Harpo Marx

Active - 1925 - 1990  |   Born - Nov 23, 1888   |   Died - Sep 28, 1964   |   Genres - Comedy, Film, TV & Radio

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Born Adolph Marx (a name he later legally changed to Arthur), New York-native Harpo Marx was the second oldest member of the Marx Brothers comedy team. Dropping out of school in the 2nd grade (literally so -- he was thrown out the window by two older boys), Harpo took odd jobs to help support his family, but his first love was always music. Inheriting a harp from a relative -- hence his nickname -- Marx taught himself how to play, and soon became proficient in several instruments, even though he never learned how to read music. Pressed into service by his stagestruck mother, Harpo joined brothers Groucho and Gummo as part of a vaudeville act called the Four Nightingales. When older brother Chico joined the act, Harpo found that, thanks to the verbosity of Chico and Groucho, his stage role as red-wigged tough kid Patsy Brannigan was being alotted less and less dialogue in each performance. Eventually Harpo stopped talking onstage altogether. Marx would never utter a word while dressed in the top hat and battered raincoat of Harpo; instead, he expressed a wide arrange of emotions through whistles, horn honks and frenetic pantomime, taking time out from his lunatic behavior only when settling down to play his harp. When the Marx Brothers became the toast of Broadway in the '20s, Harpo was befriended by theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, who introduced the wide-eyed comedian to the most brilliant artistic and literary talents of the era. (When asked how he got along so well with such heady company, Harpo always claimed it was because he was the only member of the witty group who kept his mouth shut). Harpo settled down at the age of 48 to marry actress Susan Fleming; thereafter, except for his manic film appearances, he revelled in the life of a loving husband and father, adopting several children and raising them beautifully. While most of his professional work between 1919 and 1949 was done with his brothers, Harpo appeared by himself in the 1925 silent film Too Many Kisses, and spent several weeks filming Androcles and the Lion in 1952 before he was replaced by Alan Young. In 1949, Harpo was supposed to solo in a film comedy titled Love Happy, but the money men wouldn't ante up the budget unless his brothers Groucho and Chico also appeared in the film. Though professionally a "dummy", Harpo was a sharp businessman, instinctively making wise investments that would keep him wealthy for life; and though he was no babe in the woods in terms of life experiences, Harpo was widely regarded as one of the kindest and most even-tempered men in show business. After the Marx Brothers went their separate ways, Harpo continued making TV guest appearances in his traditional wig and costume; the most fondly remembered of these guest stints occured on a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy. He also appeared out of character on the 1960 Jane Wyman Theatre "Silent Panic" -- albeit as a deaf-mute, thereby maintaining his professional silence. In collaboration with Rowland Barber, Harpo Marx hilariously summed up his life in a 1961 autobiography Harpo Speaks, the last sentence of which was a characteristic "Honk! Honk!"

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