Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), the narrator, tells of the summer (in his "favorite year" of 1954) he met his idol, swashbuckling actor Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole). In the early days of television, Benjy works as a junior comedy writer for a variety show starring Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). As a special upcoming guest, they get the still famous (though largely washed-up) Swann. However, when he shows up, they realize that he is a roaring drunk. Kaiser is ready to dump him, until Benjy intervenes and promises to keep him sober during the week leading up to the show.
As Benjy watches out for Swann (or at least tries to keep up with him), they learn much about each other, including the fact that they both have family they try to hide from the rest of the world. In Benjy's case, it's his Jewish mother (Lainie Kazan), who is married to a Filipino former bantamweight boxer, Rookie Carroca (Ramon Sison), and Benjy's embarrassing relatives, such as uncouth Uncle Morty (Lou Jacobi). For Swann, it is his young daughter, Tess (Cady McClain), who has been raised entirely by her mother, one of his many ex-wives. He stays away, but continues to keep tabs on her secretly, frustrated that he cannot muster the courage to reconnect with her.
During the week of rehearsals, Kaiser is threatened by corrupt union boss Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell), who does not appreciate being parodied on the show. "Accidents" start happening when Kaiser refuses to stop performing the "Boss Hijack" sketches.
In a subplot, Benjy tries, clumsily and over-enthusiastically, to win the affections of co-worker K. C. Downing (Jessica Harper). Swann advises him on the right approach, which includes crashing a party at the home of K.C.'s affluent parents.
The night of the show finally arrives, but minutes away from going on-air, Swann suffers a panic attack when Benjy informs him that the show is broadcast live. (He is accustomed to getting many takes to get his lines right, exclaiming, "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!") Swann gets drunk, and bolts from the studio, but is confronted by Benjy, who angrily tells him that he always thought of Swann as the swashbuckling hero he saw on the big screen, and that deep down, Swann possesses those qualities as a person. As Benjy puts it, "Nobody's that good an actor!"
As the "Boss Hijack" sketch gets underway, Rojeck's men show up backstage and begin beating up Kaiser. The fight spills onto the stage during the live broadcast (with the audience thinking that it is part of the comedy sketch). Swann and Benjy observe the melee from a balcony, when the audience suddenly notices Swann and breaks into enthusiastic applause. Swann grabs a rope and swings into action (dressed as a Musketeer for a later skit), saving Kaiser in front of an appreciative if still clueless audience.
Benjy narrates the epilogue, relating that Swann, his confidence bolstered, finally gets up the nerve to visit his daughter the next day and the two apparently have a heartfelt reunion.Peter O'Toole as Alan Swann
Mark Linn-Baker as Benjy Stone
Jessica Harper as K.C. Downing
Joseph Bologna as Stan "King" Kaiser
Bill Macy as Sy Benson
Ramon Sison as Rookie Carroca
Lainie Kazan as Belle Carroca
Lou Jacobi as Uncle Morty
Adolph Green as Leo Silver
Anne De Salvo as Alice Miller
Basil Hoffman as Herb Lee
George Wyner as Myron Fein
Cameron Mitchell as Karl Rojeck
Selma Diamond as Lil
Corinne Bohrer as Bonnie
Gloria Stuart as Mrs. Horn
Cady McClain as Tess Swann
Lana Clarkson as Jeanine, the Girl in Old Gold Cigarette Box (uncredited)
Mel Brooks, executive producer of the film, was a writer for the Sid Caesar variety program Your Show of Shows, early in his career. Movie swashbuckler Errol Flynn was a guest on one episode, and this real-life occurrence inspired Dennis Palumbo's largely fictional screenplay. Swann was obviously based on Flynn, while Benjy Stone is loosely based on both Brooks and Woody Allen, who also wrote for Caesar.
According to Brooks, the character of Rookie Carroca also was based on a real person, a Filipino sailor in the U. S. Navy who was his neighbor in Brooklyn. Much like Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show, King Kaiser represented Sid Caesar ("Kaiser" is the German equivalent of the Roman title Caesar). Selma Diamond, another former Your Show of Shows writer (who inspired Rose Marie's 'Sally Rogers' character on The Dick Van Dyke Show), appears as a costume mistress.
The character of Herb, a comedy writer who whispers almost everything he has to say, is loosely based on Neil Simon, another of Caesar's staff writers, who, according to co-worker Carl Reiner, whispered ideas to colleagues rather than try to shout above the din of the noisy writers' room.
Simon and Reiner made their own use of their Your Show of Shows experiences. Laughter on the 23rd Floor, written by Simon for the stage and later a television film, included thinly disguised versions of Sid Caesar and his staff. So did The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was created by Brooks' friend and colleague, Reiner (who would later star in Van Dyke's show as Alan Brady, with the character of Buddy Sorrell based on Brooks).
Brooks acknowledges that most of the movie's plot was fabricated. He says that Flynn's appearance on Your Show of Shows was uneventful, that none of the writers had much interaction with Flynn, let alone become his friend or took him home to dinner.
The film was the first directing effort for actor Richard Benjamin who was an NBC page in 1956 .
Cameron Mitchell recalled that he met Mel Brooks when both were at the MGM Commissary. Brooks told him that Gorilla at Large was his favourite film and asked him if he wanted to play Jimmy Hoffa in a movie for him.
My Favorite Year opened in 714 North American theaters on October 1, 1982 to $2,400,696 (#3, behind An Officer and a Gentlemen's eleventh weekend and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial's eighteenth).
It is one of the few movies that holds a 100% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lainie Kazan was the only member of the cast who reprised her film role for 1992's Broadway musical version of My Favorite Year, in which the character Alan Swann was portrayed by Tim Curry. Both were nominated for Tony Awards for their performances.