Halloween is in the air! And there’s little that can put some of us in that festively macabre spirit like the rantings of the great Theodore Gottlieb, a.k.a. Theodore, a.k.a. Brother Theodore. A fixture for decades on the Manhattan theatre scene, this one-man spook show – storyteller, actor and stand-up absurdist philosopher – was one of the pioneers of what is now called “performance art.”
Theodore ultimately gained a small degree of mainstream celebrity, as a curmudgeonly, hilariously contentious talk-show guest. But he’d been on the fringe of American show business since the 1940s, soon after he’d fled his native Germany and wound up in California, with few skills beyond a talent for chess. His long, peculiar list of credits ranges from porn movies to NPR radio drama, from serials to Tolkien to Tom Hanks.
If you’ve never heard of him – and even you have and want to relive his high points, as you should – here are ten highlights from a strangely great career…
1. David Letterman Guest
Theodore had been a frequent talk-show guest since at least the ’60s, grousing and grumbling to Dick Cavett, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and especially to Merv Griffin – it was Griffin who, noting his clerical or monastic appearance, had dubbed him “Brother.” But the generation who grew up on Stupid Pet Tricks and Top Ten Lists first became aware of him through his many appearances, in the ’80s, on Late Night With David Letterman.
In an interview included in the DVD To My Great Chagrin, Harlan Ellison reviles Letterman for what he, among many others, perceives as his rude treatment of Theodore as a stooge. Theodore obviously also saw it that way, and rightly so – on the show, Theodore was often seen building up one of his furious, feverish heads of verbal steam, and Letterman would deflate it with one of his dopey gibes. But patronizing though Letterman’s manner may have been, the contrast between the host’s and the guest’s personae made for good TV. Theodore found himself, however reluctantly, part of an unlikely comedy team – the prickly European sophisticate and the genially mischievous Midwestern philistine.
Besides, Theodore certainly gave back as good as he got, as in his version of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created David Letterman…that was for practice…and then He created the amoeba!“
2. Hitomu in The Black Widow
After he was released from Dachau (where the rest of his family died) in return for signing over his property to the Nazis, Theodore found his way to the U.S., reportedly in part through the intercession of family friend Albert Einstein (Theodore seemed on the verge of implying, at times, that he might have been Einstein’s love child). Penniless, he subsisted at first as a janitor at Stanford University, but in the years that followed, having no other life skills to speak of, the former rich kid tried his hand at acting, landing bit parts in such Hollywood b-product as The Lone Wolf in Mexico (1947) or the Orson Welles drama The Stranger (1946).
Probably the ripest movie role he ever got to do in those early days, however, was that of the villain Hitomu in Republic’s 13-chapter cliffhanger serial The Black Widow. The robed and turbaned Hitomu (the Japanese-sounding name, perhaps indicative of a script knocking around since the war years, hung oddly on Theodore) was the father of the title character, the femme fatale Sombra (luscious Carol Forman), who was helping her Dad in his quest for, what else, World Domination. In chapter after chapter, Hitomu appears on his throne in a puff of smoke, to confer with Sombra and her various henchmen, and dispenses his commands in the same sour, oh-what’s-the-use tones that would be familiar decades later to Letterman viewers.
3. A Nose (1966)
It’s Dick Cavett, also interviewed among the extras on the DVD of To My Great Chagrin, who flatly states the source of Theodore’s power as a performer: His voice. This is probably right – Theodore’s mad rubbery face played its part, no doubt, but that voice, with its low, defeated muttering that could erupt over a syllable or two into teeth-gnashing venom or deranged glee, was his true trademark.
The cartoon short A Nose, directed by children’s book illustrator Mordicai “Mordi” Gerstein, was scripted by Theodore – adapted from Gogol’s famous tale but reset, we are told, in “The City of Pittsburgh” in “The Year of Our Lord Thirteen-oh-Five.” Theodore also performs all the voices, and it’s an impressive demonstration of his range.
