Billy Bright (Dick Van Dyke), a silent-era film comedian, narrates this film which begins at his character’s funeral in 1969 and tells his life story in flashbacks, unable to see his own faults and morosely (and incorrectly) blaming others for anything that has gone wrong.
Headstrong and talented, vaudeville clown Bright arrives on his first California film location insisting that he will perform his bit role only if he can wear the outrageous costume and makeup of the character he has been known for on the stage. The director (Cornel Wilde) refuses and Bright begins to storm off, but when his car rolls off a cliff he is forced to accept the terms. As soon as the cameras are rolling, however, he improvises (and sabotages) his way to becoming the hero of the scenario. His combination of acquiescence and audacity pays off, and before long he has become a major film comedy star in the 1910s and ’20s, the silent picture era of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
Bright steals his leading lady, Mary (Michele Lee), and is beaten up by the director, whom she’s been dating. The two increasingly popular performers marry, starting their own production company together. As early as her pregnancy, she begins to suspect his adultery; when she confronts him, he tries to turn the tables and shame her into apologizing for the accusation. But at the height of their fame and fortune, he is served with papers naming him in a Hollywood power couple’s divorce filing. Mary leaves him, taking their young son and the couple’s palatial estate.
Bright sinks into despair and alcoholism, also leaving the country to film in Europe for four years. He sobers up and attempts a comeback in Hollywood but — ever living in the past — will accept it on no other terms than those he had been accustomed to, adamantly refusing the studio’s offer to star him in a talkie, and storming out on his agent (Carl Reiner). Like the film industry, people are moving along without Billy, including his wife, who rebuffs his attempt to win her back. The one constant in his life, other than his decreasingly appealing sense of identity, is his old screen sidekick and only friend, Cockeye (Mickey Rooney).
A late-1960s talk show host (Steve Allen as himself) has the faded star on in an effort to revive Bright’s career, and the elderly comedian proves capable — if somewhat pathetically to the groovy stars of the day on the couch alongside him — of recreating his old pratfall schtick. The pitch works, but this time the only vehicle that will allow him to run through his preferred brand of slapstick is a detergent commercial. The denouement of Bright’s life, and the film, finds him in and out of the hospital and visited by his now-grown son Billy Jr. (also played by Van Dyke in a dual role), reduced to setting the alarm in his dingy two-room apartment, and catching airings of him and his former wife’s old comedies at odd hours on TV — which he watches without a hint of a smile.