Growing up watching sitcoms with my family as a kid and there was a show that introduced John Travolta (1954-) to the world entitled Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79). We used to watch it every week and the star and one of the creators of the show was Gabe Kaplan (1945-). He starred as a teacher named Mr Kotter who returns to teach at his old high school.
The series had the catchphrase “up your nose with a rubber hose”, which was based on the ruder line “up you hole with a Mello-Roll”. A Mello-Roll being some sort of ice cream cone. In fact, Kaplan released an album entitled Up Your Nose during the run of the series which captured some of his stand-up. It also explains the genesis of the series Welcome Back, Kotter.
Listen to the original Up Your Nose and the tv series show and you become aware that Kaplan is kind of Marx Brothers oriented… There is mention of Groucho Marx on the album and the series itself kind of follows an early Marx Brothers sketch entitled Fun in High Skule. The students named The Sweathogs in Kotter were kind of based on the Marx Brothers as the dumbest class in school although their criminal activity was silly rather than to be taken seriously.
Anyway, the series ended, none too soon for Travolta, who had Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) under his belt. As for the other Sweathogs played by Ron Palillo (1949-2012 heart attack), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (1953-) and Robert Hegyes (1951-2012 heart attack) there would be no more great success.
But apart from Travolta, it was probably Kaplan who went on to the greatest success albeit offscreen as a financial speculator and investor and then as a champion poker player. His fortune is estimated to be around $50 million. A mere drop in the ocean compared to Travolta’s reported $250 million.
But it is a couple of Kaplan’s movies – he only starred in around three – as well as a filmed stage performance that I am really concerned with. No, they’re not great movies but they are strangely likeable. They include the comedy Nobody’s Perfekt (1981) about a few mentally ill misfits and the black comedy from Canada entitled Tulips (1981), which looks at the suicidal wishes of a couple of depressives. That comedies are made out of mental illness and depression shows that both of these movies were ahead of their time.
Then there is Kaplan’s stage performance as Groucho Marx in the obviously titled Gabe Kaplan as Groucho (1982) which is the culmination of Kaplan’s acting career and his love of the Marx Brothers.
Nobody’s Perfekt – and neither is the movie – kids itself as the title card comes up with the frame of the film itself kicking itself imperfectly out of frame and back again. Kaplan plays a guy with recurring amnesia. He can be driving and then suffer an attack at a stop sign and forget how to drive a car. Alex Karras (1935-2012 kidney failure) is the second of the trio of men who doesn’t go anywhere without his mother… it’s just his mother is an invisible figment of this imagination. The third character is played by Robert Klein (1942-) who has three distinct personalities.
These include his own as well as Rocky, who is a tough guy who dresses in a black suit and hat and sounds like James Cagney (1899-1986 heart attack) while the third personality named Kitty smokes too much and sounds like Bette Davis (1908-89 breast cancer). When Kitty’s personality takes over after Rocky dresses in his suit, she remarks with disdain, something like: “I’m dressed like Judy Garland!” You see when Klein’s character was born, it was in the front row of a movie theatre when Cagney’s The Public Enemy (1931) and Davis’s The Petrified Forest (1936) were playing.
Nobody’s Perfekt is based on a novel by the Australian born writer Tony Kenrick (1935-). Apart from the writing the script for this movie, he was the source material for the much-maligned Madonna (1958-) and Sean Penn (1960-) movie Shanghai Surprise (1986). I watched it again recently and while it is a well-made movie it has nothing happening in it of much interest. The characters the two stars play don’t bring the screenplay to life although there are some nice songs by George Harrison (1943-2001 lung cancer).
Writer Kenrick’s work has been compared to Donald E Westlake (1933-2008 heart attack) as both are authors of comedy heists… While Kenrick is more farcical as in the case of Nobody’s Perfekt, we mustn’t forget Westlake’s similarly farcical Bank Shot (1974) which was based on one of his novels and stars George C. Scott. Kenrick’s screenplay for Nobody’s Perfekt was based on his novel Two for the Price of One published in 1974.