Theodore never had the onscreen career as a character actor that he probably should have, but he did get to do some good voice acting, none more memorable than providing the voice of Gollum in the 1977 Rankin-Bass TV version of The Hobbit. He reprised the role in their 1982 production of Return of the King, and also voiced the witch’s sidekick in the Rankin-Bass version of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. The Rankin-Bass Gollum is depicted here not as a wispy, squalid hermit but as a big, grayish-green frog-man with a laughably oversized head armed with jug ears. But it’s Theodore’s voice that issues from between those amphibian lips.
Tolkien buffs seem to have mixed feelings about these adaptations, but they seem, overall, to be regarded as interesting experiments that have been “replaced” as standard by the Peter Jackson versions. Still, not to take anything away from the brilliance, pathos and covert likability of Andy Serkis in the Jackson films, Gollum will always sound like Theodore in my head. His frantic rasping, with its wild, unpredictable modulations, really rings of long-since-accepted misery and madness, and really sounds like a voice from the pit, stripped of its sanity by centuries of isolation and desperate, possessive fear. Above all – and again, giving Serkis full marks – nobody wraps their voice around the word “precious” like Theodore.
5. Brother Theodore’s Chamber of Horrors
The tales in this 1975 anthology from Pinnacle Books were “selected by Brother Theodore and Marvin Kaye.” It’s hard to know who did most of the selecting, but in any case it’s a fine, offbeat collection – less familiar yarns from the likes of Poe, Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, as well as then-contemporary authors like Robert Bloch, William Kotzwinkle and Robert Shiarella.
The real treasures for Theodorians, however, are Kaye’s enthusiastic introduction, in which Theodore is described in phrases like “a diabolical, God-intoxicated apocalyptic messenger of null and void…a sinister, saintly pitch-black humorist…a philosopher of Gothic dimensions…” and the novella-length final story, “The Possession of Emmanuel Wolf,” a collaboration between Kaye and Theodore – most of the writing was Kaye’s, but the idea was Theodore’s, as was some of the phraseology. Wolf is a miserable, impoverished, frustrated old man who, possibly under the influence of a dybbuk, leads a bloody revolt of the elderly against the young. It’s almost impossible – intentionally – not to see and hear Theodore as the title character.
6. Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula
In the ’70s and ’80s, Theodore made appearances in a number of pretty skeevy low-rent movies, like Massage Parlor Hookers (1973) and the hilarious 1976 martial-arts/blaxploitation/horror hybrid Gang Wars. He also played Captain Carl Clitoris, a Nazi (!) equivalent of Quint, in Gums, the demented 1976 porn spoof of Jaws, which replaced the shark with an opportunistic, fellatio-minded mermaid.
Theodore is said to have wished he could become a fixture in horror movies. He does indeed seem like a natural fit, but maybe the closest he ever came to the genre in its traditional form was playing the toadying servant to Dracula (John Carradine) in the good-natured disco-horror spoof Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula, featuring the ravishing, if not terribly frightening, Nai Bonet in the title role.
He seems to have borrowed some of his dialogue from his own short story “The Possession of Emmanuel Wolf,” but some of his lines may have been improvised. Rather understandably, poor Theodore – it’s both the character’s name and the actor’s – suffers terribly from unrequited love for Nocturna. At one dramatic high point he laments “Am I never going to be her little yum-yum?“
7. The House by the Cemetery trailer
For some reason or other, the distributors of this 1981 Lucio Fulci horror effort (originally Quella Villa Accanto al Cimitero) thought it worth their while to hire Theodore to provide the voice-over for the American trailers and TV commercials. And in the case of at least one audience member, they were right, it paid off – I went to see, and indeed dragged my poor then-girlfriend to, this routine, unpleasant shocker strictly because I heard Theodore’s unmistakable delivery in the ad. The few sentences he speaks pack in all his skill at verbal atmospherics – doom-laden and angry on one level; wearily above-it-all on another.
I was an experienced enough moviegoer by then that I had no illusions that the great man would be in the film, or have anything else to do with it – although I held out the hope that he might be among the English dubbing voices (he wasn’t). But somehow his having lent his voice to its marketing conferred an extra measure of dignity upon the disreputable product.
