Character actor Marvin Kaplan died yesterday at age 89. In a long career that spanned from the Forties to the Teens, he was frequently seen in films and on television. He appeared in such films as Angels in the Outfield (1951); The Nutty Professor (1963); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); The Great Race (1965); and Wild at Heart (1985). On television he was the voice of Choo Choo on Top Cat and played telephone lineman Henry Beesmeyer on Alice.
Marvin Kaplan was born in Brooklyn on January 24 1927. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1947 with a degree in English and afterwards studied theatre at the University of Southern California. It was while he was there that he wrote a one-act play Death of an Intellectual. Among the faculty at the time was screenwriter and director William C. de Mille, who happened to the brother of legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Mr. de Mille, knowing that Marvin Kaplan wanted to be a writer, advised him to drop out and become a stage manager. Mr. de Miller told him, “See what actors do to writers’ lines!"
Marvin Kaplan got his first job as a stage manager at the Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on a production of Rain directed by Charlie Chaplin. It was at the Circle Theatre that he also made his debut as an actor in a play by Molière. Legendary actress Katharine Hepburn went to see the show in its ninth week and afterwards visited the cast backstage. Miss Hepburn said to him, "You’re Marvin Kaplan, aren’t you? Have you done a lot of work?" Marvin Kaplan had to admit that it was his first acting job ever. She told him that he was "awfully good."
It was the next day when he went to rehearsal that he found a note telling him to call MGM. He called and they told him to meet with director George Cukor at 3:00 PM. As it turned out, Katharine Hepburn had recommended him for a part in Mr. Cukor's next film, Adam's Rib. Marvin Kaplan then made his film debut in Adam's Rib (1949), playing a court stenographer. The next year he appeared in small parts in the films Key to the City (1950), Francis (1950), and The Reformer and the Redhead (1950). He made his television debut in an episode of Hollywood Theatre Time.
Marvin Kaplan proved to be very busy in the Fifties. He was a regular on the sitcom Meet Millie, playing aspiring composer Alfred Prinzmetal. He guest starred on such shows as The Ford Television Theatre, General Electric Theatre, Shower of Stars, Make Room for Daddy, The Red Skelton Hour, Alcoa Theatre, and M Squad. He appeared in several films throughout the decade, including I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951), The Fat Man (1951), Criminal Lawyer (1951), Angels in the Outfield (1951), Behave Yourself! (1951), The Fabulous Senorita (1952), and Wake Me When It's Over (1960).
In the Sixties Marvin Kaplan provided the voice of Choo Choo, the enthusiastic but somewhat clueless and shy cat who lived at the firehouse on the prime-time animated cartoon Top Cat. He guest starred on such shows as Dobie Gillis, The Detectives, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, The Baileys of Balboa, Valentine's Day, McHale's Navy, Honey West, Gidget, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., My Three Sons, Petticoat Junction, Mod Squad, and I Dream of Jeannie. It was during the Sixties that he made some of his most notable appearances in movies. He appeared in The Nutty Professor (1963); A New Kind of Love (1963); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); and The Great Race (1965).
In the Seventies Marvin Kaplan was a regular on the short-lived show The Chicago Teddy Bears. It was in 1978 that he began playing the recurring role of telephone lineman Henry Beesmeyer on Alice. He was the voice of Skids on C.B. Bears. He guest starred on such stars on Julia; Love, American Style; Chopper One; Kolchak, the Night Stalker; Charlie's Angels; CHiPs; and Flying High. He was a guest voice on Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. He appeared in the films The Severed Arm (1973), Snakes (1974), Freaky Friday (1976), and Midnight Madness (1980).
In the Eighties he continued to appear on Alice. He provided the voice of Shellshock "Shelly" Turtle in the Saturday morning cartoon Saturday Supercade. He guest starred on MacGyver, The Fall Guy, Cagney & Lacey, 1st & Ten, My Two Dads, and Monsters. He reprised his role as the voice of Choo Choo in the TV movie Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats and Wake, Rattle & Roll. He provided additional voices on The Smurfs and was a guest voice The Further Adventures of SuperTed. He appeared in the films Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990).
In the Nineties Marvin Kaplan was a regular on the sitcom On the Air. He had a recurring role on Becker. He guest starred on ER. He provided guest voices on Garfield and Friends, The Cartoon Cartoon Show, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and Johnny Bravo. He appeared in the films Delirious (1991), The Big Gig (1993), and Witchboard 2 (1993).
In the Naughts he continued to appear on Becker. He appeared in the TV movie McBride: The Chameleon Murder (2005). He appeared in the movie Dark and Stormy Night (2009). In the Teens he appeared in the film Autism and Cake (2012). He is set to appear in the film Lookin' Up later this year.
Marvin Kaplan was also a writer and playwright. He wrote the story for the Addams Family episode "Gomez, the People's Choice" and wrote episodes for the shows The Bill Cosby Show, Mod Squad, and Maude. He wrote the films Watch Out for Slick (2010) and Lookin' Up (2016). He wrote various plays, including A Good House for a Killing and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. He was a member of Theatre West, a theatrical company in Los Angeles, for decades. He was also a member of the Academy of New Musical Theatre and California Artists Radio Theatre.
Marvin Kaplan was a very remarkable performer. It was a rare thing that he played a leading role in a TV show or film, and often his parts could be very small. That having been said, he was always memorable. Indeed, as Irwin the gas station attendant in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Marvin Kaplan was only on the screen for a matter of minutes, and yet he remains one of the most memorable characters in a film filled with memorable characters. And while his characters were always characterised by Mr. Kaplan's naturally dull, flat voice and a deadpan delivery, they varied a good deal. Choo Choo on Top Cat was enthusiastic and energetic, but a bit shy around female cats. Henry Beesmeyer on Alice tended to be a bit sarcastic and always complained about either Mel's cooking or his wife. As Marvin the bookkeeper on The Chicago Teddy Bears he was a bit nervous and highstrung. Over the years Marvin Kaplan played a variety of characters, and he was always memorable no matter how small the part. What is more he was nothing if prolific. He appeared frequently in film and on television in the Fifties and Sixties, and his career spanned from 1949 to 2016. Unlike many actors, Marvin Kaplan never retired.