 11 years ago on unfriendly terms and have not spoken to each other since then. The break-up was due, in part, to Al's intent to retire and Willy's desire to continue performing. Willy's nephew, Ben (Richard Benjamin), a talent agent, tries finding work for Willy, which proves difficult due to Willy's age and blustery temperament.

When one of the major networks decides to air a program on the history of comedy and wants the Sunshine Boys to reunite for the show, Ben tries securing the duo's cooperation one last time. Ben tries managing the individual quirks of two old men in their twilight years, including omitting the abuse and insults each used in discussing the other with him, and diplomatically portraying each as anxious to do the "Doctor Sketch" for an ABC special to give the appearance of harmony.

An attempt to rehearse the Doctor Sketch at Willy's apartment starts with the two grudgingly getting re-acquainted, but goes only as far as Al entering the doctor's (Willy's) office, before Willy decides to change the scripted long-established "Come in" to "Enter!" This results in a loud shouting argument and Al's stormy departure.

Ben has to patch up and salvage the situation, despite the objections of Al's daughter to her father being bothered any more about the special and manages to get them in the studio. In the dressing room, they do not speak to each other as persons, just like they did in the last year they did their sketches. There is unpleasantness when Willy carelessly dumps makeup jars on Al, followed by Willy's usual trouble with doors, in the dressing room.

After Phyllis Diller finishes her scene and Steve Allen speaks his introduction, the Doctor Sketch starts. It flows smoothly until Willy starts shouting about Al's spitting on him and poking him in the chest. Despite Ben and the staff trying to restore order, Willy finally storms off the set, shouting accusations and abuse, and Al also leaves (finding it impossible to work with the man). In the stairwell, Willy's ongoing temper tantrum results in him being felled by a serious heart attack.

Willy recovers, first in the hospital and then at home with a private nurse, with whom he argues. Ben visits and tells him that he has to retire now. He has in mind an actor's retirement home. Al is also going to move into the same retirement home, as his daughter is going to have a baby, and she will need his room. The two meet again at Willy's apartment, in attempts to finally establish a friendship.




Woody Allen originally was asked to direct, but he was more interested in playing the role of Lewis and declined the offer. Twenty years later, he was cast as Lewis in the 1996 television adaptation.[1]


Initially, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were proposed for the leads, but Simon was opposed to the idea, as he felt the roles required Jewish comedians.[2] Several actors were considered, and Phil Silvers filmed a screen test. Eventually, the roles were given to real-life vaudevillian veterans Red Skelton and Jack Benny.

Skelton declined after realizing his income was higher performing his stand-up comedy than what he was offered for the film; he was replaced by the younger Matthau.[2] Benny was forced to withdraw after being diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would soon claim him and recommended his friend and fellow real-life vaudevillian veteran Burns, who had not been in a film since 1939, for the role.[3] Burns' Academy Award-winning performance revived his career and redefined his popular image as a remarkably active, older comedy star.

Six weeks before filming started, Burns had triple bypass surgery.[4]


Box office

The film, while a moderate financial success for MGM, was a box office disappointment. Frank Rosenfelt, president of MGM said "I liked it. I thought it was funny. I thought the playing was great. But it didn't work with the public."[5]


As of June 2021, the film holds a rating of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 36 reviews with the consensus: "Thanks to the sparkling chemistry between its stars and Herbert Ross' gentle direction, this sweetly ambling comedy ranks among Neil Simon's finest screen adaptations."[6]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that with Matthau "at the top of his most antisocial form" and Burns "giving a keenly funny, brilliant straight performance and with Mr. Simon delivering some of his best one-liners, the movie is extremely easy to take. It's only afterward you realize that two complex characters, as well as a unique personal and professional relationship, have been used up—wasted—in the interests of comedy no more substantial than the insults that Willy and Al throw at each other."[7] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called it "an extremely sensitive and lovable film version of Neil Simon's play, with Walter Matthau and George Burns outstanding in their starring roles as a pair of long-hostile vaudeville partners."[8] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four and wrote that it "simply provides more of the insult comedy sweeping television. It's a prune-faced 'Odd Couple' without that play's affection for its characters and its characters' affection for each other."[9] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "one of the year's funniest yet most poignant pictures," adding that "Simon not only wrings much laughter from Lewis and Clark's predicament but also brings us very close to tears."[10] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the film "more amusing than one might have expected, probably because Walter Matthau makes a surprisingly funny and plausible old coot."[11] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, "I'm a very easy laugher, and I didn't laugh once at 'The Sunshine Boys.' The only part of the movie I enjoyed was the footage during the titles—clips of vaudeville headliners from early short subjects and 'Hollywood Revue of 1929.'"[12]

Awards and nominations

Award[13] Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actor Walter Matthau Nominated [14]
Best Supporting Actor George Burns Won
Best Screenplay – Adapted from Other Material Neil Simon Nominated
Best Art Direction Albert Brenner and Marvin March Nominated
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Leading Role Walter Matthau (also for The Bad News Bears) Nominated [15]
Best Screenplay Neil Simon Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Won [16]
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy George Burns Won[a]
Walter Matthau
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Richard Benjamin Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Neil Simon Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium Won [17]


  1. ^ ""The Sunshine Boys" – 1995". Retrieved December 22, 2006.
  2. ^ a b "PovOnline". Retrieved December 22, 2006.
  3. ^ "Film Threat's Top 10 Death-Denied Roles". Retrieved December 24, 2011.
  4. ^ Natale, Richard (March 11, 1996). "George Burns: A Legend Laid To Rest". Daily Variety. p. 26.
  5. ^ Working their assets off The Guardian February 9, 1980: 13.
  6. ^ "The Sunshine Boys". Retrieved March 25, 2019.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent (November 7, 1975). "Simon's Comic 'Sunshine Boys' Opens". The New York Times. 28.
  8. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (October 29, 1975). "Film Reviews: The Sunshine Boys". Variety. 16.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 22, 1975). "'Sunshine Boys' not too sparkling". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 13.
  10. ^ Arnold, Kevin (December 14, 1975). "Exploring Old Age With Lewis And Clark". Los Angeles Times. 54.
  11. ^ Arnold, Gary (December 20, 1975). "'Boys': Mostly Sunshine". The Washington Post. B11.
  12. ^ Kael, Pauline (November 17, 1975). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 174.
  13. ^ "NY Times: The Sunshine Boys". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. 2012. Archived from the original on February 13, 2012. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  14. ^ "The 48th Academy Awards (1976) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on November 9, 2014. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
  15. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1977". BAFTA. 1977. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  16. ^ "The Sunshine Boys – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  17. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2010.
  1. ^ Both actors tied.