Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Interview with Marvin Kaplan - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a film with Clark Gable called Key to the City.

Marvin Kaplan: Yes, everyone called Mr. Gable "King." I wasn't about to call him King. I called him Mr. Gable. I was working with Doug Fowley and Chick Chandler. I played a reporter. A photographer. They wouldn't let me work with the camera. They'd only give it to me during the take and I didn't look very professional. It was a three day job and George Sidney directed. Whereas George Cukor gave you everything and told you what to do, Sidney let you come up with stuff and didn't give you anything. He couldn't even tell you where to stand. 

That day I made a lot of mistakes. There were a bunch of nuns on the set with Loretta Young. I figured they were extras. "Seeya in the commissary, sister!" I walked into Clark Gable's dressing room. He didn't have his teeth in! I started to laugh - which is not the right thing to do. Loretta Young had a curse box. If you said "hell" you had to put in a quarter and different words cost different amounts of money. I think I gave her my whole salary. Everybody was cursing like crazy. Chick Chandler and Doug Fowley and Gable. Everybody. And I got to work with my favorite actor - Frank Morgan. 

I absolutely loved him when I was a kid and it was such a thrill. We were all running lines and Morgan had a line, "Who me?" and then did his little laugh. The other actor kept cutting his laugh. Kept coming in before his laugh. Morgan said to the actor, "I have a very small part in this movie. Would you please let me do my laugh?" Small part? He had the third lead! I also got to work with another actor whom I worshiped - a man named James Gleason.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, I love James Gleason.

Marvin Kaplan: Oh, he was marvelous! He said to me, "I've been watchin' you work, kid. Keep your puss in the camera."

Kliph Nesteroff: Sounds like something a James Gleason character would say.

Marvin Kaplan: Oh, he was wonderful. He was his character. He was a playwright before he became a film actor. He was a stage actor and he wrote a lot of stuff with his wife Lucille Gleason. 

They wrote a play called Is That So? He was a very helpful, sweet man. It was a very pleasant experience except for that unfortunate thing with Gable and when whats-her-name had to fall in the scene. 

Nobody knew she was pregnant and a week later she miscarried the baby. They had to delay the shoot. She and Gable didn't get along well. I didn't think either of them liked the script. I saw it again recently and it wasn't a very good movie. Marilyn Maxwell was a lovely lady and Pamela Britton and Ray Burr. Ray had a weight problem and had to lose weight. He always wore dark suits because he didn't want to look too heavy. He became part of the Player's Ring Theater that I later joined. In order to do the part he shut himself in a room downtown somewhere to lose all that weight. He was a kind man and a very good actor.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you a little bit about comedy writer Cy Howard.

Marvin Kaplan: (laughs) Cy Howard was then one of the biggest names in radio comedy. He stole everything. He stole My Friend Irma from My Sister Eileen. He stole Life with Luigi from The Education of Hyman Kaplan. He stole everything. He was doing a show while I was doing a play in town called Once in a Lifetime. I went to New York after Reformer and the Redhead, which had been the biggest part I had in movies for a long time. 

I went to the preview with my agent because he had a car. He said to me, "After this sneak preview - if you're any good in this picture - someone will ask for your autograph." That's what happened. I got a lot of laughs and the preview cards always mentioned me and all of that. They didn't know who I was. He said, "Well, you're not going to work for a while. I'm going to wait for this movie to come out because you were very good. We're going to turn down work." Mr. Cukor wanted me to do a picture with Lana Turner called A Life of Her Own. Lana was in it and Barry Sullivan and wonderful people. 

Cukor always used the same people. It was Tom Ewell's first movie, Jean Hagen's first movie, Hope Emerson's first movie and Tommy Noonan's first movie. Anyway, he turned down Cukor. I felt terrible about it because Mr. Cukor had been so nice to me. I was offered a part in I Can Get it For You Wholesale with Susan Hayward and Dan Dailey. I loved them both and my favorite, who became a lifelong friend, was Sam Jaffe. And I worked with George Sanders again. 

