Hooray for Frank Ferrante! The actor is once again reprising his award-winning role as funny man Groucho Marx in "Groucho: A Life in Revue," airing tonight on KCET.
Written by Groucho's son, Arthur Marx, "Groucho" follows the life of the most famous Marx Brother from the age of 15 to 85. Roy Abramsohn plays his brothers Chico and Harpo, while Marguerite Lowell takes on 10 different roles as the women in the lives of the brothers. Ferrante also directed this TV adaptation.
Ferrante, 37, began performing "Groucho" when he was just 23 years old. The play opened off-Broadway in 1986 and closed after 254 performances. "Groucho" then played in London for six months. Over the years, Ferrante has continued to tour the country with "Groucho," visiting the Pasadena Playhouse in 1989. Ferrante talked earlier this week about his life as Groucho.
Question: Did you ever get to see Groucho Marx in person?
Answer: I did when I was 13 years old, in 1976. I was a fan of Groucho Marx's since I was 9 years old. My father took me to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He was promoting a book--Groucho was 86 at the time. It was less than a year before he died. There were hundreds of people there to see Groucho Marx speak. He showed up late and the crowd kind of got shooed away, but I stuck to him like glue [until he got] to the podium. He gets to the podium and there he is with the beret on and he looked ancient. People start asking questions. [I think] my hero from "Duck Soup" is going to drop dead because he looks that weak. What happened was people started to ask him questions and you could see the gears start moving [in his brain]. Someone said, "Groucho, are you making any new Marx Brothers movies?" And he paused and said, "No. I'm answering stupid questions." The body was shot, but his mind was very alert.
The audience went crazy. I followed him to his limousine and I remember saying "Groucho is great" at the top of my lungs as just only a kid could do it. As an adult you can't imagine doing something so free, but that's what they represented. There was a certain abandon and freedom to the Marx Brothers. They just do what they want to do and say what they want to say. That's why, I think, they endure.
Q: You said you had been a fan of Groucho's since you were 9. What Marx Brothers movie turned you into a fan?
A: I was taught by nuns at St. Rita's in Sierra Madre--I am a local. It was a very strict upbringing. As a boy I saw Groucho Marx in "A Day at the Races." A neighborhood friend said you have to put on the TV set and see what's on . . . and there is Groucho Marx with Chico Marx. He's doing a scene where he's wisecracking and being irreverent. I see him making fun of Margaret Dumont who embodied society and authority. It hit me in a visceral level. I remember just being thrilled by this kind of wild man who was saying what I wanted to say. I was shy and he became an alter ego for me.
Q: How did you hook up with Arthur Marx for "Groucho: A Life in Review"?
A: Arthur Marx discovered me in college. He saw me put on a one-man show about his father at USC. It was in '85, just before my graduation. I figure I would end up being a waiter, so why not invite Groucho's son and daughter? And they showed up, as did Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote "Animal Crackers," "Coconuts" and "A Night at the Opera." It is a packed house and at the end I got a standing ovation. It changed my life. Arthur Marx said, "If I ever do a piece about my father I'd like to use you." And that is how the bigger show came about. Literally months after I graduated, we were in Kansas City in a dinner theater [doing the play] and a year after that we were in New York. I was 23 years old. I was off-Broadway for one year. I won the Theater World Award and after that we went to London for six months and we got the Olivier nominations for best show and best comedy performance. It was insane.
Q: Since you began performing Groucho when you were 23 and you're nearly 38, has your interpretation of him changed as you have gotten older?
A: Absolutely. As a kid he was an absolute idol. He was a father figure to me. He was my way of getting through the day. He was my adjustment to life.
In a way, researching this man's life took him off the pedestal. I had access to everyone surviving that knew him. I had access to letters that no one had read before. I developed a friendship with Arthur Marx, so things that you wouldn't read about I heard. I saw him as a man.
As I get older, I am also able to relate to the loss [depicted in the play]. I couldn't identify with separation or death [when I was 22 and 23].
* "Groucho: A Life in Revue" airs tonight at 10 on KCET. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).