Dick Cavett remembers his friendship with Groucho Marx, from the moment they met to the “magical hours” they spent together on television.
A few thoughts on a favorite subject:
Good news. The expert author and producer/director of first-rate, much acclaimed film and television, Robert S. Bader, has put together for the American Masters series a lovely film about my cherished time with my dear friend Groucho Marx, which also serves as a splendid collection of prized moments from his appearances on my shows. Not to be missed.
When he was there, I sat on my set, on air, pinching myself that there was nothing but air between me and this talented, funny, brilliant man. When I saw my first Marx Brothers movie as a kid in Nebraska, no deity or palm reader could have convinced me that “the crazy man with the painted-on mustache will be your friend.”
I don’t have sufficient writing talent to make clear just what getting to know and spend magical hours with Groucho Marx meant to me. “Thrill of a lifetime” sounds hackneyed, but it applies here.
Upon first sighting him in 1961, I had an instant physical reaction — a sort of nerve shock, a galvanic skin response.
It happened at the funeral for the great George S. Kaufman, incomparable playwright, director and television wit. He was Groucho’s god, and the overflow crowd wowed little Dickie Cavett. By chance I lived across from the legendary Frank E. Campbell funeral parlor, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which served as the next to last stop for so many celebrities. It seemed all the entertainment world was there. I spotted Groucho just as a woman stepped up to him and said, “Hello, Groucho. I’m [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright] Edna Ferber.” Toto, I thought, we ain’t in Nebraska anymore.
I brazenly trailed Groucho as he left the event. It was a beautiful, warm spring day, and as Groucho stopped at the corner of 5th Avenue and East 81st Street, I struck. Not very original, I know, but I said, “Hello, Mr. Marx. I’m a big fan of yours.” Groucho responded. “Well, if it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan.”
That started us down the sidewalk. We chatted as I floated along beside him, and when we reached the Plaza Hotel, he said, “You seem like a nice young man, and I’d like you to have lunch with me.” Naturally, I cancelled all my other pressing engagements.
And so, it started with a stroll and a hilarious lunch with “The One, The Only….”
Walking home, I wondered if the best part of my life might be over. What could equal this? What did, of course, were years of times together: dinners at his home, going to movies and plays together, secretly hoping friends would happen by and see us together.
One night in Hollywood, I drove Groucho and his great friend – songwriter Harry Ruby of “Hello, I Must Be Going” fame – home from a late party.
(It may have been the one where Groucho was overheard saying to the hostess, when she caught him sneaking out early: “I’ve had a wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”) As we drove on Sunset Boulevard, Groucho pointed to a large apartment building. Straining to hear as many words as I could from the driver’s seat, I caught this jewel from a wonderfully curved mind:
Groucho: “That’s where your son lives, Harry.”
Harry Ruby: “No it isn’t, Groucho. My son lives miles from here.”
Groucho: “Your son doesn’t live in that building?”
Harry Ruby: “No, Groucho”
Groucho: “That’s funny. I ran into him yesterday and he never mentioned not living there.”
I feel good when people have thanked me for “bringing Groucho back” to his devoted fans. And introducing him to the young who were born so long after we all first treasured him (and we still do).
I’ve decided that the most cherished part of those golden years has been when people who see the shows we did together or the “Groucho & Cavett” film say, “It becomes clear that Groucho developed a real affection for you.”
That’s enough for me.