22 June 2008

Jack Gilford

Portrait of the tummler as a young man,
from the Gilfords’ living room

Thanks to his younger son, Sam Gilford, I have spent a happy evening watching Jack Gilford at work. Sam put together a little DVD of his father’s favorite performances, starting with a clip from an old Hollywood movie, in which a very young Jack does a few bits from his nightclub act. And so at last I have seen Jack’s famous impression of John D. Rockefeller impersonating Jimmy Durante. There’s no describing it.

Jack was a link to things that I never knew about, whether because I was too young or too suburban or too goyish or quite simply too naïf. Born a century ago in Brooklyn, Jack spoke Yiddish before he spoke English. His mother was a bootlegger. He was blacklisted. He starred on Broadway, in shows I never saw. He didn’t tell me about these things; I learned them from his widow, Madeline. But I knew the man, a little, and I owe him a lot.

Jack, with his mother the bootlegger, and his brother.
This picture hangs in Madeline Gilford’s bedroom.

I’ve been a fan of his since I was in grade school, although the day we met, I didn’t tell him this. Instead, I said, “My father is your biggest fan.” Later, Madeline told me that Jack hated it when people said that. A shy, melancholy man, he’d usually snap in reply, “Oh, really? How big?”

But Jack was in a charitable mood that day, and to me he simply said, “Your father has excellent taste.”

And it’s true, at least where Jack is concerned. Sam’s DVD confirms that. Jack brought a sweetness and simple grace to all his performances, even when the material wasn’t very good. He manages to unite the hokey shtick of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt, the lacerating precision of contemporary screen naturalism, and the poetry of silent comedy. He actually taught Buster Keaton a pantomime, when the great comic replaced him in Once Upon a Mattress on Broadway.

Photos of Jack with Zero Mostel and Buster Keaton hang in the hallway of the Gilfords’ apartment.

That’s a concept too big for me to get my head around. If I’d remembered it, during the time I knew Jack, I’d probably have collapsed from shock. In social settings, after all, some things are better left unknown, or unconsidered. If I’d known, for example, that William S. Paley had an affair with Louise Brooks, Lulu in Pandora’s Box, it would have been difficult to retain my composure on the one occasion I met him. And that would have been awkward. The founder of CBS was my boss at the time.

Jack wasn’t my boss — but Madeline was, as associate producer of the Broadway musical Rags, and I didn’t need for either of them to start thinking that the little production assistant was an idiot. Fortunately, the subject of Buster Keaton never came up. Neither did the subject of Milton Berle (who changed Jack’s name, from Jacob Gelman), nor that of Jack Lemmon (opposite whom Jack was nominated for an Oscar), nor that of Billie Holiday (with whom Jack once shared a dressing room), nor — well, you get the idea.

Most often, the two of us sat peaceably in a hallway, waiting for Madeline to emerge from endless production meetings at the rehearsal studio. I say “the two of us,” but on those afternoons we were always a crowd, because Jack passed the time by improvising, riffing on characters. He wasn’t one of those tiresome comics who are always “on”; he improvised the way a boy plays with a tennis ball, tossing it around, keeping his reflexes sharp for the Big Game ahead, staving off boredom. (Dan Rather does something similar. Even a friendly conversation over dinner can turn into an interview.) I can’t remember all the material Jack bounced off of me, although I recall very clearly an English vicar and, best of all, an elderly Jewish man with a heavy Yiddish accent.

If you know any of the Gilfords for very long, you will hear the story of Grandpa Max. When the Gilford children were growing up, Jack realized that the kids’ grandfathers were dead, and thus that they were missing out on an important part of childhood. He resolved to do something about this. And so one Saturday came a knock at the door. The kids answered, and there was Jack, fully in character and costume as a little old man.

“Hello,” said Jack. “I’m your Grandpa Max. I’m taking you to the park.”

Another trip to the park, with the help of cartoonist Mort Drucker.
Pardon Me, Sir, But Is My Eye Hurting Your Elbow?,
a picture book intended as a movie script)

And for years, Grandpa Max made regular visits, taking the kids on excursions, telling them stories — being the grandfather they never had. The kids loved him deeply — and separately from the love they felt for Jack. Later, Lisa Gilford named her son after Grandpa Max; Joe Gilford made a short film about a stage doorman, starring his father as Max.

I’d heard stories about Grandpa Max, but it wasn’t until Joe showed a clip from that film at his father’s memorial service that I realized I’d met the old guy. In fact, the little old Jewish man Jack used to become during our conversations was unmistakably Grandpa Max. It was as if Jack had given me a wonderful present that I’d been unable to unwrap at first. I felt special, like part of Jack’s family. And now, 17 years later, I pretty much am part of his family.


I grew up watching Jack on TV — first in his Cracker Jack commercials, of course, and then in his innumerable guest-starring roles on Rhoda, M*A*S*H, Golden Girls, thirtysomething, and dozens of others. Gradually, I caught up on his film work, though two of his best performances are ones I can no longer watch. When he sings “Lovely” in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, disguising himself as a vestal virgin in a diaphanous gown and blond wig, he is quite simply too lovely to bear. And I can’t even think about his big scene in Cocoon, standing in a swimming pool and cradling his wife’s body.

The view I’ve had of Jack as a performer isn’t really representative. Because he was blacklisted, he couldn’t work on television and film for many years, and a huge chunk of his career was spent on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera (playing Frosch the jailer in Die Fledermaus). I can only piece together a few clues to imagine him in Cabaret, opposite Lotte Lenya, or in The Diary of Anne Frank, as Mr. Dussel.

But one of Jack’s most important theater roles was preserved for television, and Sam was able to get his hands on the video for his DVD. In The World of Sholem Aleichem, Jack played Bontche Schweig, who leads a miserable life, enduring every kind of hardship. Yet he never complains. (“Schweig” means “silent.”) At last, he dies and goes to Heaven, where he is told that, as a reward for his suffering, he may have anything he wants.

“If that is so,” says Bontche in a voice he’s never used, “if what you say is true, may I please have then, every day, a hot roll with butter?”

Jack as a Sholem Aleichem character, right.
A self-portrait by Zero Mostel hangs at left.

For years after the play had closed, the Gilfords used to be interrupted over dinner at a restaurant: someone at another table would have asked the waiter to send over a hot roll with butter.

He was taller than I’d expected, maybe because I’d been influenced by his appearances on Taxi, as Alex Rieger’s father, who explains his infuriating success with women: “I’m cute!” His little eyes, in that long, rubbery face, came to resemble the raisins on a gingerbread man. You don’t expect somebody so cute to be so tall — but there it is. Pushing 80, he was trim, agile, and extraordinarily dapper, and the attraction between him and Madeline was palpable and somewhat unnerving. Weren’t they too old to be so passionate? They adored each other, and I’ve never kidded myself: Jack put up with me because Madeline liked me.

As he looked when I knew him.
Photo courtesy of Sam Gilford

Just before Rags opened, Jack came to the stage manager’s office to see me. He’d heard I was a cartoonist — I’d drawn caricatures of every member of the cast, and of Madeline, too. Now he wanted my help. He’d written a song, and he wanted me to write out the lyrics on a piece of poster board to be hung on the call board, as a kind of opening-night greeting to the company.

“And can you draw a little picture of Madeline and me?” he asked earnestly, as if there were some chance I’d refuse. My reward was that Jack sang the song for me, start to finish: “Give my regards to Stratas / Remember me to Larry Kert….”

And that’s how I managed to see the great Jack Gilford in performance on Broadway — for me alone. Sometimes you don’t have to wait to go to Heaven to get your hot roll with butter.