Tuesday, April 3, 2012

An Interview with Marvin Kaplan - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a Marvin Kaplan credited as stage manager for a Circle Players presentation of Rain - November 1948.

Marvin Kaplan: Yes, that was me. I was stage managing for Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin directed that production, but he didn't take credit for it. Terence Kilburn took credit for it. June Havoc, Bill Schallert and Kathleen Freeman. We were all part of the Circle Theater and I was the stage manager. I was going to USC for my master's degree in radio playwriting. 

The head of the department was William DeMille, Cecil's older brother. He was a playwright and director and head of the USC drama department. I had written a one-act play and he said, "Mr. Kaplan, I saw your play Death of an Intellectual. It's the first time I ever saw a death that was funny on the stage. I think you're very talented. I advise you to leave school and try to get a job as a stage manager in one of the local theaters so you can see what actors do to writer's lines."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Marvin Kaplan: There were only two theaters I could go to at the time, because I had no car. One was The Actor's Lab, which was very famous in the thirties, forties and fifties. It was an outgrowth of the Group Theater. The other was the Circle Theater at 880 North El Centro. It was a group of young kids that had graduated from UCLA. I thought I would learn more from the Actor's Lab, but they said they never hired outside people. I took the bus to the Circle Theater and I said, "I've just come from the Actor's Lab..." That's all I said. They said, "Fine. We've been expecting you." They were expecting someone else! They offered me the job as the stage manager. Better than the assistant stage manager, and I said yes. Charlie Chaplin was the director.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Marvin Kaplan: It was central staging and had I been an experienced stage manager I wouldn't have been able to do it. It was a different way to stage. It was in the round and not on a proscenium stage. The real stage manager showed up. They were too embarrassed to tell him that they hired someone else. So I got the job out of fluke.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why didn't Charlie Chaplin take credit?

Marvin Kaplan: He didn't want to because his sons were in the Circle Theater. He never took any credit for the plays he directed there. He came in on the last week after someone else had struggled with the play for four or five weeks. He didn't want his sons to be [under scrutiny]. So he never let us use his name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around the same time you met William Spier, the man responsible for Suspense.

Marvin Kaplan: Bill Spier. Yes. June Havoc did the lead in Rain, which is the show we're talking about that I stage managed... June Havoc was married to William Spier. I left my radio script accidentally-on-purpose by their pool hoping he would read it. He read it and he liked it. He wanted to buy it, but he wanted me to make certain changes in it. 

He wanted me to make the character less sympathetic. I said no - like a fool. Peter Lorre was also interested in the script, so I passed on Bill Spier. But he was a great director of Suspense and a very nice guy. June was wonderful in Rain. She owned a lot of animals, she loved little dogs, and she brought them to the theater. We also had a monkey in the show. It wasn't in the script, but June wanted to have a monkey in the third act. The monkey caused us more trouble than anyone else.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did Peter Lorre find out about your script?

Marvin Kaplan: I mailed it to him. He was doing a radio show at the time and he was going to do a whole series of suspense stories.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mystery in the Air?

Marvin Kaplan: Yes. The script was wonderful. It was about a man who wears glasses, but refuses to wear them because he finds they make him look ugly - and as a result he gets into all sorts of trouble. It was called "Goggles."

Kliph Nesteroff: Katharine Hepburn was responsible for giving you a real break in the business...

Marvin Kaplan: She was. Changed my whole life. I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't think I'd ever get a job as an actor because I'm not a very handsome person. I didn't think I wanted to be an actor. She decided I should be. She saw me in the next play I did when I was no longer a stage manager. I was now part of the group. I auditioned for Mabel Albertson, who was Jack Albertson's older sister. Mabel cast me in Moliere, which I did with a Brooklyn accent.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Marvin Kaplan: Hepburn saw me about fourteen weeks into the run. When you have a person like Hepburn... she came to the theater with Gladys Cooper and Constance Collier. When they had people like that in the audience they would let us talk to them afterward. The head of the theater, who was not a very pleasant man - or kind - or ethical, was Jerry Epstein. Jerry would introduce the group as, "This is the cast." Hepburn came up to me and she was so beautiful. She was forty-six years old and absolutely stunning. Not a touch of make-up. She came up to me and said, "You're Marvin Kaplan, aren't you?" And I said (laughs), "Yes." She said, "You've done a lot of work, haven't you?" I said, "No, this is my first job." She said, "Well, you're very good in this part." 

I thanked her and I said something that was probably wrong to say. I said, "I hope you don't think I'm being fresh, but you remind me of my sister. You both have red hair and freckles." She said, "Yes, this damn sun." And that was the end of that. The next day there was a message on the bulletin board for me at the theater. "Call MGM." I had tried to apply for a job as a page at MGM, so I thought that was what it was about. But no - it was to go to Mr. Cukor's office and see about a part in a movie. 

The movie was originally called Man and Wife. It was written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and they changed the name to Adam's Rib. I got there at three o'clock and went to the talent department. They looked at me like I had come to do the books!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Marvin Kaplan: They hired very handsome people in those days. They said, "You're looking for Mr. Cukor? He's in the Irving Thalberg building." So I went there and arrived exactly at three. Cukor said to me, "Katharine Hepburn is your agent. She saw you in a play last night and she thinks you're wonderful." He described the part [in Adam's Rib]. 

