Marvin Kaplan, a comedic character actor — immediately recognizable for his thick glasses, thicker eyebrows and Brooklyn accent — who had been a fixture of TV and movies since his scene-stealing film debut in “Adam’s Rib” with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, died Aug. 25 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 89.
He had a heart ailment, said his business manager, Elizabeth Holt.
Mr. Kaplan endeared himself to millions of CBS viewers in the 1970s and 1980s as Henry Beesmeyer, the telephone repairman who frequented Mel’s Diner in the sitcom “Alice.” It was one of scores of roles he played in nearly seven decades as an actor — a career that he jokingly described as a “detour” from his plan to be a playwright. He credited the change of plans almost wholly to a kindly intervention by Hepburn.
Mr. Kaplan had struck out in the late 1940s for Los Angeles, where he happened upon an acting role in a play by the French comedic master Molière. One night, after attending the show, Hepburn stopped backstage to greet the cast. Mr. Kaplan had incongruously played his part, he later told the Star-News of Wilmington, N.C., as “a peasant with a Brooklyn accent.”
“You’re Marvin Kaplan, aren’t you?” Hepburn inquired, according to an account on Mr. Kaplan’s website. “Have you done a lot of work?”
Ravished by her presence, Mr. Kaplan somehow found the wherewithal to admit that the part was his first.
“Well, you were awfully good,” she replied.
“Changed my whole life,” Mr. Kaplan later told an interviewer, Kliph Nesteroff. “I didn’t think I’d ever get a job as an actor because I’m not a very handsome person. I didn’t think I wanted to be an actor. She decided I should be.”
Soon after, Mr. Kaplan was called to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios for a meeting with director George Cukor, who offered him a role in Hepburn’s latest movie, “Adam’s Rib” (1949). She and Tracy co-starred as married lawyers who spar in the case of a woman who has shot her husband, and the witty script was supplied by screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Mr. Kaplan was cast as a court reporter.
“You repeat this very emotional testimony in a dull, flat voice,” Cukor instructed.
“I have a dull, flat voice,” Mr. Kaplan replied.
“I noticed,” he said Cukor responded.
In his scene, Mr. Kaplan blankly requests the spelling of “Pinky,” a term of endearment between the prominent lawyers that they allow to slip out in court.
Thereafter, despite being uncredited in the film, Mr. Kaplan became ubiquitous on the large and small screens. In director Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), he and actor Arnold Stang play gas station attendants in a memorable sequence in which Jonathan Winters’s character destroys a service station.
Mr. Kaplan had parts in films including “Francis” (1950), a comedy about a talking Army mule, the baseball comedy “Angels in the Outfield” (1951), “The Nutty Professor” (1963) starring Jerry Lewis, “A New Kind of Love” (1963) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, “The Great Race” (1965) with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk, and “Freaky Friday” (1976) with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster.
His earliest television roles included the part of Alfred Prinzmetal, an aspiring poet and composer, on “Meet Millie,” the 1950s CBS sitcom that began as a radio show. In the 1960s and 1970s, he appeared on “Petticoat Junction,” “Gomer Pyle: USMC,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Mod Squad.” More recently, he cropped up on shows such as “ER” and “Becker.”
Marvin Wilbur Kaplan was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 24, 1927. His father was a doctor.
The younger Mr. Kaplan received a bachelor’s degree in English from Brooklyn College in 1947, then studied theater at the University of Southern California. Knowing that Mr. Kaplan hoped to be a writer, department head William C. de Mille (brother of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille) advised Mr. Kaplan to drop out and seek work as an assistant stage manager.
“See what actors do to writers’ lines!” said de Mille, who also had long experience in theater and moviemaking.
The radius of his job search was limited by his lack of an automobile, Mr. Kaplan told Nesteroff. But he found work as the stage manager of a Los Angeles staging of the melodrama “Rain,” directed by Charlie Chaplin. Mr. Kaplan’s first acting role was in the Molière play that led him to Hepburn.
Mr. Kaplan did extensive voice acting work, including as Choo Choo in the 1960s series “Top Cat” and as several characters in “Garfield and Friends” in the 1990s.
He never retired. In recent years he wrote the screenplay for a comedic film, “Watch Out for Slick” (2010), and executive produced “Lookin’ Up,” a comedy starring Steve Guttenberg now in production.
He was a past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and advocated on behalf of aging actors who must contend with Hollywood’s fascination with youth.
“They portray us two steps from humility and five steps from the grave,” he told the Associated Press in 2001. “It’s a vicious slander and we don’t deserve it.”
His marriage to Rosa Felsenburg ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister.
Mr. Kaplan credited Hepburn not only with starting his career, but also with rescuing it from an early death. Once, on the set of “Adam’s Rib,” he realized that he was wearing the wrong clothes for a required shot. As he raced back to his faraway dressing room, he crossed paths with Hepburn. She later spoke up for him when the director demanded to know where the young man had gone.
“He probably dropped dead,” she said. “He was running so fast to his dressing room.”
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