Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Interview with Marvin Kaplan - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: Marvin, you're one of most recognizable character actors in the history of film and television. You were in The Fat Man, which had some fine character actors in the cast.

Marvin Kaplan: I loved it. I got along great with Bill Castle. He loved our stuff. We got along great and it was a very good experience. And Roy Fitzgerald, who was in it, later became Rock Hudson. He couldn't have been nicer. Wonderful boy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Mike Mazurki was in it.

Marvin Kaplan: I loved Mike. We also did Chicago Teddy Bears together. Mike was supposed to have been a violent human being. He was such a pushover. He was one of the gentlest people I ever met. That has been my experience. All these villains were marvelous, sweet, kind people. Mike was married to a woman named Sylvia Weintraub, who was a casting director at Universal. She later became his agent. Sylvia, Mike and I were very close. He was a wonderful actor and they fired Mike, unnecessarily, on Chicago Teddy Bears because they didn't know what the hell they were doing. He was a very sweet guy. I went to his funeral. It was a Greek Orthodox funeral. He belonged to the church. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in the 1951 film Behave Yourself and it is just full of familiar character actors. Elisha Cook Jr, Sheldon Leonard...

Marvin Kaplan: Cookie. Yes, he was wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: Lon Chaney Jr, Allen Jenkins...

Marvin Kaplan: Allen and I did a series together called Top Cat. He was a very sweet man and he played Officer Dibble. Very bright man. He played mugs all of his life, but he was from Broadway. He did a lot of stuff on Broadway and he loved cats. That was unusual because most men didn't have cats for pets, they had dogs. But Jenkins loved cats. 

Francis L. Sullivan [was also in Behave Yourself]. Remember him? He was a British actor who was in Great Expectations and weighed about four hundred pounds. And a guy named Glenn Anders. He was in Lady From Shanghai. He was the leading man for Lunt and Fontanne. They wanted him as a leading man and he did Strange Interlude. He created the lover in that and he was a good friend of Tallulah Bankhead. He filled me in about Tallulah. He was a very witty, funny man and a great actor. Glenn Anders. Very overlooked and under appreciated. Margalo Gilmore played the mother-in-law and she was a wonderful stage actress. 

Kliph Nesteroff: So many of these films are lifted by the mere presence of these character actors.

Marvin Kaplan: Well, now we don't have character actors. There are no parts. They don't write them. How many characters over fifty do you see on the screen? In the old days each studio had a list of character people. Fox had Thomas Mitchell and Lee Cobb. Warner Brothers had Claude Rains and Henry Stephenson. My favorite whom I met, but never worked with was Mikhail Rasumny. Remember Mr. Rasumny?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Marvin Kaplan: You don't?

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of these character actors I am sure I would recognize their face, but don't know them by name.

Marvin Kaplan: For Whom the Bell Tolls. He played the gypsy in that. He put his thumb in his teeth and licked them afterward. He was a great comedian and a great actor. He's in A Medal for Benny. It was an Academy Award performance. I saw everything Rasumny ever did. The other person I watched in everything was Michael Chekhov. I had joined the Arthur Kennedy Group. They had Akim Tamiroff, Arthur Kennedy, Millard Mitchell... Michael Chekhov gave lessons there.

Janice Rule. Tamara Shayne, who was married to Tamiroff. All these wonderful character people. Vladmir Sokoloff. Maria Ouspenskaya. A woman named Madame Leopoldine Konstantin, who was Claude Rains' mother in Notorious. I mean they had all these great, great actors and great parts for them. Sooner or later I got to work with most of them. A woman named Mabel Paige. Do you remember Mabel?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Marvin Kaplan: Mabel Paige played Alan Ladd's mother in many films. In the Dick Tracy thing she played Gravel Gertie. She had curly white hair and looked like a little bird.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen these films and I'm sure I've seen these people in several pictures...

Marvin Kaplan: Mabel Paige was a top character woman. She did all the Alan Ladd movies and she was marvelous and under contract to Paramount. Elizabeth Patterson... remember her? I worked with her and she was wonderful. I had memorized all the credit lists when I was a kid. I loved people like that. Agnes Moorehead, of course. I worked with Jeanette Nolan. Her husband, John McIntire, was a radio actor. And Jeff Chandler. And Gerald Mohr was a radio character. Hans was one of the best. Hans Conreid. Bill Conrad, who was on Gunsmoke and The Killers. And Fritz Feld. Remember Fritzie?

Kliph Nesteroff: (lying) Yes.

Marvin Kaplan: He was one of my good friends. He and his wife Virginia Christine. They were all fine actors. Radio had the best collection of people you could think of. You had to be very good because we had very little rehearsal. Virgina Gregg was another woman I got to meet and know. They were all top people. Irene Tedrow. Remember Irene?

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence) No.

