Friday, December 16, 2005

The Other Gollum

Ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive the shamelessly commercial title of today's blog, come Rimsky or Korsakov. For today I pay hommage, homage and just plain kudos to the late Brother Theodore, née Theodore Gottlieb, a self-described philosopher, metaphysician, and podiatrist who took hideous glee in being the gloomiest light on the TV talk show circuit.

For perhaps thirty years of his life, I was his fan; for perhaps two hours of his life, he was my friend.

I first encountered Theodore as a bizarre and genuinely frightening guest on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW and THE DAVID SUSSKIND SHOW; I was a mere seedling at the time, and the sardonic literary humor of his rants soared more or less over my branch, but he certainly made an impression. So it was with great welcoming pleasure that I noticed his resurfacing in the early 1980s as a frequent and somewhat more approachable guest on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, where he made a total of 16 appearances. For those rubberneckers among you who are murmuring politely amongst yourselves, "What in the bloody hell has this got to do with Gollum?", well, Theodore provided the voice of Gollum in two animated films, THE HOBBIT and THE RETURN OF THE KING. Theodore's career in films was short but nonetheless astonishing; he played an uncredited role in Orson Welles' THE STRANGER; he played all the roles in a little-seen tour de force short called THE MIDNIGHT CAFE; he played a deranged sailor in the porno JAWS rip-off GUMS; and his last screen appearance was in Joe Dante's THE 'BURBS. He was also a survivor of Dachau, the son of a wealthy publishing magnate who lost everything after the rise of Nazism -- a sobering fact that I add for the benefit of those who took his Hitleresque rants too seriously.

I'm in the process of converting to DVD-R as many Brother Theodore/Letterman appearances as I had the wisdom to record on Beta in my misspent youth. Last night, I watched about eight different segments in a row, an unparalleled display of sour comic effervescence that had my goosebumps doing the goose step. As for my usually loving wife, she stormed out of the living room in disgust after Letterman introduced Theodore for the third time, uttering the apt epithet "Oh, brother!" as she suddenly stood and took her beauty elsewhere. I was left alone to anoint my wounded vanity with the bitter butter of Theodore's gravelly voice. (Too bad for her, my dubbing resumes tonight!)

I know how envious you must be, so to share some of this divine grace with all of you -- in the spirit of Christmas, if you will -- I herewith present a Top Ten of Brother Theodore's most memorable quotes from LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (at least the ones I've dubbed over so far):

10. "It's dynamite. It's dynamite. Ladies and gentlemen, it's dynamite."

9. "You can train a rat. Yes, if you work for hours and days and months and years, you can train a rat. But when you're done, all you'll have is a trained rat!"

8. "I am sitting here sweating like a chunk of rancid pork."

7. "I am a pig with butterfly wings, a madman who thinks he is Brother Theodore. I am also the reincarnation of Lala Bargavann Shree Moogagoopaya -- a real swell joe."

6. "I see my dead aunt Marie swimming in the chicken soup."

5. "The female rat is a mess. She is a nudist and inordinately fond of companionship. She goes steady in no uncertain terms with anyone and everyone, without benefit of clergy."

4. "You were gracious enough to invite me here, and I was gracious enough to accept your invitation. I came here with an open heart and full of love... and then... all of a suddenly... without rhyme or reason... like a bolt from the blue... you pounce on me! You say "Bullshit!" And now I'll tell you something... I will not take it mamby-pambily. I will not take it wishy-washily. I will hit back, and I will. Hit. Back. Hard."

3. "As long as there is death, there is hope. All of our great spiritual leaders are dead. Moses is dead, Mohammed is dead, Buddha is dead, the Reverend Jim Jones is dead... and I'm not feeling too good myself!"

2. "Miss America makes Bella Abzug look like an airline hostess. My ideal woman is a rich widow of 13, like my Lolita... with her tiny, bouncing breasts... and her frenzied little behind... 90 pounds of submissive, quivering flesh!"

1. "In the nightmare of the dark, the hounds of madness bark! 'Woof'!"

I had the good fortune to contact Theodore on a couple of occasions, ostensibly for business but ultimately on a genuinely philosophic level. I obtained his home number from the Letterman offices because I wanted him to narrate a documentary I was hoping to direct for MPI Home Video. It was going to be an overview of eroticism in horror movies called HORROTICA. Nothing ever came of the project because I was inexperienced and didn't have the sense to work exclusively with clips MPI already owned, but the scholar in me prevailed and insisted on being true to my subject by trying to license clips from other companies. I called a lot of companies, majors and independents. When I budgeted the production, I took the figure to the company and its owners basically laughed in my face -- at least I think it was laughter I heard on the other side of that slammed door. But for all my folly, that project gave me an excuse to call Theodore and express my admiration... and my desire to employ him.

I told Theodore that I had long been an admirer of his talk show appearances, but it had been his voiceovers for various Hemisphere and Independent-International trailers that convinced me he was the right man for the job. He was initially wary of my subject matter, though, and gave me the one quote from our conversations that will always ring most indelibly in my ears (imagine him saying this in his voice, and you'll know just how it sounded): "I don't want to have to say those words, you see. I don't like them. I don't want to have to say FUCK and PISS and SHIT!" I almost died laughing, which pleased him, but he was also serious... and I assured him that he would be given a script that would aspire to be clever and intelligent and which would also welcome his input. I let him know that I took the genre seriously, not as some Golden Turkey venue, and that my documentary would be an appreciation of the art of horror and eroticism, as an outgrowth of these themes in literature.

With this, we began to talk as kindred spirits. I explained that I saw his contribution to the film as the element of sardonic humor that would make it less stuffy, and more of an amusing and outrageous viewing experience. Theodore confided to me some of his professional disappointments, which had made him wary of approaches like mine, adding "but you seem to be a good fellow." He invited me to come to New York and see one of his performances, which took place every weekend; I wish I had been able to do so. He had recently injured his leg and warned me that travelling to Chicago (where MPI was/is based) might be a problem, and that a traveling companion would have to accompany him if travel was essential. I believe we discussed his financial terms for two days of work, but I don't remember them.

The next and last time I spoke to Theodore was when I had to inform him that the project had fallen through. I didn't want to leave him hanging, as some others who had approached him and raised his hopes had done. He was pleased that I called him back, and to my surprise and gratification, he ended up consoling me... and we ended up talking about life and business and literature and philosophy for the better part of 90 minutes. I will always regret that I didn't record our conversations, especially this one, but I didn't anticipate how special they would be or that they would last so long. He loved to talk, and I loved talking with him. Unfortunately, this last call was predicated on the fact that we wouldn't be working together, and I had no other valid reason to call him; I imagined that I would only be wasting his time. In retrospect, I think he might have welcomed a friendship, but I was probably too much of a fan for that to work. It's difficult to be friends with someone whose work you admire to the point of being endlessly curious about it; most people get tired of talking about their work eventually. (I can remember David Cronenberg's wife Carolyn once chiding us because we seemed to have so little to say to one another outside of a Q&A. Strange, but true.)

Brother Theodore was one of the genuine lights of our world as he trod its crust in gloom. He died in 2001 at the incredible age of 94 -- which proves that he was exaggerating, but not by much, when he claimed on the Letterman show to be 83 or 86 years old. (As Letterman said, he could have passed for someone in his late 50s or early 60s.) I think Theodore would be amused by the fact that the IMDb reports his cause of death as "pneumoina," because he always stood in the avant garde of "sic" humor.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.