It was a Sunday afternoon in 1974 that I actually got to meet the one, the only...Groucho.
I was lolling at the brunch table at Hillcrest Country Club, an establishment founded by the wealthier and Judaic folks of Hollywood
after being refused admission to other, non-Jewish country clubs. Upon entering, I had always been reminded of the anecdote about when Groucho
applied to a restricted club and was told flatly that Jews weren't allowed in the pool. To which he replied, "My daughter is only
half-Jewish. Can she go in up to her knees?"
In order to become a member of Hillcrest, your family had to be (a) wealthy and (b) Jewish. My family was just
(b) but my father's best friend was both and occasionally invited us along.
That day, I was loitering at the buffet spread because they were out of breakfast steaks to go with my pancakes and sausage — the
place isn't that Jewish — and someone was allegedly bringing more out. Just then, the man next to me said, "Try the
whitefish." I looked over towards him.
It was Groucho Marx.
Here's what I was talking about with that mental leash: All the time around Hollywood, I spot celebrities. I can spot an old
character actor at a hundred paces. Very rarely do I approach any of them. I'm about to, but then that leash yanks me up short and says,
What are you going to say to him/her? You'll only make a fool of yourself.
If I had seen Groucho across the room, I probably wouldn't have hustled over and said howdy. He was once rude to some friends of
mine who waited for him outside a Dick Cavett taping. Erin Fleming, acting as go-between, said, "Groucho, these boys would like to meet you,"
to which Groucho responded, "Well, they've met me," and kept on walking. I wouldn't have wanted that to happen, so I was glad to be forced into
a spot where I had to speak to the man, even if it was just for a moment.
"I said, try the whitefish," he repeated. And I could feel my brain laying rubber, racing for something to say back.
"I thought the password was Swordfish," I finally replied.
"Are you one of those kids who's seen every one of my movies a hundred times?"
Acting a shade embarrassed, I said, "A thousand times."
"Which one is your favorite?"
"Either A Night at the Opera or Horse Feathers," I responded. "Depends on which one I saw last."
"Which one did you see last?"
"A Night in Casablanca," I told him.
"Oh, that was a piece of..." and here he used a word that they won't let me use in this publication.
We talked for ten minutes about nothing worth preserving for posterity. He mentioned the name of George S. Kaufman and grumbled
about how kids my age had no idea who Kaufman was. I said I certainly did know who Kaufman was and I recited enough play titles to prove I
wasn't bluffing. He was pleased at that; more so that I also knew who Franklin P. Adams was and that I'd been motivated to read up on them (and
Alexander Woollcott and Marc Connelly, et al) by mentions in books by and about the Marx Brothers.
I told Groucho about how I'd wooed ladies by whisking them off to Marx Brothers films. Groucho was quite interested in
that. He said, "Imagine kids getting laid because of our movies. I couldn't get laid because of them."
At a gracious moment, I returned to my table, thinking loudly that I could now boast of having met Groucho Marx...perhaps the only
person alive I really wanted to meet. It was at that moment, I believe, that I lost what little "star-fever" I might ever have had. After
all: Once you meet Groucho Marx, who is there to get excited about?
We next find Mark and Groucho together on the evening of October 26, 1976. It was my second day as Story Editor of a TV show
called Welcome Back, Kotter and it had already been an amazing thirty-six hours. In the midst of much hyper-activity, one of the
secretaries mentioned off-handedly that Groucho Marx might be coming to that evening's taping. Like I really needed more excitement in my life
There was a back-story to it all. The star of the show, Gabe Kaplan, often did Groucho impressions on the show. Nothing new
there. Everyone does Groucho impressions, usually bad ones. It says something about Groucho's masterful timing that folks will recognize
an imitation that is light years from his vocal pitch so long as it approximates his rhythm and includes a pantomime cigar.
Groucho saw Gabe do his impression and announced he was going to sue. This, also, was nothing new. Groucho threatened to
sue everyone. In his later years, every time anyone had any sort of project that treaded even vaguely on the reputations of the Brothers Marx,
there was at least a 50-50 chance that Groucho would take financial umbrage and threaten to have his barristers barrist. He once threatened to
sue his son Arthur over an altogether-flattering, unauthorized biography.
At least a few of Groucho's most fervent, young fans were crushed when they approached him with fan-type projects only to be rudely
rebuffed and threatened with legal action, albeit unfounded. Usually, such threats were quickly made and forgotten.
Once this round of legal threats were made and forgotten, Groucho was invited to pick a Tuesday — any Tuesday we were taping
— to drop by and do a cameo walk-on appearance. As fate would have it, he picked my first Tuesday there.