Marvin Kaplan: Irene played the mother on Meet Corliss Archer. She was part of the Orson Welles Mercury Theater. Irene and I were in a group together where we did plays. I did a couple of scenes with Irene and she was a brilliant, brilliant actress. Ruth McDevitt. Remember Ruthie?

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence) No. You're stumping me.

Marvin Kaplan: Ruth McDevitt was a birdlike little lady. She was wonderful. She was the standby for Josephine Hull on Broadway, so she did Arsenic and Old Lace. A real sweet, old lady. We did Uncle Vanya together. Gale Sondergaard was in that cast. Pamela Tiffin, Lois Smith, Richard Basehart, Joseph Wiseman, Eduard Franz. Brilliant, brilliant actors. Every one.

Kliph Nesteroff: Other than Meet Millie - were you doing much radio at that time?

Marvin Kaplan: I did a radio thing for Elliot Lewis. I did a show called Suspense.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure.

Marvin Kaplan: I played Broderick Crawford's bookkeeper in an episode called Dutch Schultz. Elliot directed it. He directed me in a couple other things I did for Sears Radio Theater. Jay Novello I worked with... and Vito Scotti.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in the Fabulous Senorita with Vito Scotti.

Marvin Kaplan: That's right. Vito was wonderful. Nestor Paiva. Argentina Brunetti. Dee Carroll. Hope Emerson. Betty Garde. A lot of these people I saw through the [Actor's] Union.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about that episode of Suspense? I have heard Lewis liked to rehearse as little as possible.

Marvin Kaplan: That's true. I remember when I played the bookkeeper, they were all talking about "contracts." I didn't know what this was. They were speaking very casually like dinner conversation. They were all sitting around the table talking about "a contract on him." I asked Peter Leeds. I said, "What are they talking about?" He said, "A contract on him? That's when [the Mob] is going to bump off somebody." They were talking so casually about the killing of other people! I got so flustered I couldn't talk! I said to Elliot Lewis, "Mr. Lewis, I don't know if I can do this role. Everyone is making me so nervous." He said, "That's perfect. Use it for the part." And I did. I was scared! Herb Butterfield, Earl Ross, Jay Novello and Tony Barrett - all these great actors were in the cast. Radio was fun.

Kliph Nesteroff: How was it working with Broderick Crawford? He was notorious for his drinking.

Marvin Kaplan: I loved him. He did that show Highway Patrol. Well, he had a drinking problem. Highway Patrol - you had to shoot him before lunch. After lunch he was holding on to the car. In the show I did with him, when I played the bookkeeper, he was drunk as could be. I had to hold him up at the mic! The fumes were overwhelming (laughs). But I loved him. A very sweet man, a very tortured man, but kind and good. Another was Lon Chaney Jr. He was wonderful. A great actor. He was with me in Behave Yourself

Kliph Nesteroff: You have some great scenes with Sheldon Leonard in Behave Yourself.

Marvin Kaplan: Sheldon taught me how to play pinochle. When things got rough on set... mainly because of Shelley Winters... Sheldon would say, "Pinochle time!" I loved Sheldon. Terrific guy. I was with him for one of his last acting roles. He said, "I want to be a writer or a producer, Marvin. They don't even consider me an actor." They would barely consider him for the second road company of Guys n' Dolls. He said, "They think of me as a thug, not an actor." Sheldon was a very good actor. He had to choke me in a scene. And he really choked me! 

He had no control over the muscles in his hand. Actors get carried away sometimes and Sheldon had that kind of a problem. The other one who had a problem like that was Jack Palance. Shelley Winters was a very mixed bag. I liked her at times and sometimes I was ready to hit her. Farley Granger was a very nice boy. Wonderful kid. Cookie was a nice man. Elisha Cook. They had a great cast. If you look at that cast - it's an amazing list of characters.

Kliph Nesteroff: William Demarest as well.

Marvin Kaplan: The picture was directed by the man who wrote it - George Beck. It was photographed by James Wong Howe. He was magnificent. Great. Great. They tell a funny story about him. He had a restaurant. Chinese restaurant. Someone was photographing something by the restaurant. Howe came out and told them [the proper way] to use their camera. The guy said to Howe, "Listen, buddy, you stick to making your noodles." Very funny. Busby Berkeley was the second unit guy on Behave Yourself.

Kliph Nesteroff: Really? Wow. That's quite the step down for him.

Marvin Kaplan: He was very nice. I got along great with everybody. The only ones I would have had a problem with were people like Adolphe Menjou, Ward Bond and John Wayne.

Kliph Nesteroff: Because of their politics.

Marvin Kaplan: I never really worked with them anyway. I met John Wayne in the commissary. I laughed and he threw me out of the commissary. I was with Joanne Woodward and Thelma Ritter and we all left together.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you mean he threw you out?

Marvin Kaplan: He didn't like the way I laughed. 

Kliph Nesteroff: That is bizarre.

