He was just a young drama student at USC in 1982, but Frank Ferrante was certain that he could impersonate Groucho Marx more convincingly than the actor he was watching could.
Ferrante had been a Groucho fan for a dozen years by then, after seeing "A Day at the Races" with a childhood friend.
It had partly been the comedy of the Marx Brothers, along with the timeless work of Jack Benny, W. C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy, that sparked Ferrante's desire to become an actor.
"I think their comedy is so freeing and so liberating, like they're children," Ferrante says. "They see a girl, and they chase her. They feel like playing football at a society party, and the Marx Brothers break into a football game. And I tapped into that early on."
The actor is still tapping into that singular source via his one-man show, "An Evening With Groucho," which stops at Cal State Northridge on Saturday and Sunday. It's the same material he performed as a USC senior after watching another actor's disappointing take.
Based on material originally prepared by the late actor John Bay, "Groucho" gathers one-liners and songs from Marx's films of the 1930s and mixes them with personal comments from subsequent interviews. And Ferrante ad-libs his own material during interaction with the audience.
"Everyone thinks they know how to do Groucho," says Ferrante, who lives in Hollywood. "He was very complicated. I've done it over 1,500 times in various productions, and I'm still learning from it.
"He was able to blend that great verbal humor with the physical activity. Sometimes he's coy, sometimes he's effeminate, sometimes he's just plain mean and rude. It's difficult also because people have expectations. People are used to that one-dimensional, cigar-waving imitation. I like to think I'm taking it more than an extra step, where I can even ad-lib in the character. To me, that's the joy. I don't think I could do this part if I weren't allowed that."
Ferrante will be accompanied by pianists Gus Pappelis on Saturday and Jim Furmstom on Sunday for such songs as "Hello, I Must Be Going" and "Hooray for Captain Spalding." About half of the 90-minute program includes music.
Back at his debut performance at USC, Ferrante had invited Marx's children Arthur and Miriam and screenwriter Morrie Ryskind (of the Marx films "Cocoanuts," "Animal Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera").
"It was really nerve-racking," Ferrante recalls. "It was my 22nd birthday when I put on the show. They loved it. I got a standing ovation. And it was Arthur Marx who said, 'If I ever do a show on my father, I would love to use you.' And he stuck to his word and, within three months, it led to this other project, where I play Groucho from age 15 to 85."
That four-character play, "Groucho: A Life in Revue," covered a wider span of the comedian's life--he died in 1977--and took Ferrante to stages in New York and London during the mid-1980s. The London Times wrote that his performance was "a re-creation accurate and rooted in character."
From Arthur Marx, who also wrote three biographies of his father, Ferrante says he "learned about what he was as a man."
"I was whipped to tackle that side of him, that there was a great deal of depth there. . . . He also had a very strong streak of insecurity. There was also great strength. He was a loyal friend; he was very sensitive. I read some beautiful letters that he wrote to his son and daughter that really showed this side of him, and that you can't just pick up in a magazine."
Ferrante is scheduled to return to the play later this year for runs in San Bernardino and Philadelphia.
Indeed, Ferrante says, even though he works regularly in other roles on stage and in television, his performances as Groucho dominate his career this year.
"There's some great interest in him again. I think it happens in cycles, and this is one of those cycles where he's hot. And it's more than my privilege to do it."
Where and When What: "An Evening With Groucho," starring Frank Ferrante, at Cal State Northridge Campus Theater, 18111 Nordhoff St. Hours: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Price: Saturday, $18 to $20 general admission, $14 to $16 students; Sunday, $12 to $16 general admission, $8 to $12 students. Call: (818) 885-3093.