We quickly wrote a joke. Here it was my second day as a staff writer on a TV show and I was writing a joke for Groucho Marx to
tell. Something, I couldn't help but think, was wrong with this picture.
Around three o'clock, a call came in to confirm that Groucho would be there, that he would do the cameo walk-on, but that he wouldn't
speak. Groucho, we were told, had recently decided never to speak in public again, having decided he was too old. Folks on the staff were
a bit baffled: Have Groucho Marx on a show and not have him speak? One of the producers asked, "Are you sure we have the right Marx
Nevertheless, the offer had been tendered and couldn't, in all politeness, be withdrawn. We switched around the closing scene so
that Gabe did the joke, then a crowd of extras would part to reveal Groucho standing there. His sudden appearance, wordless though it would be,
would be the topper to Gabe's joke. We hoped.
As we got closer to tape time, the cameo appearance was continually rumored as on-again, off-again. Nevertheless, the set was
abuzz with celebrities. Lee Grant was there since her daughter, Dinah Manoff, was in the show that evening. So was Valerie Harper's
daughter, Wendy Schaal. They had about four lines between them but have since done pretty well for themselves.
The studio audience was in bleachers, being warmed-up by comedian Mike Preminger. Mike was unnerved by all the noise in the wings
and by conflicting signals he was getting as to how much time he had to fill before we'd be ready to roll tape. No one had told him about
At about 8:15, a call came up to the writers' dressing room that Groucho was downstairs. (The writers got a dressing room so that
they could be close in case of emergency rewrites. Executive Producer James Komack had a dressing room just off the stage but he vacated his
for the evening and Groucho's name was inserted in the slot on the door.) We all traipsed down to see Groucho.
Our esteemed cameo guest was not feeling well and it was decided that he would not do the walk-on but would, instead, have his photo
taken with the cast on the set. I'm still not certain if that was his decision or ours but one look at the man and you could see he was in no
shape to go on-camera.
The shortest route from Groucho's dressing room was directly across the front of the bleachers, past where Mike Preminger was filling
time, and through the center flap of the goldenrod curtain between the audience and the Kotter classroom set. With several people
guiding him, Groucho was led out in front of the studio audience while cast and crew hustled around the other way to meet him behind the curtain.
Out front, the audience did not, at first, recognize Groucho Marx.
Mike Preminger looked over and saw an elderly gent, shuffling slowly towards him, interrupting in mid-joke. In a second or two,
he sized up the situation and blurted out a quick introduction. The audience, responding to the name, burst into loud cheering and
applause. "Thunderous" is the word that came to mind.
Groucho, making his way through the curtain flap, didn't hear them.
Behind the drape, cast members and crew members alike were introducing themselves to Groucho. He shook everyone's hand and
mumbled "Nice to meet you," oblivious to whom he was actually meeting. He didn't seem to know where he was and he certainly didn't know which
of the people gently pumping his hand were actors and which ones moved scenery for a living. He was steered to Mr. Kotter's chair in the
classroom and gently eased into it as Gabe and the Sweathogs (John Travolta, Ron Palillo, Larry Hilton-Jacobs and Robert Heyges) crowded around.
Recalling Dick Cavett's warning to the audience on the record of Groucho's Carnegie Hall show, I warned the photog that Groucho was
made dizzy by flash bulbs. He replied that there was plenty of light on the set and, besides, the way Groucho looked, these pictures would
probably never be released. (He was correct. Days later, when I phoned up the appropriate P.R. folks to procure a copy, I was told that
no such photos existed.)
As they went through the motions of taking the pictures, Groucho remained unmoving, unsmiling and about as unlike the fellow in Duck
Soup as it would be possible to imagine. I found myself mentally repeating, "This is Groucho Marx," trying to get the notion to sink
in. The Groucho I met at Hillcrest was the one I knew — older perhaps, and slower, but nonetheless recognizable.
This Groucho was not. I couldn't help but wonder, "Why is he here? What is he out to prove?" And just as I was
wondering that, I overheard Erin Fleming pitching herself to our producer as an actress whose presence would do Kotter proud. Okay:
The pictures done, Groucho was helped off the stage. Several people had already left, almost or actually in tears. "I don't
want to see him like that," I heard a few of them say, exiting as quickly as they had eagerly arrived. Bobby Heyges was walking around saying,
"How can I go on after seeing that?" Bobby was in no mood for comedy.