Marvin Kaplan: He threw his weight around. This was at Paramount. I was with Woodward. Paul Newman was a lovely man. Maurice Chevalier. I worked with Chevalier. Eva Gabor. Zsa Zsa. Red Skelton was tops and one of the great people in our business. Overlooked - Red Skelton.

Kliph Nesteroff: Red Skelton could be tough on his writers, though.

Marvin Kaplan: Yes. He was. I understand that, but I didn't work with him as a writer, only as an actor and he was kind and sweet. He was very kind to other people. Jeanie Porter was on our show and he had worked with Jean at Metro. She was married to Edward Dmytryk. Jeanie was doing a bit on Skelton's show. He got the footage from a movie they did at Metro twenty years before and he played it for her, so she felt important. He was a very kind man. I loved Skelton. 

He had gone through a lot of tragedy. His son died very young. His wife committed suicide. He went through terrible times. Huntz Hall was a riot and a funny man. I directed him in The Sunshine Boys in Texas. He was a wonderful guy. Let's see. Gabriel Dell. They were all part of the studio system. Mickey Shaughnessy.

Kliph Nesteroff: I loved him. He was always playing a cop.

Marvin Kaplan: A marvelous actor. My favorite character man was John Banner. He was Schultz on Hogan's Heroes. Dean Jones was very nice. Shirley Jones was terrific. I managed to work with some wonderful, wonderful people. Janet Waldo, whom I worked with in radio. Y'know? June Foray - one of the top people in radio. Daws Butler and Don Messick whom I worked with in cartoons. Arnold Stang. Jonathan Winters. Marvelous!

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of General Electric Theater that featured Jack Benny.

Marvin Kaplan: And I did a promo show with him for when they [opened] CBS Television City. I loved Mr. Benny. He was a great man. I worked with George Burns and Gracie Allen. These are great people!

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of Make Room for Daddy with Danny Thomas.

Marvin Kaplan: Yes, I worked with Danny and Sheldon Leonard directed that. I played Evil Eye Schultz on his program. From that day on he always called me Evil Eye. He could never remember my name. Danny and I went to see Last of the Red Hot Lovers when they played it out here. Ken McMillan was doing it. He replaced Jack Weston who got sick. We went to see Jack, but Jack wasn't in the show. McMillan wasn't up to it. He wasn't good in it at all. Danny Thomas was sitting in back of me and he starts a standing ovation for McMillan and (laughs) he was the only one standing.


Yowp said...

Ruth McDevitt played an old lady in sitcoms. I remember her most in "Bewitched." She did one as a cat lover that chased after Darren's mom who had been turned into a cat.
If you want to see Irene Tedrow, she's the woman in the Jack Benny-Groucho Marx "You Bet Your Life" spoof.

Booksteve said...

Yeah, I didn't recognize a few of the names he was throwing out but I was surprised you didn't know Ruth McDevitt. She was a regular on the 1966 sitcom PISTOLS 'N' PETTICOATS with Ann Sheridan and later on KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. She's also in a marvelous black comedy shot here in Cincinnati called HOMEBODIES.

Fritz Feld you'd know in a second on sight. He was always playing waiters and had that schtick where he "popped" with his mouth. Was in several LOST IN SPACE episodes.

A moose said...

Wow Kliph, I think this might be my favorite interview you ever have done.

I was always a fan of Marvin Kaplan's before- but knowing he worked with or knew Lon Chaney, Bill Castle, John Banner, Vito Scotti, Jack Benny.

Surprised you're not familiar with Fritz Feld though. Seeing Marvin call him "Fritzie" threw me off too- but he's another great character actor.


Mark Murphy said...


Once again, great stuff.

I remember Ruth McDevitt from a show called Pistols and Petticoats, which starred Ann Sheridan.

Some episodes are available on YouTube.

greg6363 said...

McDevitt was one of the supporting characters in the TV series "The Night Stalker" with Darrin McGavin.

Kevin K. said...

It's really a comment on the respect people had for Jack Benny that everyone still refers to him as "Mr. Benny."

Anonymous said...

Ah Ruth McDevitt. What teen boy didn't have a poster of her up on their wall? I know she got me through puberty.

Her appearances on TV started in 1949 and continued for nearly thirty years. She seemed to be on everything back in the 60's. Yet, her longest-running roles were Grandma on "PISTOLS & PETTICOATS" and that of newspaperwoman Emily Cowles in the much-beloved "KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER". I always knew that if a monster had attacked her on that show, her trusty pistol would dispatch that miscreant back to hell pronto!

Bobby Wall said...

I'm sorry, but I can't believe that Red Skeleton was a nice guy considering how nasty he was to his writers.

Was John Wayne an "anti"? Maybe that's why he treated Marvin so shabbily. Otherwise it makes no sense, does it?

Unknown said...

Marvin is a living legend such a down to earth guy will always remember him as cho cho on top cat