Over the course of the last 40 years, I got to know some of the great comedy writers for television and film. From Leonard Stern (Honeymooners, Get Smart, Abbott & Costello), Hal Kanter (Julia, Jimmy Stewart Show, Chico and the Man etc.) Irving Brecher (The Marx Brothers, The Life of Riley), Larry Gelbart (MASH, Caesar’s Hour), Madelyn Pugh Davis (Lucy, Alice etc.) and many others. My good friend Austin “Rocky” Kalish (Gilligan’s Island (co-creator), All in the Family, Good Times, etc.) became a mentor to me and introduced me to many of his friends who were comedy writing legends. One of those friends was Arthur Marx who besides writing some great biographies wrote television shows (Mickey! (Mickey Rooney) , My Three Sons, Alice and many others.
As I got to know Arthur, who had a very dry wit, I learned that he thought very highly of his father- the one-the only- Groucho and had some great stories including when his father attempted to sue his son for writing a biography of him. Arthur, who passed away nearly six years ago in 2011, was helpful in sharing notes from his book on Mickey Rooney for us.
Elaine Woo wrote this obituary for Arthur on April 14, 2011 in The Jewish World Review:
“Marx was the only son of Groucho, who, with his exaggerated eyebrows, mustache and mastery of the lightning-quick, ad-libbed putdown, was the most prominent member of the Marx Brothers.
“His father was never far from him,” said actor Frank Ferrante, who portrayed the iconic comedian in the 1986-87 off-Broadway production of “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” written by Marx and Robert Fisher. “Groucho had a long shadow. But Arthur had a career on his own, which was quite impressive.”
Following his father’s advice, Marx became a writer instead of an actor, producing a novel and several screenplays before concentrating on scripts for such popular television shows as “McHale’s Navy” and “My Three Sons” and writing biographies of such classic Hollywood figures as Samuel Goldwyn, Red Skelton, Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney.
Although he carved out his own career, “his favorite topic always seemed to remain his dad,” said author Robert S. Bader, a Marx Brothers historian.
In addition to the off-Broadway play, which Marx also directed, he wrote the books “Life With Groucho” (1954); “Son of Groucho (1972), the cover of which has an illustration showing Marx emerging from Groucho’s head; and an updated, combined version of the first two volumes called “My Life With Groucho” (1992). He also mentions his father in “Not as a Crocodile” (1958), a collection of stories about his family, and collected candid photos of him in “Arthur Marx’s Groucho: A Photographic Journey” (2003).
His father and uncles inspired a 1970 Broadway play, “Minnie’s Boys,” also co-written with Fisher.
Marx’s books portrayed his father as a man who was stingy with his emotions and who once threatened to sue him. In his father’s declining years, Marx became a central figure behind a successful legal battle to wrest back control of Groucho’s affairs from his late-in-life companion, Erin Fleming.”
Born in New York City on July 21, 1921, Marx was the second of three children of Groucho and his first wife, Ruth Johnson. As a child he often went on the road with his father and uncles Harpo, Chico and Zeppo when they were playing vaudeville. He moved with his family to Los Angeles in the early 1930s.
Marx attended the University of Southern Californiafor a year before joining the Coast Guard in 1942 and serving in the Philippines during World War II. After the war, he went to work at MGM as a reader. His earliest screenwriting credits include several films in the “Blondie” series, including “Blondie in the Dough” (1947).
He made his debut as a novelist in 1950 with “The Ordeal of Willie Brown,” drawn from his experiences as a top-ranked junior tennis player in the 1930s and early 1940s. Groucho “recommended that I tear it up,” Marx recalled in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
His father hated his next book, “Life With Groucho,” even more. Father and son stopped talking and communicated through lawyers.
When the book was accepted for serialization by the Saturday Evening Post, Marx gave his father a set of galleys. Groucho filled it with corrections and handed it back to his son. “I said, ‘Thanks, I’ll take care of this’ and on the way out of the house, I dropped them in the trashcan,” Marx recalled in a 2003interview. He said his father never knew the difference and ended up promoting the book on his popular TV quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.”
None of the biographies he wrote were authorized, Marx said, because “celebrities never tell the truth, at least not the whole truth.” He wanted the freedom to show some of their warts, as in “The Secret Life of Bob Hope” (1993), in which he alleged that the popular, long-married entertainer had “made love to more beautiful women than Errol Flynn, my Uncle Chico and Bing Crosby combined.”
Marx co-wrote with Fisher several Hope movies, including “Eight on the Lam” and “I’ll Take Sweden.” With Fisher he also wrote the 1965 hit Broadway stage comedy “The Impossible Years,” which starred Alan King and was adapted for a 1968 film that starred David Niven.
He began writing for television in 1960 with an episode of “General Electric Theater.” He worked steadily in the medium for the next three decades, writing for such top-rated sitcoms as “Petticoat Junction,” “Love, American Style” and “Alice.”
He said he regretted not being close to his father at the end of Groucho’s life, but he believed he had gained the old man’s respect.