Writer of the screenplay for Bank Shot, Wendell Mayes (1918-92) was hardly noted for his comedy screenplays – he wrote Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Death Wish (1974) – and he hated the tone of Bank Shot under the direction of Gower Champion (1919-80 blood cancer).
Kenrick meanwhile had several books published over the years which were optioned as films but it was Nobody’s Perfekt which was the first to come to fruition. Others optioned but not made included The Seven Day Soldiers to be directed by Robert Aldrich (1918-83 kidney failure) and starring Steve McQueen (1930-80 mesothelioma) as well as Glitterbug to star Bruce Willis (1955-).
Nobody’s Perfekt has our imperfect heroes take on City Hall in Florida when Kaplan’s rust bucket of a car is totalled when it hits a pothole. With compensation not forthcoming due to certain regulations about the reporting of potholes, they plan to steal a cannon and aim it at the Mayor’s mansion for a ransom of less than a thousand dollars. This despite the fact they city would be willing to pay half a million!
I haven’t read the book and the film isn’t a laugh riot but the misfit characters show they are perhaps not really that insane but it is the system which is perhaps even more insane. The original line of “Nobody’s perfect”, incidentally, comes from the Florida set classic comedy Some Like it Hot (1959).
The film improves with each viewing if you are drawn to it and while it is obvious Kaplan will never be an A-list star or actor, he performs well under the circumstances and considering the shortcomings of the script… Kenrick never wrote another one.
But back to Bank Shot which is also a silly heist, it has George C. Scott at his most amusing as he plays a lisping hardened convict who tells us the reason why they put Saltpeter in the prison food. It is there he is visited by his lawyer in the phony moustache and told of a possible bank heist. So Scott breaks himself out of jail in spectacular fashion using an oversized mining truck.
One of the joys of Bank Shot is Joanna Cassidy (1945-) and her ripsnorter of a laugh. She is best known for playing a replicant in Blade Runner (1982) and was excellent in a dramatic role in the Nick Nolte flop film Under Fire (1983).
“Coffee, tea or me?,” asks Cassidy in hostess fashion to Scott who doesn’t think he’s up to the invitation.
Critics call the main characters in Nobody’s Perfekt and Bank Shot losers, but if they are, they are strangely sympathetic.
For the heist in Bank Shot, they have the crims actually tow away a bank. It’s old fashioned humour of the type which amused viewers of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and it has a good cast which includes Sorrell Booke (1930-94 colorectal cancer) who was Boss Hogg in the original Dukes of Hazzard tv series, Don Calfa (1939-2016) who was prominent in Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Clifton James (1920-2017 complications of diabetes) who was the sheriff in the Bond film Live and Let Die (1973).
While the Westlake heist of Bank Shot is better, I prefer the pale imitation of Kenrick’s Nobody’s Perfekt for some reason. Even the freeze frame at the end of Nobody’s Perfekt isn’t any good but I forgive it.
Bank Shot is adapted from one of Westlake’s Dortmunder novels of which the Robert Redford (1936-) film The Hot Rock (1972) was also based. There were fourteen Dortmunder novels and about a dozen short stories.
Interestingly, one of the novels is titled Nobody’s Perfect. Other movies in the Dortmunder series include the Gary Coleman (1968-2010 subdural hematoma after a fall caused by a seizure) movie Jimmy the Kid (1982) and the Christopher Lambert film Why Me? (1990). Another flop film is What’s the Worst that Could Happen? (2001) starring Martin Lawrence (1965-) and Danny De Vito (1944-).
I don’t know why they kept on making Dortmunder movies as none of them made pots of money. The movie of The Hot Rock is directed by Peter Yates (1929-2011 heart failure) of Bullitt (1968) fame and written by William Goldman (1931-2018 colon cancer) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) fame.
