Friday, 26 August 2016

Marvin Kaplan, T.C. and Flunking English

How does one become a Choo Choo? Here’s how Marvin Kaplan put it to fellow comedian Gilbert Gottfried during a podcast about two months ago. He called getting the job “another fluke.”
In order to work for Hanna-Barbera, you had to audition. And the first one they auditioned for Top Cat was Michael O’Shea. Well, he’s a good man and a nice actor but he was not very funny. You gotta realise they were trying to do Bilko. They wouldn’t get Phil [Silvers] but they got Maurice Gosfield. Remember Moe?
Moe played Doberman [on Bilko]. He was the funniest man I ever worked with. I absolutely worshipped Maurice Gosfield. First of all, when he ate dinner, you knew exactly what he ate. When they were doing Bilko, they would go to an Italian restaurant beforehand and the guest actress was Kay Kendall. And Maurice ordered meatballs. And Phil, watching Maurice balance these meatballs, he said “He’s doing it without a net.”
Joe Barbera, in order to get a job for Joe, you had to audition. Now he had three guys under personal contract—a man named Daws Butler, a man named Don Messick, wonderful, and a man named Len Weinrib. If they couldn’t do your voice, you got the job. None of them could do my voice.
By now, you know that Marvin has passed away at the age of 89.

We have some clippings about Marvin’s early career on the Tralfaz blog. To sum up, in the late ‘40s, he was acting in a play in Los Angeles where he spotted by Katharine Hepburn, who got him a job at her studio, M-G-M, in her movie, Adam’s Rib. In 1951, he appeared with Sheldon Leonard in the movie Behave Yourself. Cy Howard saw a preview of the movie and teamed the two for a radio comedy with Sandra Gould. Leonard dropped out of the project and Eddie Max was brought in. The show was called The Three of Us. What happened next is explained in this story in the Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1954:

Comic Flunked His English
IF Marvin Kaplan could speak, he wouldn’t be the terrific success he is on CBS Television’s “Meet Millie.”
This paradox developed when Kaplan was teaching school at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School in 1946. He was a substitute teacher, and he was doing right well. For one term the students of his English class were able to hold their own with the children in similar English classes throughout the city.
“Then the bubble busted,” Kaplan says with a certain amount of chagrin.
“I had to take a speech test in order to attain the exalted rank of permanent teacher. I flunked.
Anything For A Buck
Rather than stay on as substitute Kaplan set his sights on the theater, playwriting, radio—anything that would make a dollar.
His flair for writing landed Kaplan one of his first wage-earning jobs. He became a reader for a motion-picture company.
“All I had to do,” he explains, “was read a book, write a 25-30 page synopsis and include my opinion as to whether it might make a good movie. I read ‘til I was blind and wrote until my fingers ached.”
Despite the fact that he is one of the “hottest” actors in Hollywood at the moment, Marvin still wants to be a playwright. He feels that an actor is good for a limited time while writers go on and on like old man river.
Credits Cy Howard
But how did this speech—flunking teacher become the reputable actor. In a two-word explanation, Kaplan says “Cy Howard.”
Cy Howard is a CBS writer-producer. At one time he was contemplating a domestic radio comedy show, and for the audition record, hired our hero. During a break in rehearsals, Howard was contemplating the type of character that Kaplan would play on the show. When Marvin told the producer that he wrote poetry, Howard gulped twice and said that he could be himself on the show.
Unfortunately the audition record never got past the recording stage. However, there was a bit of indecision on the “Meet Millie” show in the characterization department, and it was finally decided that the poet Alfred role Kaplan had created on the Howard show would be perfect for “Meet Millie.”
Kaplan then explains, “I was tried out for one week,” the character hit and Alfred Prinzmetal was born.
Does he enjoy doing silly-guy roles like Alfred? The question draws a dirty look from Kaplan.
Alfred to my mind is not a complete idiot,” he said. “He is typical of thousands of kids who are struggling for success but just lack the necessary talent to make the grade.
On he went to Top Cat, which lasted one season in prime time and forever in reruns. Arnold Stang, Allen Jenkins and the producers did publicity interviews for the show; Marvin seems to have been left out. Here’s a piece in the Chicago Tribune of October 14, 1961:
Hollywood's red-hot Hanna-Barbera studios have come up with another animated cartoon series, Top Cat, seen on channel 7 Wednesdays at 7:30 p. m.
A number of voices familiar to TV fans are heard as they supply the speaking parts for Top Cat and his friends. The star of the show, a nimble witted alley cat who lives in a roomy ash can with all the comforts of home, speaks with the voice of Arnold Stang. Allen Jenkins speaks for Officer Dibble, the only noncat character in the show.
Maurice Gossfield, Pvt. Doberman of the Sgt. Bilko shows, will be heard as Benny the Ball, Top Cat's chubby pal.
Others in the cast are John Stephenson, Leo De Lyon, and Marvin Kaplan.
"We chose alley cats as our heroes for a very simple reason," said Bill Hanna who, with Joe Barbera produced the series. "Cats are appealing and full of personality. Cats have real living problems — problems that people can easily identify themselves with. T. C. and his friends have a constant struggle to survive, but they also have a lot of fun with their freedom."
Hanna and Barbera are the fabulous partners who have come up with Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound, and The Flintstones in the space of three years.
The voice cast of Top Cat was just terrific. The music was great. The opening and closing animation was clever. The series itself didn’t, and doesn’t, do a lot for me, but it has a lot of fans. You can read more about Marvin Kaplan in the 2009 post. Better still, go to Mark Evanier’s blog. Read this remembrance of Mr. Kaplan. And be sure to go to this post, which also links to Kliph Nesteroff’s transcribed interviews with Marvin about his career. And you should be able to hear him with Gilbert Gottfried by clicking the arrow below.


  1. RIP Marvin Kaplan, also known as Choo-Choo. I read his interview with Kliph Nesteroff a couple of years ago. He had one heck of an acting career. He did everything there was - radio, television, films, cartoons.

    YOWP, was Lennie Weinrib really under contract to Hanna-Barbera in 1961? That doesn't sound right.

    1. I doubt it. I can't think of a single cartoon he was in that early. It's quite possible he was in the later years.

    2. Marvin and Lennie were both in 'Hey It's The King!' so that may be what Marvin is remembering. I've heard that 'If these 3 guys can't do your voice - you get the part' thing elsewhere, I just can't recall where.

  2. RIP Marvin Kaplan, 1927-1961. Georgi, Lennie wasn't a regular back then to HB, though in 1964 he did appear in the Season 5 finale, "Surfin'Fred",.

  3. Maybe he meant Doug Young or Hal Smith, who were sort of regulars at the time.

  4. Sad, another one of the greats has passed. He and Arnold Stang as the gas station attendants and their run in with Jonathan Winters in " It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World " is still priceless. I saw it in the theater first run back in 1963 and laughed to it hurt. RIP Marvin.