“My father went to Broadway to see my play ‘The Impossible Years,’ ” he told The Associated Press a dozen years after Groucho’s death in 1977. “I had of course told the ticket girl to give him free tickets. The girl started to give him a hard time and he said, ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’m Arthur Marx’s father!’ “
His first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son Andy, Marx is survived by his second wife, Lois; son Steve; a stepdaughter, Linda; two sisters, Miriam and Melinda; and four grandchildren.”
Here is an interesting story from the Los Angeles Times in 1995:
The Truth Hurts : Biographer Marx Expects Lies From Stars–Even Dad Groucho–So Gets Facts Elsewhere
As a biographer of Hollywood celebrities, Arthur Marx knows how hard it is to get to the truth.
“Celebrities never tell the truth,” he says, “at least not the whole truth.”
Marx regards their reticence as an occupational hazard. His own father, the late Groucho Marx, once threatened to sue him to stop publication of “Life With Groucho,” his intimate biography of the ad-lib master.
“He had a problem with that book even though it was very complimentary,” Marx says.
The 74-year-old author, who appears tonight at the Curtis Theatre in Brea in “An Evening With Groucho and Son,” has written seven star biographies, two novels, a collection of short stories, a Broadway play and an autobiography.
Marx has detailed the lives and careers of Red Skelton, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, childhood friend Mickey Rooney, Sam Goldwyn and, last year, Bob Hope–all without the cooperation of his subjects.
“It’s not so much that I didn’t want their cooperation, but I knew they would lie,” he said in a telephone interview from his Bel Air home, not far from the Beverly Hills neighborhood of his youth.
He was reminded of their willingness to sanitize and fudge by a recent interview he did with Jack Nicholson for the cover story of a posh magazine.
“The magazine asked for a profile with details about his life. So I kept saying, ‘Tell me how you got started.’ He didn’t tell me much. I said, ‘Tell me about your parents.’ He didn’t tell me much of that either.
“When I finally got through with him, I had a lot of stuff on tape, but it wasn’t what I needed. I had to find an unauthorized biography that came out last year. All the stuff he wouldn’t tell me about–being an illegitimate child and not knowing his ‘sister’ was really his mother–was in it. Yet he said he was trying to be honest with me.”
Marx was always encouraged to be a writer by Groucho. “He didn’t want me to be an actor, and he wanted to be a writer himself,” Marx said. “He was always looking over my shoulder.”
Even so, when Marx wrote his father’s biography, his usually helpful father was less than enthusiastic.
Marx tended to show Groucho what he was writing. But with “My Life With Groucho”–first published in 1954, updated and enlarged in 1992–he didn’t let him see the manuscript until the Saturday Evening Post had bought it for serialization.
“When I did show it to him, figuring he would want to correct it, he got mad,” Marx said. “He went to his lawyer and everything. He threatened to sue me to stop it. He scared the hell out of me. I had to hire my own lawyer to bluff him out of it.”
Groucho was mollified when Marx’s publisher sent him a set of galleys for final corrections.
“He made some minor changes–nothing major,” Marx recalled. “He was just being a father. I threw his galleys into the wastebasket. He never knew the difference.”
Marx’s maxim about celebrities withholding the truth was proved to him for the first time by his own father.
It wasn’t until after “Life With Groucho” was published that Marx learned, for example, that a lot of his father’s ad-libs on “You Bet Your Life,” Groucho’s popular TV quiz program of the ’50s, were written for him.
Marx discovered that only when a friend told him years later that he’d been offered the job of writing the ad-libs.
“My father never told me that himself, even though he had helped me out with plenty of information,” Marx explained. “In the early days of that show, lots of the contestants were deadly. They took the contestants right out of the audience. As good as he was at ad-libbing, he couldn’t get good jokes off of them.
“So they finally devised the idea of interviewing contestants first. The writers would put down [the contestants’] funny remarks on paper, and the best contestant would get on the show. My father would have a copy of what they were going to say. It was like a transcript. He knew ahead of time what they were going to say.”
Marx was the proverbial starving artist when his first book–“The Ordeal of Willie Brown,” a novel about the amateur tennis circuit–was published.
“Why don’t you become a director?” his father advised him. “You don’t have to have any talent to be a director.”
Was Groucho kidding?
“No, he believed it,” Marx said. “He didn’t think his directors were any good. He didn’t like Leo McCarey, who did ‘Duck Soup,’ or Sam Wood, who did “A Night at the Opera.”
Both pictures were among the Marx Brothers’ best comedies, despite Groucho’s opinion of Wood and McCarey, and were made during the early ’30s at the peak of their Hollywood career.
Did Groucho have a favorite picture?
“He thought ‘A Night at the Opera’ was the best one,” Marx said. “He liked ‘A Day at the Races’ next. He thought ‘Duck Soup’ was funny, but he was disillusioned with it because it didn’t make any money.” Lengthy clips from “Duck Soup” will be shown at the Curtis Theatre, along with others from “Horse Feathers” and “Monkey Business,” as well as the screening of a full-length comedy that hasn’t been announced.
* Arthur Marx appears for “An Evening With Groucho and Son” tonight at the Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. 7 p.m. $10.50. (714) 990-7722.