Sunday 27 December 2009

Marvin Kaplan — The “Intellectual Close Friend”

Arnold Stang’s death has brought about the question about how many of the main voice actors are left from Top Cat. After all, all four main cast members of The Flintstones, which debuted the year before, are now gone.

Top Cat, out of plot necessity, had a much larger regular cast than any Hanna-Barbera show to that time; what kind of alley would it be with only one cat and a sidekick like in a Yogi Bear cartoon? Fortunately, several of T.C.’s gang are still with us—Marvin Kaplan, John Stephenson and, as Earl Kress reminds me, nightclub comic Leo de Lyon.

As a sidebar, all three had a connection with “I Love Lucy,” whose opening animation was done by Hanna and Barbera. Stephenson, according to Bart Andrews’ book on the show, was an announcer on it, de Lyon appeared on stage with Desi Arnaz in 1949 and Kaplan was signed by Desilu in 1963 for two sitcom pilots: one with Ethel Merman called “Maggie Brown” and “Hooray for Hollywood.”

I really like listening to Marvin Kaplan. Maybe I have an affinity for those New York accents from watching Warners cartoons as a kid. Kaplan’s longest role was probably his worst, on Alice, featuring one-note characters, a couple of overused catchphrases and the usual camera close-up “serious” moment that was requisite at the same spot in the plot of every episode of every ‘70s sitcom. Quite a fall for someone who played in Uncle Vanya on stage. I suppose one might consider a cartoon a bit of a career drop, but Top Cat had a tremendous voice cast, the first batch of really great music by Hoyt Curtin and, occasionally, inspired bits of dialogue.

It seems casting Kaplan as the usually well-grounded Choo Choo was a bit of stereotyping. I had no idea that he was a high school teacher at the same time he was in some pretty high-profile movies. But that’s what this syndicated column of December 2, 1962 reveals:

Comic’s Dual Life: He Teaches, Too
Hollywood Correspondent
Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

HOLLYWOOD (NEA)—Marvin Kaplan laughs off a double life with a stock answer when he introduces himself for the day in the Los Angeles city school system. The question is stock, too, from some always-curious student.
“Haven’t we seen you in movies or on television?”
When the question comes, Kaplan’s round cherubic face goes preposterously sad. He removes a pair of thick-as-bottle glass hornrims without which he says “I can’t even see the eye chart.” He wipes them with a handkerchief and as he says:
”I guess you all think I look like a certain actor. Well, I must admit I’ve been mistaken for Rock Hudson for years.”
It’s a sure-fire laugh—and getting laughs is Marvin Kaplan’s life in show business. In the classroom, where he leads another life, he knows exactly how far he can go. After that, he’s all academic business.
A movie and television funny-man, Kaplan just completed an all-star comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and another part in Jerry Lewis’ latest film, “The Nutty Professor.” For four years, Kaplan played the role of Alfred Prinzmetal, the poet, in the weekly television series, “Meet Millie.” He’s now the voice of Chu Chu [sic] in ABC’s “Top Cat” series.
BETWEEN ASSIGNMENTS some actors go fishing and others play golf and still others make headlines like Richard Burton. Kaplan, who trained for an academic career, teaches school. As a substitute for the last five years, he has taught 3,000 high school classes in the L.A. school system. He devotes about six month a year to the job about which he says:
“Why I teach is a hard question to answer without sounding corny, but I guess you’d have to call it a matter of good citizenship. Some actors dabble in politics, some do benefits. I teach. It beats driving yourself crazy with idleness between assignments and the kids are a great audience.”
Kaplan’s classes have ranged all the way from biology (“which I flunked in school”) to senior problems (“like smoking. Only all the students smoke and I don’t.”)
WHETHER RECOGNIZED or not, Kaplan’s wit and dramatic flair help him at his desk, where he says “the teachers of America win Academy Awards every day for audience-holding performances.”
To a would-be cut-up in a classroom, Kaplan flipped: “You have a sense of humor like an acid thrower.”
To an unruly lad in another classroom, he said: “You can’t be replaced but you can be tortured.”
To a drama class fumbling with “Julius Caesar,” he flipped: “I came to bury this class, not to teach it.”
Via laughs, he wins attention and respect. His assignments take him from tough “Asphalt Jungle”-type neighbourhoods to exclusive residential areas like Brentwood where “he” had a laugh. A mother whose child had been rude to the regular teacher introduced herself to Kaplan at a PTA meeting. After apologizing, she said about the boy: “I can’t understand why he was so ill-mannered. He’s always a perfect gentleman to the servants at home.”
Casting directors, naturally, never think of Marvin Kaplan for a teacher role. He played a beatnik in Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor,” has played only one school teachers in a “Dobie Gillis” television show.

