10 Bizarrely Great Manifestations of Brother Theodore

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 at 6:00 am

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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

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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.

4. Gollum

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

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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.


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