Zeppo Marx, who starred with his brothers in several of their earlier comedy films, offered himself yesterday as an interim conservator to supervise the estate of his brother, Groucho Marx.
The appointment of an interim conservator has emerged as the immediate issue in the week-long court hearing between Groucho Marx's son, Arthur, and Groucho's long-time companion, Erin Fleming, over who should be named permanent conservator for the ailing star.
Fleming, who is in her 30s, has been accused in testimony that began last Friday of harassing and abusing the star.
Zeppo Marx's appointment was proposed yesterday by Fleming's attorney, Stanley Gold. Arthur Marx's attorney, J. Brin Schulman, suggested the appointment of Bert Granet, a former Desilu Studio executive.
Superior Court Judge Edward Rafeedie, who visited Groucho Marx at his home Wednesday night, continued the hearing until today. He made no comment about his 55-minute visit with Marx.
Talking to reporters yesterday, Zeppo Marx, 76, made clear his support for a continuation of Fleming's role as combination secretary and manager for his crippled, 86-year-old brother.
"I think she's the greatest girl in the world. I think Groucho's in love with her," Zeppo Marx said. "I think it would be detrimental if she were taken away from him."
The Marx case has emerged as one of Hollywood's saddest and most bizarre in recent years.
The tangled affair became public last Friday during what was supposed to be a routine hearing over the question of who was to become the court-appointed conservator for Marx, confiend to a wheelchair after an operation on his broken hip.
Marx's son, Arthur, a Los Angeles writer, tried to block the appointment of Fleming, the comedian's caretaker and companion since 1970, by alleging she was a threat to Marx's life.
The assertion was based largely on testimony given in Santa Monica Superior Court by private detective Norman L. Perle, who was originally hired by Fleming to examine Marx's mansion for bugging devices. Perle told the court he found a syringe and some pills, later identified by police as barbiturates in a drain pipe near the mansion.
Since then, several witnesses have appeared before Judge Rafeedie, accusing Fleming of harassing, taunting and abusing the comedian. Several others have tried to refute that testimony, stating that Fleming has been acting completely in Marx's interest.
While Hollywood buzzes over the affair, the Beverly Hills police, who are investigating the controversy, are playing it coyly.
"We really don't know what we have here," Police Capt. Jose Paez said. "We expect as soon as we have something we'll say whether there was any wrongdoing or not. We don't see anything now."
Even before the police investigation is complete, many of Groucho Marx's close friends are making it clear they don't believe the charges hurled at Fleming. "It's been carried out too far," said one long-time Marx pal. "It makes interesting reading but I find it rather ridiculous."
Close friends say it was Fleming, ironically, who may well be responsible for Marx's continuing to thrive all these years. She came to him seven years ago, friends report, when he was simply vegetating in his Beverly Hills estate.
"Everybody loves Groucho but he was nowhere seven or eight years ago," said Comedian Robert Shields, a 26-year-old protege of the film star "he was living at home like a lump on a log until Erin came along and things got better."
Starting in 1972, Fleming began taking a lead role in MarxS BUSINESS ENTERPRISES. She set up national conference tours, initiated book projects and began producing Groucho T-shirts. In 1974 Fleming helped Marx win the release of his film "Animal Crackers" from Universal Studios as well as an honorary Academy Award.
A business associate said that Fleming has made about 15 per cent on the gross from these various business ventures. But he stressed that her economic interests are clearly parallel to Marx's.
"Let's face it, man, she makes more money if he's alive," the Hollywood businessman said. "A Groucho Marx T-shirt sells better with a live Groucho than a dead one."
Even as the hearings go on, Fleming, who once reportedly turned down a New York man's marriage offer in order to stay with Groucho, remained at the comedian's side. A friend, who saw them together during the last few days, said the comic seemed hardly cognizant of the controversy swirling around him.
"I think Groucho's just not too interested in it," the friend reported. "Groucho's just interested in enjoying himself, watching TV and having fun. He's completely disinterested in this thing."
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] his mansion, his friends are displaying anger over what they see as an unfair smear against the comedian and his companion.
"Somebody's using somebody," suspects Robert Shields. "That's what this business is all about. Somebody is trying to use him. With all the pressures, I hope it doesn't hurt him any."