I got the idea to liberate the GROUCHO MARX sign from the dressing room door, an interesting memento. But, when I got there,
someone else of like mind had beaten me to it. I arrived just in time to see Groucho and his entourage step slowly out the door to a waiting
In the months I worked on Kotter, I never heard anyone mention Groucho's visit again. You couldn't have found a person on
crew who would bet you a dime that the man who posed for photos with the cast would live another ten weeks, much less ten months. But he
I saw him one other time and he was even worse. The controversial Ms. Fleming was staging a series of carefully-planned
spontaneous "drop-in" visits by everyone in Hollywood. A producer friend of mine had been invited and, figuring a Marxian authority might be of
aid, he invited me along. On our way in, Jack Nicholson was coming out with the look of a man who has just been to pay his last respects to a
dying aunt and, that unpleasantness over with, wanted to be anywhere else.
All the time we were there, Groucho just sat in a wheelchair next to his piano and muttered little wheezes of conversation, all —
but for a short passage of Gilbert and Sullivan — inaudible. Everyone present took their lead from Erin, who, whenever Groucho would make
any sort of noise, would nod and smile and pretend like she agreed wholeheartedly with whatever he had just said. Which is what we all did,
chuckling with every reply, just in case what he said had been intended as funny.
Erin scurried about, talking long and loud about a scene she had done in a Woody Allen film. One day's acting work on a Woody
Allen film apparently makes one an expert on all phases of comedy. We got out of there as fast as was even vaguely polite.
A few months later, Groucho died in the literal sense. That mental leash, so concerned as it always is with propriety, stopped a
lot of us from saying out loud, "Thank God!" But we all felt it — all of us who'd ever felt even remotely close to Hugo Z.
I'm not quite certain why any of us loved him as we did. He was not, by anyone's accounts, a particularly nice man. Harpo,
everyone agrees, was — but Groucho often seemed compelled to live up (or down) to his name. He so alienated everyone in his life that,
near the end, the only one left to care for him was an aspiring actress who only seemed able to get acting work when she was shoving an aged Groucho
out on stage in front of her.
Groucho's famed wit could account for what we felt about him — but much of it was, after all, the work of top writers. He'd
had men like George Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, S.J. Perelman, Irving Brecher and Harry Ruby concocting his stage and screen dialogue and later, when he
did the You Bet Your Life game show, ostensibly ad-lib, a whole slew of closet writers constructing contestants' remarks and snappy Groucho
comebacks. He was by no means helpless in this department, but he sure had enough help to tar up his fame as one of America's great wits.
No, I think what Groucho meant to any of us was irreverence. What the man was didn't matter. On screen, he lived with a
healthy disrespect for all things serious and born of pretense. Small wonder that his greatest foil was Margaret Dumont, whose screen presence
denoted High-Society affectation and not much else.
Groucho never took anything too seriously, his own image in particular...which is why it was so unnerving to see him, in his declining
days, subsisting only on the respect that others felt for him. The Master of Irreverence had finally been reduced...to Reverence.
The happiness of film is that the best gets remembered and the worst, forgotten. That's why everyone always thinks that TV was
better years ago: They remember only their favorite shows. Groucho left a legacy of very funny movies and TV shows, most of which are readily
available. If they aren't all as popular as they deserve to be these days, it's only because everyone who could possibly care about them is
sick of them. They're there, though, for future generations.
They'll be able to watch Animal Crackers and the like, never having to witness Groucho's declining years. Just as they'll
be able to listen to Elvis Presley records without thinking of the later Elvis...the Elvis who died the same week as Groucho.
Elvis was grotesquely overweight in his final years of touring. He packed Las Vegas showrooms full of Elvis worshipers who paid
ticket prices straight out of the ozone layer. On stage, The King performed his greatest hits, accompanied by a good band and a group of
back-up singers who aided him with the notes he could no longer reach.
Even with this help, the "King" still delivered a show so short that, when he left the stage, everyone knew it was just a fake bow-off
and he'd be coming back for ten more numbers. Only he wasn't coming back: Elvis exited directly to a waiting limousine. His fans would be
standing and cheering in the showroom, waiting for him to return and finish the high-priced concert. Then, over the P.A. system, once they were
sure the limo was away, the hotel would announce, "Elvis has left the building...thank you and good-night." The crowds were always, to say the
Having been raised with what I hope is a proper human reverence for life and the feelings of others, I can't help but say that the
death of Elvis Presley at age 42 was a terrible tragedy and loss.
But deep within me, parts affected in many ways by my contacts with Groucho Marx, have to wonder if maybe Elvis, by dying when he did,
didn't do himself and his fans a terrific favor.