Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dear Marvin Kaplan, Goodbye: The Death of a Comic Actor, 1927-2016

Dear Marvin Kaplan, Goodbye

By David Hartley Mark

Sunday, August 28, 2016: My Last Day of Intersession Vacation

            I had time to read the Sunday paper, an old pleasure, forgotten, but now re-discovered. I see that comic actor Marvin Kaplan has passed, at the age of 89. He was, according to Emily Langer in The Washington Post,

 “a comedic character actor—immediately recognizable for his thick glasses, thicker eyebrows and Brooklyn accent—who had been a fixture of TV and movies since his scene-stealing film debut in “Adam’s Rib” with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, [who] died Thursday at a hospital in Los Angeles.”

            I read the entire obit with great interest, despite never having seen the movie. Nor did I clearly recall Marvin’s most notable TV role, that of Henry Beesmyer in the 1970s-80s situation comedy, “Alice.”

            My own, best memory of Marvin’s onscreen career was in the 1963 comic blockbuster movie, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Never before or since have so many comic actors, male and female, been crammed into one single epic chase comedy. I saw it at the age of eleven. I eagerly turned to YouTube, which, among its other functions, is a repository for never-dying cinema moments, and was able to locate the scene in which Phil Silvers narrowly escapes the wrathful (don’t ask why; instead, watch it) Jonathan Winters. Hapless co-gas-station-owners Marvin Kaplan and Arnold Stang attempt to tie Winters up in cloth electrician’s tape, but he, like King Kong, escapes, and the three proceed to lay waste to the gas station. It is a miracle of physical comedy, building on the examples of Mack Sennett, the Three Stooges, and the Marx Brothers.

It is comedic nirvana.

            Better than that, it is timeless. My busy ten-year-old grandson came in while it was running, and, like his ancient grandfather, dissolved in laughter. There was no need to explain the premise, the McGuffin, or the purpose of the scene. It was comedy, pure and innocent.

            There was another dimension to my fleeting acquaintance with Marvin Kaplan: that of Local Boy Makes Good. I recall a Shabbos Service at my old, childhood shul, The East Side Torah Center, back in the 1960s, probably around the same time that “Mad World” was released. We were in the midst of davening—the same, endless monotony that comprised every service I ever attended there—were we about to read Torah, or just finished with it? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t matter.

            Suddenly, the doors of the “Big Shul” opened, and HE entered—Marvin Kaplan, himself. The Rabbi himself descended the steps of the bema (podium) to greet him, and he shook hands, all around. I imagine that I, even I, was honored with a handshake, though I don’t believe I was entirely sure who the honoree was, or the conquering hero. He and the rabbi appeared to be old friends, but our rabbi claimed to know a good many people. And, judging from the birth year given in the article, Marvin was in his mid-thirties back then—a young character actor on the rise. It was early spring, 1963, the heyday of Camelot. America was the strongest nation on earth, the cultural icon of the universe. We American Jews were proud and eager to take our place as citizens of the last, greatest hope of humanity.

            Marvin smiled at us all benignly, as if saying, “You see? We Jews have made it, and will continue to make it.” Perhaps he was prophesying my own speaking and teaching career—not on the screen, but making my students and congregants laugh a bit as I taught them. One could do worse.

Then, he was gone: vanished, into American Jewish History, and my personal memory. Today, I read with sorrow that another person from my Old Neighborhood is gone. Indeed, the Old Neighborhood itself is but a memory. Still, I carry it within me, and share my memories with a quiet joy.

How do I choose to remember Marvin Kaplan?

            There is a Midrash-Legend about a rabbi who prays to God, “Show me someone who will, without doubt, ascend after death to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
            God sends Elijah to the rabbi; Elijah, who, at the end of his life, was carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses, never truly died (along with Enoch). He, therefore, is regarded in Jewish legend as “God’s messenger,” carrying missives between earth and heaven.

            “Let us go to the marketplace,” says Elijah to the rabbi, “and I will show you those whom you seek.”

            In the crowded marketplace, the downtown or mall of its day, Elijah points to two men at the center of a crowd, and says to the rabbi, “There are people who will, most assuredly, go to heaven when they die.”

            The rabbi accosts them and asks, “What, pray, is your profession? What do you do?”

            They smile and answer him, a little abashed, “We are jesters and comics. When we see someone who looks depressed or melancholy, we try to cheer them up.”

            “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” Elijah says to the rabbi.

            Goodbye, Marvin Kaplan. Rest in peace, comic actor and funny man.

I will be honored to say Kaddish for you.