Like Bank Shot it opens in a prison. “My heart wouldn’t be in it,” says Robert Redford as Dortmunder when asked to go straight upon leaving the joint. The laughs in The Hot Rock are far from as broad as in Bank Shot which is not surprising with Redford in the lead but the jokes are there as the criminals plan to steal a jewel named the Sahara Stone from the Brooklyn Museum.
The heist, with Redford’s brother in law played by George Segal (1934-), is diversionary and almost goes off as planned… except that escaping from the scene of the crime they drop the rock somewhere.
The head of the bad guys works at the United Nations Building and location and direction-wise The Hot Rock will beat Bank Shot any day. There’s even a shot of the World Trade Centre in late construction.
“That stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go… either I get it, or it gets me,” says Redford as The Hot Rock slips through his fingers a second time. Will Redford get the rock? Well, he certainly goes to a lot of trouble in this slick if not too remarkable movie.
As a fan of Christopher Lambert (1957-) and such films of his as Knight Moves (1992) and Nirvana (1997), I was disappointed to find that Why Me?, which is about getting a hold of a giant ruby from the Byzantine Empire, isn’t terribly amusing or thrilling. And once more the end freeze frame sucks. It’s almost a total bust and I don’t like to say that of many movies.
Director Gene Quintano (1946-) is a better writer than he is a director as he wrote Jean-Claude Van Damme’s (1960-) Sudden Death (1995) while Why Me? scriptwriter David Koepp (1963-) would scale the heights with a couple of Indiana Jones movies. Who would have thought? Even Quintano’s disdained Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983), which is Indiana Jones inspired, is far more fun as well.
But I’ve totally strayed off course here as we look at what I think is a cult movie and that is Gabe Kaplan’s last starring theatrical feature – Tulips (1981).
The film starts with a very dated 1980s disco type song opening the credits as Kaplan looks to end his life by jumping off a bridge… but he gets cold feet as Bernadette Peters (1948-) is so attached to her analyst she holds onto his car on roller skates as he drives across the bridge… only to knock Kaplan over the railing. Yes, it’s a comedy drama romance.
“Get a hair transplant, it would be good for your self-image,” Kaplan’s psychiatrist tells him about his near miss at suicide.
Kaplan helped write the script for Tulips but it is credited to Fred Sappho who is really Henry Olek (1942-) whose other writing credits are minimal.
Anyway, Kaplan goes to a disco with is new hair transplant and boringly proceeds to chat up a woman. She says upon being asked back to his apartment: “Why don’t we come round and connect the dots on your head?”
Al Waxman (1935-2001 during heart surgery) who plays Kaplan’s brother is another uncredited writer on the film who visits him in hospital after he tries to gas himself as a result. It’s obviously not the first time Kaplan has tried suicide.
“I can’t assimilate. I’m too different,” says Kaplan. “I can’t communicate with anyone.” He goes on further with: “It never heals, it never gets better.” He has no friends, especially women: “I can’t relate.”
Tulips is certainly about depression and it was a brave group of filmmakers to tackle the subject as a comedy back in the early 1980s. Kaplan plays the tuba, which is probably annoying, and is super-intelligent but this only serves as a wedge in his life.
Peters character tries to hold it together as well as hold down a job. She is a talented actress and comedienne who has hardly worked this century in theatrical movies. She is a celebrated stage actress instead.
The same year as Tulips, Peters made another cultish film entitled Heartbeeps (1981) which also starred tragic comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-84 lung cancer) in his only leading film role. Kaufman was the subject of the Jim Carrey film Man on the Moon (1999) and an R.E.M. song of the same name.
Heartbeeps is about a couple of household robots that run off together and it is very likeable despite its reputation which has critics call it a “misfire” and a “leaden fantasy”. Tulips is just as badly regarded.
Peters is probably best remembered to those who saw her as Lily St. Regis in the film musical Annie (1982). She won a Golden Globe for the near forgotten movie version of Pennies from Heaven the same year she did Tulips and Heartbeeps.
Bernadette is saved by Kaplan from an exploding car much to her chagrin as she was trying to kill herself.
“I’m not a Samaritan, I’m from New York,” Kaplan complains.