“Yowp,” I know you’re saying, “Where’s the inside gossip? The drunken car accidents? The sexual sleaze? The swearing at the paparazzi? The meltdowns and rehab?”

Well, let’s see. Inside gossip. Hmmm. Okay, how about this: Kaplan inherited his grandfather’s pickle and sauerkraut factory in New York in the ‘50s. He actually sold sauerkraut before becoming an actor. Yeah, I know, not much. And we’ll leave the sauerkraut story for another time. About the only gossip—and it’s tame compared to what you find today on blogs written by people emulating Charles Pierce as Bette Davis—comes from one long-time wire service (and radio) columnist for papers of March 24, 1978:

Repairman eccentric off screen
By Vernon Scott
HOLLYWOOD (UPI)—Marvin Kaplan, who plays Henry, the telephone repairman on the “Alice” series, is considerably more eccentric off-screen than the nutty character he plays on the CBS show.
Kaplan was divorced recently after three years of marriage.
He apparently was the victim of the “too little, too late” syndrome. A lifelong bachelor, Kaplan marched to the altar for the first time at the age of 46. His bride, 47, also was marrying for the first time.
“It didn’t work out,” Kaplan says, apparently unfazed by the experience. “We both were so set in our ways it was ridiculous. We didn’t have any children.
“Now I’m going to write a book titled, ‘Listen, If You've Waited This Long.’”
Kaplan is a happy-go-lucky man who says he and his wife first met as schoolmates in a Brooklyn high school. They lost touch with one another for many years until he bumped into her in Indianapolis where she was a college professor.
“She expected me to be the same person she knew in Brooklyn,” Kaplan says. “I expected her to have changed. Both of us were wrong.”
Kaplan kept the couples’ two-bedroom Burbank home after the divorce. He had owned it for many years before his marriage. His wife took the furniture because it belonged to her for years before they exchanged vows.
Home is a modest California ranch-style stucco with very little furniture. It is also something less than a showcase.
“My house always looks as if it’s just been robbed,” says Kaplan. “It’s a mess. I’m not the best housekeeper and my wife was meticulously neat.”
Immediately after the 1971 earthquake a neighbor knocked on Kaplan’s door to see what damage his house had suffered. Kaplan says there was virtually no damage, but the neighbor took one look at the mess inside and assumed the house had been all but destroyed.
Kaplan said he is not entirely at fault for the constant disarray of his home. He had the same cleaning lady for 30 years and said in recent years she came to work in a wheel chair. But she disappeared recently without a trace.

If Marvin Kaplan has had a bad review, I have yet to read it. He got good ink from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times for his role in The Reformer and the Redhead which he shot 60 years ago. He got a few spotlight stories in Top Cat, but the best cartoon he was in didn’t involve drawings. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one long cartoon. It has over-the-top characters (the usually camera-hogging Uncle Miltie appears positively tame next to the unsinkable Ethel Merman), a crazy chase scene dispensing gags along the way, and even cartoon voices (Kaplan, Stang, Stan Freberg, Jim Backus, Edward Everett Horton and Terry-Thomas. And Jimmy Durante and Phil Silvers, once removed).

But, as the song says, if the most effectual Top Cat is going to have an intellectual close friend, none could possibly be better than the enjoyable Marvin Kaplan.


  1. It was around 1999, that Marvin Kaplan voiced a national radio ad for J.C. Penny. You may remember it. In it, he played a very put upon, distraught gingerbread man. With that Bronx type accent; " It's not easy being a ginga-bread man. Wat's ronnnggg, Is my back boint?, am I too soooft? " It was a riot. A true talent for all times.

  2. Great stuff as always, though (for MY tastes, anyway) the shot of the gang taking away the rather lifeless T.C. was just a little morbid...

  3. Rob, I didn't think about the picture metaphorically. I only had two cartoons in my computer and that was the first scene I ran into with all the cast. Drawing seven characters in a shot, even using cycles, was a bit elaborate for HB.

    Ironically, in the scene, T.C. isn't dead. He's fainted because he could have been killed.

  4. Kaplan voices a polite beggar in the episode
    Love Story on Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. Alice falls for him; Harry doesn't like him, as he doesn't seem to want to get a job; they find out later he's the son of millionaire parents but by then Alice is no longer interested in him. You can almost imagine Alice has fallen for Choo Choo...