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The Bootleg Files: Gabe Kaplan as Groucho

BOOTLEG FILES 729: “Gabe Kaplan as Groucho” (1982 television special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On VHS and LaserDisc.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Out of circulation for many years.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

In 1976, the producers of the popular sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” planned to have Groucho Marx make a cameo appearance in an episode called “Sadie Hawkins Day.” The script called for Gabe Kaplan to do an impression of Groucho, only to have the real Groucho come in and react to the unreasonable facsimile. Unfortunately, the 86-year-old comedy icon was in extremely frail health and it was decided that he would not go on camera. Instead, Groucho posed for publicity photographs with the show’s cast – but these were not released to the media and only surfaced many years later.

When “Welcome Back, Kotter” went off the air in 1979, Kaplan’s career began to lose steam. He starred in three forgettable B-grade films (“Fast Break,” “Nobody’s Perfekt” and “Tulips”) and a dismal sitcom that barely ran one season (“Lewis & Clark”). Perhaps recalling that Kaplan occasionally did Groucho imitations on his hit show, he was tapped by Arthur Marx (Groucho’s son) and Robert Fisher for a 1982 HBO production of their biographical play on Groucho’s life.

Although Kaplan’s star was fading by this point, the production was presented under the banner “Gabe Kaplan as Groucho.” Marx and Fisher’s work was presented as live theater, with a packed audience welcoming Kaplan’s arrival with a hearty ovation. By the end of the show, however, it was surprising that the audience wasn’t throwing tomatoes at Kaplan and the playwrights.

Much of the problem with the presentation was the harsh reality that Kaplan was neither an accomplished Groucho mimic nor a solid comic actor. Even on “Welcome Back, Kotter” his acting was strictly adequate – the selling point of the show was the strong ensemble and goofy scripts, not Kaplan’s acting chops. And when did Groucho imitations on the show, they were brief bits of mirth meant to create a comically sarcastic point.

When unmoored from the protective surroundings of his hit show, Kaplan’s deficiencies as a performer became magnified. Burdened with dreadful make-up that offered a grotesque parody of the Groucho persona, Kaplan’s body movements were too stiff to capture the free-wheeling vibrancy of the 1930s Groucho, and his flat line readings failed to recall the droll insouciance of the older Groucho whose career took on a second wind as the “You Bet Your Life” host and 1960s talk show staple. And when the show turns maudlin in depicting Groucho’s difficult final years, Kaplan’s attempts to capture the emotionally burdened comic were sincere but too weak to resonate.

The concept of the show was to have Kaplan’s Groucho offer a running monologue about the highs and lows of his life. Rather than present it as a one-man show, the playwrights added a piano-playing Chico Marx offering sharp observations on his sibling’s foils (played by Michael Tucci with a shaky approximation of Chico’s faux-Italian accent) and a series of female foils played by Connie Danese that merely set up Groucho’s one-liners. There is a harp with an empty chair next to Chico’s piano meant to symbolize Harpo Marx. But the absence of a physical occupant on the chair coupled with off-stage horn honking leads Kaplan’s Groucho to claim, “He’s a little disappointed we didn’t get an actor to play him” – and that is the funniest line in the show, which gives you an idea of what takes place.

Indeed, the show’s producers must have realized they had a flop on their hands during post-production. Despite having a live audience, the cameras never flash to the audience laughing during the production. Also, the high-decibel quality of the laughter on the soundtrack is much louder and merrier than the skimpy material would warrant – clearly, a laugh track was used to oomph things up.

Marx and Fisher would later polish up their play and offer it with Frank Ferrante as Groucho. This version was infinitely superior to the Kaplan production, playing Off-Broadway in New York and in London’s West End before being taped for PBS in 2001. Kaplan would turn his focus away from show business for other lucrative endeavors, occasionally returning to the material in the mid-2000s with appearances at several minor regional theaters around the country.

“Gabe Kaplan as Groucho” made little impact after its initial HBO broadcast – it showed up in the late 1980s on VHS and LaserDisc, but to date it has yet to have a DVD or Blu-ray release. An unauthorized posting of the production can be found on YouTube. Mercifully, YouTube is home to endless videos featuring the real Groucho at the multiple stages of his career – and the wise viewer would skip past the Kaplan imitation and instead have fun with the one and only Groucho.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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