However, they get involved, despite the fact that Kaplan has taken a contract out on his own life with a gangster named Avocado.
The sound on the version I’ve got on VHS is tinny in this Montreal set movie which is also panned and scanned. It was video cassette fodder in the 1980s and I caught up with it only in the last decade as I had been put off by its reputation.
Avocado is played by Henry Gibson (1935-2009 cancer) who was popular in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In from 1968 to 1971.
Again, the protagonists, like the ones in Nobody’s Perfekt are described by critics as losers in the nastiest sense because of their circumstances… the outsider as loser, the depressed and suicidal as loser. It really is cruel, dismissive and derogatory.
“What pushed you over the edge?,” asks Kaplan.
“It’s not a what, it’s a who,” Peters answers.
They learn they have a psychiatrist in common and a bad one! It just goes to show how bad and uncaring psychiatrists can contribute to the lives of suicidal patients – and I don’t mean positively!
The Canadian film industry churned out some interesting movies in the early 1980s. I only have to mention 1981’s Scanners. Few of the films travelled to cinemas Down Under but turned up on video cassette. If they did turn up like 1980’s Death Ship, it was on the bottom half of a double bill.
“You don’t even know what love is,” Peters tells Kaplan as they irrationally bicker and physically fight.
“We’ll make it a double suicide,” says Kaplan, finally, as Peters takes tablets and he follows suit. “I wonder why women never like me,” he says after he jokes about the revolting thought of his life flashing before his eyes.
Tulips is really for people who know what depression is really like. It is probably best enjoyed by the lonely and those who have planned and tried suicide. On that level it is a remarkably entertaining film in that the lives of these people seem more hopeless than most others.
As the pair fall in love, it also entertains hope for the lonely, who long for a lover or companion but who know as the years pass how hopeless it is.
If there is any life-affirming answer it is to end that longing not by suicide but in letting it go and learning to live as a single… and using your brain positively and perhaps even creatively. Don’t put it in the too hard basket!
“The one that’s in love with you… the one with no money,” is a telling line by Peters’s psychiatrist’s receptionist as she warns him that she’s turned up.
It hurts, but the reverse is also true and not too many women are interested in a man without money. No matter what they say. Weep… weep…
“He’s really not worth it,” Kaplan tells Peters on the tumultuous road which leads to Kaplan’s bed. He appears to be financially independent. And overnight Kaplan doubles his sexual history after three orgasms.
But it is then that Kaplan realised the contract is still out for him and that when the word Tulips appears in the classified ads, it’s verification the contract is about to be fulfilled.
Will Kaplan survive? Well, his film career didn’t survive the critical reaction to these two movies.
A further word on Tulips: It contains the scene from Meet John Doe (1941) where Gary Cooper is about to commit suicide. Tulips is no Meet John Doe even if Kaplan describes the scene as “corny”. The title flower symbolises the meaning of perfect love and it is used to epitomise the declaration of that love. It’s use in the movie as a symbol of impending doom goes hand in hand with the upside-down outlook of its two main characters.
If you’re looking for laughter on the scale of say Zoolander 2, or films of the like, then don’t bother with Tulips. It probably even barely raises a laugh but it is strangely amusing. However, despite far from being perfect, life does go on and if you let go and watch it, especially if you’re depressed, you’ll see there is a glimmer of hope for those who can’t live without love.
Kaplan did, however, have a triumph with Gabe Kaplan as Groucho in a filmed theatrical performance of the actor playing Groucho Marx in four distinct periods in his life. Written by Groucho’s son Arthur Marx (1921-2011), this video shot feature is a tour de force by Kaplan as Marx as he delivers the laughs while using many of Groucho’s most famous lines.
There’s probably a laugh track added but the quips he delivers deserve it and its amazing as we watch Groucho in his 30s finally transform into a man in his 80s.
Kaplan reached his peak in this production and decided to take his talents elsewhere. He still plays poker and has made millions from playing professionally. The actor reportedly never married which is probably why he is such a rich man.
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