The director was Michael Gordon who had directed the film of Cyrano de Bergerac. He didn't want me in the picture. Mr. Gordon had a different concept of the part, but Daryl Zanuck saw the rushes of The Reformer and the Redhead and he said, "I want that kid to play the part." He hired me over the objection of Michael Gordon. I worked the first day and my agent called me. "They looked at the rushes and they don't like what they saw. Sol Siegel wants to talk to you." I went to Mr. Siegel's office and I was terrified. He said, "We don't like what we're seeing in the rushes." I said, "Mr. Gordon has a different notion for the part and he is absolutely right." 

Gordon wanted me to play it like Sammy Glick - a very aggressive, opportunistic kid. I didn't see it that way. It was a scene where I was supposed to go out with the boss's daughter [to advance my character's career]. I didn't interpret it that way. I felt I wanted to ask her out because I'm lonely and she's the only girl my age in the company. These are two different [takes on the character]. So they re-shot the first day and Gordon felt that I had betrayed him - like I had gone over his head. He treated me very badly. Everybody said to me, "You're it." 

I didn't know what they were talking about. Sam finally said to me, "You're it. He needs a patsy. He needs someone he can bully. He can't bully Susan Hayward because she would have him fired. He can't bully Dan Dailey because he would knock him down. He can't bully George Sanders because no one bullies George Sanders and he can't bully me because I'm too lovable. So you're it." He said, "Gordon doesn't understand comedy. He's going to give you a rough time." And he did. Years later I met Mr. Gordon in a barbershop. He said, "Gee, you're wonderful! How come we haven't worked together again? We've got to work together!" He had completely forgotten how rotten he was.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that George Sanders had a difficult temperament.

Marvin Kaplan: I liked him very much. He was a very lonely man. I remembered him from The Picture of Dorian Gray. This was before he did All About Eve - and he was brilliant in that. He has always been brilliant. I've never seen Mr. Sanders give a bad performance. But he was bored. He also didn't speak up. Sam couldn't hear him and I couldn't hear him and we didn't know when to speak. 

He didn't move his lips too much. He was a sound editor's nightmare. You never knew what the hell he said. Nobody could hear him and so no one approached him. He had the mic so you could hear him on the screen, but in real life you couldn't hear a word he said. He was marvelous and a great actor. We did the version of White Elephant that Arthur Hiller directed for the GE Playhouse. Ronald Reagan was the spokesperson.

Kliph Nesteroff: I Can Get It For You Wholesale was written by one of the Hollywood Ten - Abraham Polonsky.

Marvin Kaplan: I never met Mr. Polonsky. The script was excellent and the movie was excellent, but it was hard for me to sit through because I remember how unhappy I was on the set. Years later I saw it and I did a good job and it was a good movie. Hayward was great in it. There is one scene where she had to cry and they shot it about twenty times. She cried for every take. She was a powerhouse. She was a lovely, stunning broad and we got along very, very well. Dailey was extremely nice and kind to me. 

Sam Jaffe knew fifteen languages. Whenever they needed someone to play a genius they got Sam Jaffe. He was a brilliant actor and a very wonderful human being. He was married to Betty Ackerman. They worked together on Ben Casey. That wasn't one of Sam's better jobs. It wasn't as good as his other work and he didn't get along with Vince Edwards. Edwards was a gambler. His mind was always on the horses when he was working, whereas Sam was a very dedicated actor.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's get back, for a moment, to the subject of Cy Howard.

Marvin Kaplan: Cy Howard was a bigshot in radio. One of the actors he worked with a lot was Ed Max. He was blacklisted later on. They brought me back from New York for this one day job in The Fat Man. They actually brought me back to test for Upfront, but I didn't get that so they gave me a part in The Fat Man. My brother-in-law in the film was played by Ed Max. 

Eddie and I got along very, very well. We were both day players in that thing. It was directed by Bill Castle and J. Scott Smart, the radio actor, originated it. Rock Hudson was in it and it was his first movie. Jayne Meadows was in it. Emmet Kelly, the clown, was in it. Wonderful actors. Ed Max recommended me to Cy Howard. Cy Howard had been arrested in a house of prostitution and he was on parole.

Howard was doing a radio show called The Three of Us. I was offered two radio shows. I was offered the original Meet Millie and The Three of Us. They wanted Judy Holliday for Meet Millie, but my character was too much like her. The Three of Us was me, Eddie Max, Sandra Gould and Hans Conreid. I took that because I felt it gave me more of an opportunity. Cy Howard told us, "Please do not be upset if you see policeman come and visit me in the booth." I said, "Will they throw us cues?"

