ACTOR'S ACTOR : Marvin Kaplan - Marvin's Room

Even those who can't remember Marvin Kaplan's name certainly know that sad-sack face and that distinctive comic voice. He has frequently played eccentrics, nerds, neurotics, and even a child molester (in David Lynch's film Wild at Heart), so it took me aback at first to realize that the man I had just met at Jerry's Deli in Studio City is the polar opposite of his kooky screen persona. Unlike his most familiar characters, such as the excitable phone man Henry on CBS's Alice sitcom (1976-'85), Kaplan is extremely articulate, relaxed, intelligent, and ingratiating.

A week prior to our interview, I had enjoyed Kaplan's superb performance at the nearby Ventura Court Theatre in Jeff Gould's charming new comedy, Troubled Waters. The ever-dependable Kaplan had only two brief scenes with minimal dialogue, as a marriage counselor with a laissez-faire attitude, but he essentially stole the show from a terrific cast. Similarly, his uproarious performance as an actor auditioning for the role of a corpse in last year's Faces of Love at Theatre West was the indisputable highlight of Sol Saks' anthology.

Kaplan moved to California from New York in the 1940s hoping to work as a writer for radio drama and accepted a job as a stage manager, but was urged by William DeMille (older brother of Cecil B. DeMille) to concentrate on acting. Although the first of his many films was Francis (the Talking Mule) in 1949, his real break came when Katharine Hepburn saw him playing a servant with a Brooklyn accent in Molire's The Doctor in Spite of Himself at Hollywood's Circle Theatre on El Centro (now the Cast Theatre). Hepburn recommended him for a role in a film she was working on, George Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949).

In those early years, Kaplan said he learned an enormous amount from Charlie Chaplin, who was directing at the Circle Theatre.

"I loved Chaplin," he recalled. "I absorbed what he said like a sponge." During the period when he stage-managed for Chaplin, Kaplan remembers when the tough taskmaster blocked a scene and subsequently asked Kaplan how many steps it had taken to cross the stage. Kaplan quickly learned that to meet Chaplin's standards, he would have to take more precise notes.

Another clear instance of Chaplin's influence is Kaplan's philosophy: "I always try to tinge my comedy with a little sadness."

His breakthrough film roles led him to television, where he was a regular in the live sitcom Meet Millie (1952-'56). "If we had filmed the series," said Kaplan, "we'd all be multi-millionaires today." He's undoubtedly right, since a sister CBS series of the same era, I Love Lucy, used the then-revolutionary three-camera film technique, and later ascended to syndication heaven.

Kaplan loves to recall the numerous on-air boo-boos that made live television as exciting as theatre, like the time a devil's tail unexpectedly protruded from his costume a few acts early; because of the swift scene changes, he had taken to wearing costumes from all three acts, layered one on top of the other.

"Live television was like opening in New Haven, but there was no New Haven," he quipped.

Kaplan's 50-year career also has included voiceovers in animated series (such as Choo Choo in Top Cat), a multitude of series pilots, musical theatre (such as Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors), Chekhov plays, and plenty of Neil Simon comedies. He also writes radio drama and is a key member of California Arts Radio Theatre, which performs at the Cinegrill. He also finds time to be a political activist, lobbying for such causes as ending age discrimination in show business.

"I'm supposed to be retired," Kaplan said with a laugh, "but I'm constantly busy."

We frequently hear that the great vaudevillian comedians of yore are gone, and that their art died with them. Though Kaplan came along too late for vaudeville, his masterful comedy technique belongs right up there with the Durantes, the Keatons, and the Bennys.

And that lovable but irascible little tramp.

--Les Spindl