Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk comedians. What do you remember about working with Ernie Kovacs in Wake Me When It's Over?
Marvin Kaplan: Ernie was great. He couldn't take things too seriously. He was like Clark Gable. He was a very handsome man. Dashing. He could have played any of those heroes very well. He had to play a love scene in Wake Me When It's Over and he was "swishing" it (laughs). He was hilarious. He couldn't take himself seriously as a romantic actor.
Edie Adams was a lovely woman. Also in that cast was a man named Jack Warden. Jack was terrific and a great actor. Don Knotts and Bob Strauss were also in the cast. Strauss was notorious. If there was a picture on the wall of the set - most people would be afraid to touch it. But Strauss would just rip it off the wall and hit you on the head with it. He had no fear. He had the guts of a burglar. All my scenes were with Strauss. He made the mistake of going to Catalina on a boat with Mervyn LeRoy, who directed it. He beat LeRoy at gin or whatever the hell they were playing... and LeRoy cut out all of his scenes!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Wow!
Marvin Kaplan: And I was in all of those scenes - so out I went also.
Kliph Nesteroff: What do you recall about being on the set of The Nutty Professor?
Marvin Kaplan: Jerry Lewis... is not one of my favorite people. He was very sick at the time and I didn't realize it. He was hooked to percodan. I didn't realize it at the time. They hired me for this part. We worked through the rehearsal and we improvised everything. He said to me, "You know, I can't be mean to you," because the audience would hate him. He said it was like working with Shirley Booth. He compared me to Shirley Booth! He came in at eight thirty if the call was for nine and he shot off a gun. I was in the make-up chair and I fell out of the chair. I figured he had a live one. Then he tried to run me over with a kiddie car.
I went to him and said, "You know, Mr. Lewis. I don't know if I can work on this picture because I was 4-F." He left me alone for the rest of the picture. He had me do personal appearances. He gave me seventh billing and I had one or two lines. The way he shot it - I knew I was going to be cut out of the picture. I could tell. And that's exactly what he did. He cut me out of the picture and made me look like an extra. Meantime, I'm publicizing the movie, talking about what a great director he is (laughs) and how wonderful he is (laughs) and I'm out of the movie!
He never even bothered to tell me. He is not a great guy. Then I did a show of his in Vegas. I had to get special permission from the people at Warner Brothers and Alice. I was playing the character I played on Alice on his telethon. And then he never used me - except to answer the phones! Then there was a bomb scare - but he didn't tell the actors there was a bomb scare... which I thought was pretty shitty. We found our wardrobe that we brought all over the floor of the hotel. There was a bomb. It had been planted in his airplane. It was a scary situation. But Jerry needed a lot of people around him to say, "Yes, yes, yes." He wanted my phone number and I wouldn't give it to him. He used to call people up at two o'clock in the morning. I didn't need that. He's a lonely man. I'm sure he's a very lonely man.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is one of your most famous roles...
Marvin Kaplan: It was great. I replaced Jackie Mason. Jackie was supposed to do my part. He had a lot of nightclub engagements and he told Mr. Kramer about the nightclub engagements and Kramer thanked him very much and fired him. They needed a replacement. I was up for another part in the movie. I was up for the part that Doodles Weaver did in the picture as the assistant to Edward Everett Horton. Now there was a vacancy. My agent recommended me for the part. Anne Kramer did all the casting on that picture. Stanley Kramer's wife. She had pictures of everyone and she looked at who looked good with one another.
They had Arnold Stang and Jonathan Winters and I guess my picture looked good matched with theirs. My agent sent me the script and I called him back. I said, "You know, I almost got killed reading the script. It's very dangerous! I'm being thrown through a glass wall? I have to throw machinery at people?" He said, "Your deal for stunts is that you'll only do the same stunts that your partner will do in the picture." I said, "Who's my partner?" He said, "Arnold Stang." Well, I knew Arnold was the biggest coward in the American theater! So I said, "Whatever Arnold consents to do, I'll do." I knew he would do nothing.
Then we worked with a man named Jonathan Winters and he was an ex-marine. He felt all the actors should do their own stunts. Arnold and I are sitting on the sideline watching Johnny do a scene... hoping he'll get hurt! Not seriously hurt, just a little bit. Sure enough, he strains his back. Arnold and I looked at each other and we knew we wouldn't have to do our own stunts after that. And we didn't. My stunt guy was named Bill Maxwell. He was a very handsome kid - who was thin. They kept putting padding in him to make him look fat like me. I kept taking the padding out because I wanted to look thin.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Marvin Kaplan: Arnold's stuntman was a man named Janos Prohaska. He did all the chimps in movies. The problem was Arnold had no shoulders to speak of and this guy had tremendous shoulders. So they had to give Arnold shoulders so that he would look as good as his stuntman (laughs). But they did most of the work, thank God, because I would have got killed making that picture. The ones who did get hurt were Phil Silvers and Ethel Merman.
The scene where she hides the keys... she was running around these rocks and her ankle hit one of the rocks and started to swell. They had to pick her up by her feet. She really got hurt and was in pain. During the shoot [Merman's character] kept hitting Milton Berle with her pocketbook on the head. He kept complaining, "What have you got in the pocketbook!?" She said, "Nothing." They opened her pocketbook and it was full of all this heavy, iron jewelry! She kept hitting him in the head and in his stomach. Wherever she could! But it was great. Terry-Thomas was a delight.
He didn't understand Americans at all. He said, "By now we [in Britain] would have done ten films." The only make-up he got was on his knees because he wore shorts. He didn't get any make-up on his face, as I remember, only on his knee caps. He was hilarious. He and Ethel Merman had a contest. He did a lot of musicals in England. So he would sing something like Tip Toe through the Tulips and she would do something like I Got Rhythm (laughs). It was great company. Buddy Hackett. Mickey Rooney.
Kliph Nesteroff: Buddy Hackett was known for being difficult.
Marvin Kaplan: I didn't like Buddy. I didn't like him. I was standing up and leaning on a couch and he threw a knife at me. Threw a knife at me! There was a knife between my fingers. Yeah. I didn't like Buddy... but he was funny. Very funny. I loved Paul Ford, who I worked with later on. And Sterling Holloway, who I worked with later on. Carl Reiner. Eddie Ryder. Jesse White. They were all wonderful. Terrific. Merman was something else. Sid Caesar couldn't have been nicer. Ben Blue. Dorothy Provine. Gale Gordon. Great people.
Kliph Nesteroff: Last thing I wanted to ask you about, Marvin. Years later - after all these great sixties comedy parts and so on... you ended up working with filmmaker David Lynch.
Marvin Kaplan: I love David Lynch. I never worked with Orson Welles, but for me David Lynch is the Orson Welles of this era. He's a genius and a wonderful, sweet man. I did a movie with him called Wild at Heart. I did it with Laura Dern and I knew her mother Diane Ladd. We improvised our scene. Before a take David would tell you the kind of music he wanted, the lighting he wanted... he would give you forty-five different details before he said, "Roll 'em."
I have never worked with any other director who had that sort of complete knowledge of what he wanted and what he was doing. He always hired the same people. He hired the same composer all the time. We did a television show called On the Air together. The problem with David is he loses interest for a project, sometimes, in the middle of it - and he assigns it to other people that aren't as talented. So we rarely got the input from David that we needed on On the Air. ABC was angry with David about something. I don't know what. And they double crossed him. His show Twin Peaks was a big hit, but they gave us one of the worst time slots you can imagine. We went off the air after six episodes, but it was a good show.