A memory from my teenage years: The death of Groucho Marx on August 19, 1977 -- a Friday, three days after the death of Elvis Presley on August 16, a Tuesday.
Memories such as this one welled up last week when I previewed a new “American Masters” premiering tonight on PBS in which Dick Cavett (seen in the photo above with Groucho) traces his long friendship with the comic master starting in the early 1960s and continuing until Groucho’s death at age 86.
The week after Groucho and Elvis died, we received the new issue of Time magazine in the mail, and Groucho’s death was reported in a single paragraph on the weekly page called “Milestones” that reported on notable deaths.
In the same issue, the death of Elvis Presley got far more space -- probably an entire page or possibly two. As a great fan of the Marx Brothers, I was disappointed.
Woody Allen and Dick Cavett were apparently disappointed too, because the following week they co-signed a letter that Time published that admonished the magazine for not giving Groucho the same space as Elvis.
I stumped Google when I went in search of this letter last week and couldn’t find it. But I remember that the letter made reference to Groucho’s exquisite comic timing and in that context, scolded Time for giving him short shrift just because his death was uncharacteristically ill-timed to fall in the same week as Elvis’s.
This new “American Masters,” subtitled “Groucho & Cavett,” even has a scene from one of Cavett’s talk shows in which he and Woody Allen shared their memories of Groucho not long after his death and even mentioned the brevity of the Time obituary.
Memories such as these form the foundation for this nearly 90-minute documentary about Groucho focused primarily on his last two decades.
Our guide through these years is Cavett, 86, who is a master storyteller. Also masterful is the construction of this documentary.
Very rarely does Cavett tell a story about a Groucho TV appearance or quip that is not followed by footage of that very event or something very close to it.
Cavett tells the story of how he first met Groucho. It was at the funeral in New York of the famed playwright, screenwriter and stage director George S. Kaufman in June 1961.
Kaufman wrote one of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, “A Night At The Opera,” and Groucho attended the funeral.
Cavett never knew Kaufman, but he and his friend Woody Allen decided to attend the funeral anyway. When they saw Groucho Marx actually sitting not far away from them, they could not believe their eyes.
Later, Cavett introduced himself to Groucho, and the two took a long walk all the way to the Plaza Hotel at 59th and Fifth.
The documentary places the funeral at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home on Madison Avenue and 81st Street, which was a long walk, after which Cavett was astonished when Groucho asked him to stick around for lunch.
In the “American Masters” documentary, Cavett still expresses his amazement that he actually came to meet this giant of 20th-century entertainment and a personal idol of his.
This sense of wonderment resonated with me because I know the feeling. I won’t get into a name-dropping exercise here, but the list of people I have met in the TV business amazes me too -- among them Cavett himself.
In the years after their first meeting, Groucho appeared many times on Cavett’s talk shows. Fortunately for the rest of us, videotape of these appearances still exists in abundance.
From this ample trove, the point is clear: Groucho Marx possessed one of the most gifted comedic minds in the history of 20th-century American entertainment.
Groucho -- who had been an entertainer along with this famous brothers practically since boyhood -- was a living, breathing encyclopedia of show business stories and songs, all of which he accessed on the Cavett shows.
I first became aware of the Marx Brothers in the early 1970s when their movies were revived for a time and my father took me to see them at the old Bryn Mawr Theater. They were double bills that I still remember -- “A Night At The Opera” and “At The Circus,” “Duck Soup” and “Horsefeathers,” and “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.”
This experience changed my life, and reading and learning about the history of show business became a lifelong pursuit at a very young age, starting with Groucho’s autobiography “Groucho and Me.”
Today, a framed copy of the June 1958 issue of Harper’s magazine with a caricature drawing of Groucho on the cover hangs above the desk I am sitting at right now.
Thank you, Dick Cavett and PBS for producing and now airing this special documentary that revived so many personal memories for me, including this one:
In 1972, I admired Groucho Marx so much that I attempted to send him an invitation to my bar mitzvah. I didn’t know his address, so I just addressed it “Groucho Marx, Beverly Hills, California” under the assumption that it would get to him somehow. He never RSVP’d.
“American Masters: Groucho & Cavett” airs on Tuesday (December 27) at 8 p.m. Eastern on PBS.