It was as the court reporter who takes down all the testimony. They needed somebody who repeated very emotional testimony in a dull, flat voice. I said, "I have a dull, flat voice." He said, "I noticed." And that was the end of the interview! I went back to the theater to rehearse because they all thought I was so lousy in the play. I went to rehearsal and my only friend in the cast at that time was a man named Gregg Martell. Gregg had brought his agent to see me a week earlier. His name was Meyer Mishkin. I said to Gregg, "Hepburn recommended me for this part. What should I do? Should I call Mr. Mishkin?"  He said, "Yes, tell him about it." I called Meyer and he said, "Come over to the office and we'll sign papers." That's how I got an agent. The first thing he did was turn [Adam's Rib] down!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Marvin Kaplan: In those days they only wanted to pay scale. They wanted to pay me fifty-five dollars. I thought, "That's wonderful." I felt like I should pay them. He said, "It's hard to get raises in this business. You don't understand. You're new. I'm going to get you seventy-five a day. You have no past. You have no credits." So he got me a job, a day's work at Universal on the movie Francis. That established my salary as two hundred and fifty a week instead of what they wanted to pay me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Smart agent.

Marvin Kaplan: Very smart. They don't make 'em like that no more.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you encounter Garson Kanin or Ruth Gordon at all?

Marvin Kaplan: They wrote the script, but I never saw them. I met Ms. Gordon afterward.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about working with George Cukor?

Marvin Kaplan: One of the nicest people you could ever meet. A nice, nice man. He thanked me for being in the picture. They gave me a dressing room, which was way on the other end of the lot. I got there one day and they said, "Cukor wants to do a close-up on you based on the shot you did yesterday." I said, "Okay, but I didn't wear this suit yesterday. I wore a different suit." The script woman thanked me. Molly Kent was her name. I had to rush to the dressing room to get the right suit. I was running and ran into Hepburn. She said, "Where are you going?" I said, "I can't talk to you now!" (laughs) I got back and Gus Lax, who played a man on the jury said, "While you were gone Mr. Cukor asked, 'Where's that boy?' and Hepburn said, 'He dropped dead - he was running too fast." She saved my job.  Molly came to me afterward and said that I had saved her job. Had I been in the wrong wardrobe there would have been hell to pay.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you have any recollections of the Francis film?

Marvin Kaplan: Meyer had called me and told me to go in for this interview. I left my rehearsal and went to Universal. I had to take a bus there because I didn't even know where it was. I got there and they asked, "Were you ever in the army?" I said, "No. I was 4-F." "Well, did you ever do any med school?" I said, "I took pre-med... and I failed." (laughs) The part I was up for was an army doctor. So I figured I certainly didn't get this job and I left the interview. Later they said that I had the job before I even showed up because they had all seen me in the play. I was living in a boarding house and Meyer said, "Always call me after an interview and tell me what happened." I was green. I was so green. "They loved you and they think you're very funny." 

I had to go to Western Costume and then pick up the script - which was one line. As the army doctor I said, "Tell me, Sterling. Is it just one mule that talks to you - or do all the mules talk to you?" "Just Francis." "Francis?" And that was it. Arthur Lubin was directing and he was wonderful. I had a call for ten o'clock on Monday morning. I got there and I wanted to make a good impression. Got there at nine o'clock. They didn't get to me until four o'clock. 

Donald O'Connor was the star and a wonderful man and a great talent. He played the army private. He shook hands with all the actors and greeted everyone. That's the way they did it in the old days. He saw me and said, "This kid is gonna crack me up!" I didn't know what he was talking about. I noticed everyone had handkerchiefs in their mouths [to keep from laughing] while I was working. I thought they all thought I was so terrible that they wanted to vomit! They put tape on the floor so I'd get to my mark faster. Arthur Lubin said, "No, you're too slow!" 

The next take I looked as if I'd been shot out of a cannon. I rushed, pushed aside the nurse and hit one of the patients (laughs). I got there so fast (laughs). They shot several different takes. I called my agent and I said, "I'm going back to New York. I'm terrible. I'm a lousy actor. I sold my soul for seventy-five dollars." He said, "Wait a minute. Don't go to New York just yet." He called them the next day. They had watched the rushes and they said, "Who is this kid? Who is he!" They were roaring with laughter - and all I had was one line. He called me and he said, "I've never heard a reaction like that." I said, "You mean I shouldn't go home?" He said, "No. Stay awhile."


Guy Nicolucci said...

more please

A Moose said...

What a great first part of the interview Kliph. He's been one of my favourites for a long long time ( growing up with Top Cat) and his great part in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Looking forward already to part 2.I'll have to admit being selfish and hoping this one's gonna be a 6 parter.

Anonymous said...

He was amusing in "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and from what I understand, he got the part that was originally meant for Jackie Mason.

Speaking of Jackie Mason, he was involved in a dust-up recently with his girlfriend, and it made the A.P. news, but they listed his age as 75.

75??? Come on, he's got to be older than that.

Mark Murphy said...

Again, great stuff, Kliph. I've known about Marvin Kaplan and seen him for years (especially remember his voice from Top Cat) but didn't know there was so much to him.

I look forward to part two (and any other parts you might want to post).

Anonymous said...

I also read somewhere that Joe Besser (of Stooges fame) was also up for one of the mechanics roles. Maybe Stang was cast in that one?