Marvin Kaplan: Such a Marvin Kaplan

For almost 70 years, Marvin Kaplan (1927-2016) was a familiar face and voice to American audiences, so perfect as a Marvin that his characters were often named Marvin, or something lateral like Irwin or Alvin or Arnold or Milton. Literally from Brooklyn, he was also literally the guy from central casting to play the Guy from Brooklyn, usually a working class nebbish like a plumber or a mover, or at best an accountant. His characters were not men of power and influence in the world.

Kaplan came west in ’47 to study playwriting and radio scriptwriting at USC. One of his teachers was William de Mille, Cecil B. DeMille’s brother and Agnes de Mille’s father, and an important man of the stage and screen in his own right. DeMille got him involved with the Circle Theatre, a brand new company formed by two of Charlie Chaplin’s sons (Sydney and Charles, Jr.), William Schallert, Kathleen Freeman, and others. Kaplan’s first job was stage managing a production of Rain, directed by Charlie Chaplin himself.

Kaplan was appearing in a supporting part in a Moliere farce, when Katharine Hepburn caught a performance and became an instant fan, casting him as a comical stenographer in Adam’s Rib (1949). The joke was that the testimony was very emotional and he reads the transcript back in a flat, unemotional Brooklyn voice. That scene became the basis of his entire career. He had another uncredited part in Francis (1950, yes the talking mule movie). 1951 was the year he truly broke out: he had great roles in the movies I Can Get it for Your Wholesale and the original Angels in the Outfield, and was cast as a regular on the radio sit com Meet Millie. The show show’s radio version ran until 1954; he was also cast on the television version which ran 1952-1956.

“If you guys don’t cut it out, I’m gonna start to get mad!”

And from there, six more decades of guest shots on tv series (occasionally getting cast as a regular), cartoon voiceovers, and bit parts in movies. He was the voice of Choo-Choo in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat (1961-1962), which is almost certainly the first place I heard that distinctive voice. In a stroke of genius, Stanley Kramer cast Kaplan and his Top Cat co-star Arnold Stang in his all star comedy epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963. Kaplan and Stang both occupied very similar niches in the Hollywood casting orbit; with the coke-bottle glasses, the weak chins, the nerdy but brash New York manner; they must have been butting heads for gigs constantly. In Mad World Kramer cast them as a couple of unlikely bespectacled gas station attendants on the opening day of their new business in one of the great slapstick set pieces of the late 20th century (thanks also to their scene partner Jonathan Winters).

Before there was Norm and Cliff on “Cheers” there was Harry on “Alice”

Other notable credits: Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963), Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (1965), a regular role (“Marvin”) on the short-lived sit com The Chicago Teddy Bears (1971), the horror movies The Severed Arm (1973) and Snakes (1974), the Disney classic Freaky Friday (1976), a long running regular role on Alice (1978-1985) the role for which he is probably best known today, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), and the short-lived David Lynch-Mark Frost series On the Air (1992). This is just the highlights — it’s worth looking at his IMDB page, for he had so many memorable guest shots on different shows, it’s rewarding just to remind yourself where you have seen him.

His original goal of being a scriptwriter was not neglected either. He wrote an episode of The Bill Cosby Show in 1969, got story credits on The Addams Family, The Mod Squad and Maude (quite a diverse, eclectic selection of shows), and, towards the end of his life, wrote and produced two independent features, Watch Out for Slick (2010) and Lookin’ Up (2016). At the age of 89, he also acted in the latter film. It was his last screen credit.

I don’t often plug things sight unseen (or products other than my own for that matter!) but it’s come to my attention this morning that a new biography of the only recently late Kaplan is about to be put out by Bear Manor Media. He was an interesting man; it will no doubt be an interesting read.