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A TCM Classic Film Festival Special Presentation: Assisting the Classics

January 22, 2024

One of the programs I looked forward to the most at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival was Assisting the Classics. For many years, I worked with an older celebrity, so I had a feeling I would be able to relate to some of their tales. (I definitely did.) I also knew I'd be hearing some lovely inside stories of life with beloved stars. 

 

Alicia Malone, who moderated the panel, mentioned that something they talk about at TCM is how to continue championing the legacy of stars after they’ve passed. One way to preserve their memory is through stories, particularly from those who knew and worked with them. That day, we got to hear tales from Jody Eisenstein-Miracle (assistant to Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara), Richard Stanley (assistant to George Cukor), and Steve Stoliar (assistant to Groucho Marx). I had to duck out a little early to make another screening, but below are some highlights from what I caught of their illuminating conversation.

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Richard Stanley, Jody Eisenstein-Mirace, and Steve Stoliar at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia)

How they got their jobs

Jody: Jody was producing a comedy roast, and after the event, she got to know Jerry Stiller and one of his long-time assistants. She basically begged Jerry to hire her—and he did!

 

Richard: Richard met George Cukor in 1977. He had recently written an article about James Herlihy, author of Midnight Cowboy, and James invited Richard to dinner. A few days later, James asked Richard if he’d pick up a dinner guest who didn’t drive anymore: George Cukor.

 

Richard agreed, drove to the director’s house, and was buzzed in. “How about a drink?” were the first words George spoke when Richard saw him at the top of the stairs. They had to get going, so Richard ushered George to his convertible. George ask to keep the top down, and Richard recalls the director appreciating a group of blonde surfers on Sunset Blvd. as they drove. “Marvelous, marvelous!” he cried when he saw them. (I can see older George Cukor doing this!)

At the time, George was 78; Richard was 27. George still received international invites, and Richard, who had previously worked for Air France, recognized that George needed someone to provide smooth passage for all the things going on in his life. Richard remarked that George couldn’t just be dropped off at LAX and expected to make his way to a flight alone, which is where he eventually came in. “In fact, we got thrown off a few planes,” he casually remarked. “We’ll have to come back to that!” Alicia exclaimed. (Since I left early, I’ll never know if they did…)

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George Cukor in the 1970s.

Steve: Steve had long been an “obsessive” Groucho Marx fan, “before it was fashionable… I didn’t want to marry him or murder him, I just wanted to shake his hand and thank him for Duck Soup (1933).” However, the star was elusive, and Steve wasn’t sure he’d ever have the chance to meet him. Steve frequently received reports of Groucho sightings, like at Nate ‘n Al’s Deli. “He always tries to pay with a $100 bill and he knows I can’t make change. He’s so funny,” the waitress there told Steve when he asked about Groucho. “And I wanted to strangle her and say, ‘Why is Groucho wasted on this waitress instead of his number 1 fan?’”

 

Animal Crackers (1930) hadn’t been seen in decades, because a clerical error meant the copyright reverted to the writers of the play. In the 1970s, Steve, then a student at UCLA, put together a petition to compel Universal to get the film out there—largely, so he and his friends could see it. He got in touch with Erin Fleming, Groucho’s secretary and later his manager, and kept her updated on the campaign. One day, he asked her how Groucho was doing, and she handed Groucho the phone. “How am I doing what?” Groucho asked. “How are you doing whatever you’re doing?” Steve replied. “I’m telephoning, what are you doing?” Groucho responded. “I’m telephoning too, it certainly is a small world,” Steve said. He recalled his heart was pounding throughout the conversation, but at least he got to talk to his idol!

 

Next was meeting him. Erin brought Groucho to UCLA one day, and they stopped by the Animal Crackers petition table. The students hung on Groucho’s every word. He joked that Steve better get the movie out or he’d fire him, to which Steve quipped that he didn’t know he was working for him. (When asked how much he was getting paid, Groucho kidded: “A little less than nothing.”) Universal finally relented and cleared the rights—and Animal Crackers was a smash hit in Westwood. Steve didn’t want to lose that connection, so he kept in touch with Erin and asked if there was anything he could help with. Eventually, there was: They needed someone to handle Groucho’s fan mail and memorabilia that was set to be donated to the Smithsonian, and Steve was the guy to do it!

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Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

Running lines with the Stiller’s

Jody mentioned that Jerry and Anne approached their acting process differently. Jerry took hours learning everything, made notes, and used a small tape recorder to record his lines so he could hear them back. Meanwhile, Anne had Jody highlight all her lines, then leave her alone to learn them herself.