He similarly lent an uncanny touch to the opening minutes of 1970’s Horror of the Blood Monsters (known by at least seven other titles in English alone), Al Adamson’s mashup of a lurid Filipino horror flick with some cheesy stateside footage. Theodore delivers a voice-over commentary on the subject of vampires.
It would have been a better movie if he’d just kept talking over the whole thing.
8. Who’s on First? With “Sammy Davis, Jr.”
Along with the theatre geeks and the Goth/horror fans, stand-up comedy was another community which claimed Theodore. He was, for instance, in Elayne Boosler’s 1985 TV special Elayne Boosler: Party of One, in which he romantically rhapsodized to the star “Elayne…you are lovely! Lovely beyond repair!”
He also appeared in a number of Billy Crystal’s TV shows, never more memorably than when he is teamed with Crystal’s Sammy Davis, Jr. on the classic wordplay routine “Who’s On First?” directed by Christopher Guest, in a prototype of his Corky St. Clair character from Waiting for Guffman. It’s a case of miscasting – Theodore’s short-fused frustration over his inability to elicit from his scene partner the name of the guy on first eventually explodes in violence, and leaves him stalking away, grumbling “Never a moment’s peace…never a moment’s peace…“
9. The ‘Burbs
Joe Dante’s cul-de-sac-bound comedy of 1989 chickens out in the end. If you recall, Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun are suspicious of the macabre-looking activities of their creepy neighbors the Klopeks, played by Henry Gibson, Theodore and Courtney Gaines (of Children of the Corn), and the movie seems to be making the point that nosy suburbanites can leap to conclusions and project all sorts of unsavory notions onto the folks next door simply for behaving differently.
But then (“spoiler alert!”) in the end, the movie does what satire should never do – it lets us off the hook. Turns out the weirdo neighbors aren’t red herrings, they really are murderous ghouls; the ‘burb-dwellers were justified in their paranoia. Despite this disappointment, though, The ‘Burbs is really quite funny, and it offered Theodore his largest and juiciest onscreen role in a big-studio feature. As the dour “Uncle Ruben,” he gets to deliver a number of lines in his trademark barks and abruptly-rising snarls. There’s a dream scene in which, dressed as some sort of high priest, he wails what should have been the movie’s moral: “Mind your own BUSINESS! Mind your own BUSINESS!” at Hanks, and there’s a blissful moment near the end, when he addresses Corey Feldman and friends, obviously using the most contemporary term he can come up with for cool kids, with “OK, hepcats, get off my car!“
10. To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore
This documentary is almost all Theodore. It’s a collage of clips of his performance material, often showing the same pieces dissolving from one vintage to another. There’s also off-the-cuff interview footage, some of it delivered through an eerily accurate-looking Brother Theodore puppet.
It’s not necessarily the ideal introduction to Theodore for the novice. The multi-source presentational technique, though fascinating, interferes with the rising rhythm of the performances. There are also admiring interviews, some by real big-shots like Woody Allen and Penn Jillette and Eric Bogosion and Joe Dante, but they’re only heard as unidentified voice-overs, not seen as talking heads, so you don’t always know who’s speaking.
That said, To My Great Chagrin, directed by Jeff Sumerel, is a must for Theodorians. It’s a strong, atmospheric dose of Theodore as a performer, and a fairly comprehensive biography of him, too, from his youth as a playboy in Germany, his imprisonment by and eventual escape from the Nazis, through the obscure ups and downs of his showbiz career to the near-suicidal depression of his later years to the exalted spiritual visions of his last days.
It’s informative, too – until I saw this film I didn’t know that Theodore was a celebrated ladies’ man, or that he even had a brief tenure on Broadway, in the cast of Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water. There are even glimpses of Holy Relics, like Theodore’s datebook and shopping lists, or the surprisingly detailed scripts he wrote for his talk-show appearances.
The DVD has nice extras, too – some oddball early short films, including his free adaptation of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” and fuller, better versions of the celebrity interviews.
OK, Happy Halloween, everybody. Always remember Theodore’s cheery words of encouragement: “As long as there is death, there is hope!“
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