I had never done radio before - and I had memorized the script. Conreid was sees I'm not turning pages and Cy Howard sees that I am not turning pages. It went great. We got an eight minute laugh spread. That's unheard of in radio, but they had a vendetta against Cy Howard at CBS. Someone was out to get him so they didn't pick up the pilot even though we got this eight minutes of added laughs. I played a poet. Eddie played a blue collar worker and Sandra was a manicurist in Hans Conreid's barbershop. 

It was a funny premise and a very funny show, but it didn't sell. Now I was in unemployment. Since I had turned down Meet Millie, they hired another actor. They gave it to Bill Tracy and they weren't happy with Bill. They wanted me in it. They said, "Would you mind if we write you into Meet Millie?" I said, "Why not! Be my guest!" They wrote me in as a character named Alfred E. Printzmetal and my agent refused to let me take billing for it. He said, "The audience - if they like you - will write in to try and find out who you are." Well, thousands of letters came in asking who is that actor playing Alfred E. Printzmetal? They gave me a regular spot on it and I replaced Bill Tracy. Cy Howard was going with Paulette Goddard. He was a wild, crazy man. Eddie Max was a great actor. He was in The Set-up. Remember The Set-Up?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. Robert Wise.

Marvin Kaplan: He played the crooked gambler.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw Eddie Max in a movie called The Twonky. It was one of the few films that Arch Obler made.

Marvin Kaplan: Yes, yes, yes. He was a top radio actor and on My Friend Irma he played Mushy Callahan. He was accused of being a communist. The McCarthy thing was terrible. Absolutely terrible. We're talking about 1954 and nobody knew what the hell was going on in this country. 

It was in our union's constitution in AFRA - local and national - that no one could remain a member of AFRA who was ever a member of the Communist Party, had ever give his money or talent to the Party or was ever a member of any organization found by due process of law to be subversive. People signed loyalty oaths. I was teaching at the time as a subsitute teacher. I had to sign a loyalty oath. On it was a list of things and one was Brooklyn College. I said, "I can't sign this. I went to Brooklyn College. Over five thousand people went to Brooklyn College! You think they were all communists?" 

On the list was the Boy Scouts. Ridiculous. And it's still going on. These people's careers were amputated because of the blacklist. And becuase of that they didn't have enough years in the union to qualify for the Motion Picture Home.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, no.

Marvin Kaplan: Absolutely. It was a very cruel thing. A very cruel thing that happened. Supposedly it's over, but if the Tea Party gets in...


Kevin K. said...

It's astonishing that a guy that started out in the '40s is still around to witness the Tea Party.

And as always -- a cool interview. Always liked Kaplan, especially his voiceover work on "Top Cat."

Anonymous said...

Around the time that Raymond Burr appeared in "Key To The City" he was in the Marx brothers' last film "Love Happy" playing a henchman. He tortures Harpo by putting him in a washing machine.

As much as I like Frank Morgan, I've always wished the Wizard of Oz had gone to W.C. Fields, as originally planned.

Mark Murphy said...

Again, wonderful stuff, Kliph.

I think "Key to the City" was Frank Morgan's last picture.

And although I don't think Michael Gordon was a member of the Hollywood Ten, I believe he was blacklisted in the '50s but later came back to make such films as "Pillow Talk."

Bob Lindstrom said...

The story about Kaplan's agent telling him NOT to take a credit to spur the write-in campaign is wonderful. Considering how distinctive Kaplan's voice is, it's hard to believe he wouldn't have been instantly recognizable to the audience.

Bobby Wall said...

And what if the agent was wrong? To me, his agent gambled with his career. Am I right?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaplan is absolutely correct about the late Vince Edwards being obsessed with gambling. I met him in the 1980s and all he wanted to know from me, a person he'd just met, was if I was up for some action. I wasn't and never saw him again.

Anonymous said...

Great interview from one of my favorite actors.
Mr Kaplan's political hate comment was quite unexpected...a revelation of true character.

Jim Rose said...

All we in the Tea Party want is less government control of our lives and for that we're the new McCarthyites? I give up.