 

Near the end of Jerry’s life, Jody spent a lot of time with him, and even when he wasn’t feeling great, he’d still know each line to a lot of his old sketches. Jody remembered running through “The Hate Sketch” with Jerry, and he nailed every line. Afterwards, she remarked, “Jerry, I am so happy I just did that with you,” to which Jerry replied, “You were better than Anne.” “He lied,” Jody laughed. That was just one example, Jody shared, of how Jerry made everyone feel like the most important person in the room.  

 

 

George Cukor’s pool parties

Alicia asked if it was true that Richard got to attend one of George Cukor’s last famous pool parties. The answer was yes. After the dinner Richard drove the director to, he invited Richard to come to his house on a Sunday afternoon for a pool party. (Random aside: He remembered seeing Katharine Hepburn swim there all year long at 7am no matter how cold it was!)

 

George’s legendary parties have been written about, characterizations Richard brushed off as “baloney.” The parties were crazy but mild. He said there were never naked people walking around; rather, they were elegant, “like everything at George’s house.” “He was the most refined, witty, charming guy, who could flip sometimes, but he was incredible,” Richard reminisced. “I miss him. He was my mentor. He really changed my life.”

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Groucho Marx, always with the signature glasses and cigar.

Living in Groucho Marx’s inner circle

As a bonafide fan, Steve knew everyone who walked through Groucho’s door, from Mae West and Bob Hope to Jack Lemmon and writers on the Marx Brothers movies. He also knew the importance of writing things down. Groucho still retained that famous wit, even after he suffered some serious strokes, and he used the notes he recorded to put a book together about this time with the legend; he also frequently mailed his friends stories about his conversations with Groucho and others. Steve’s diligence paid off, as he figures many of those tales would have been lost “had it not been for my obsessive-compulsive nature.”

 

The stars who visited Groucho’s home didn’t know if Steve worked for the star or if he was a relative, but that didn’t matter. It was an egalitarian household, Steve recalled, and he was always welcome at the table. He remembered one time when George Burns came over, and a nervous Steve answered the door. “Hi, you want to live a long time? Become an actor, you’ll live to be an old man like Groucho and me,” George remarked. “OK, let’s eat.”

 

 

How Jerry Stiller landed Seinfeld

Jody said Jerry told this story a lot. He actually wasn’t the first choice for the character of Frank Costanza. John Randolph won the role, but executives didn’t like his chemistry with Estelle Harris. Jerry was appearing in a Broadway show at the time, which is why he turned the part down. (That, and he didn’t know what the show was!) Seinfeld really wanted him, Larry David reached out, and his agent told him to try it out, too. As Estelle played her part at a feverish high pitch, Larry directed Jerry to downplay it. Jerry started that way… but it didn’t feel right, so when she went high, he topped her. Everyone cracked up, Jerry was hired, and they kept his character that way. Though Jerry only appeared in 26 episodes, he quickly turned into an unforgettable presence on the classic show.  

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TCM host Alicia Malone with Jody, Richard, and Steve. (Photo courtesy of WarnerMedia)

On dealing with the unpleasantries and dark sides of celebrity

“The downside of getting close to your hero when he’s in his last days is having a front row center seat to his fading out and the curtain coming down,” Steve remarked of working with Groucho in his last years. A few weeks after Steve started, Groucho suffered a stroke. Steve walked in expecting to see the star looking sickly. Not so! Instead, Groucho was propped up reading a paper. “Is the ambulance here yet? Figures,” he quipped. That said, Groucho did need assistance for basic functions, and while it was tough seeing his idol so vulnerable, Steve was happy to help where he could.

 

The dark side was dealing with some of the people in Groucho’s life—in particular, Erin Fleming, who eventually turned into Groucho’s companion. (Note: What I’ve seen reported online is that Groucho was tragically a victim of elder abuse by Erin.) Groucho relied heavily on her, and she was extremely volatile. Steve had no previous experience working with unpredictable personalities, so it was a difficult situation for him to be in—caring for Groucho and seeing him lean so much on Erin. “She made his last days rockier than they deserve to have been,” Steve affirmed. He was in charge of the household in those later years when there was also a legal battle waging with Groucho’s family. “I rode it out till the end because the man I loved was down the hall fading out.” While he endured tough times there, many of Steve’s experiences were positive; working for Groucho afforded him the chance to get close to so many people he respected for years from afar.

That's all I was able to catch from this conversation, which I really enjoyed. I cherish the behind-the-scenes memories I have with my former boss, like Jody, Richard, and Steve clearly do. That said, I also relate to the hard times Steve shared, especially seeing others take advantage of aging celebrities, which sadly happens far too often. 

If you attended this discussion and have more to share from the conversation, please feel free to do so in the comments.

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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