November 11, 1906
Düsseldorf, Rhine Province, German Empire
|Died||April 5, 2001
New York City, New York, U.S.
Brother Theodore (born Theodore Gottlieb; November 11, 1906 - April 5, 2001) was a German-born American monologuist and comedian known for rambling, stream-of-consciousness dialogues which he called "stand-up tragedy". He was a man described as "Boris Karloff, surrealist Salvador Dalí, Nijinsky and Red Skelton...simultaneously".
Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family's fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland, he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.
He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles' 1946 movie The Stranger. This was one of the several movie appearances he made beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1990s. These were mostly small parts in B-movies, although he did provide the voice of Gollum in the 1977 made-for-television animated version of The Hobbit and the follow-up adaptation of The Return of the King (1980). He also voiced Ruhk, Mommy Fortuna's assistant and carnival barker in The Last Unicorn (1982).
Theodore's career as a monologuist began in California in the late 1940s, with dramatic Poe recitals. He moved to New York City, and by the 1950s, his monologues, now darkly humorous, had attracted a cult following. In 1958, he presented a one-man show that promoted the idea that human beings should walk on all fours. Jay Landesman booked him at St. Louis' Crystal Palace during the 1960s. In the early 1960s, he frequently performed at the Café Bizarre in New York's Greenwich Village (106 W 3rd Street). He reached a wider audience through television, with 36 appearances on The Merv Griffin Show in the 1960s and '70s, and was also a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Dick Cavett Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. After his nightclub and TV appearances in the 1950s and '60s waned, he retired in the mid-1970s.
He was pulled out of retirement and booked by magician Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks in the Magic Towne House on the affluent Upper East Side of Manhattan for special weekend midnight performances. Years earlier, Brooks had remembered seeing Brother Theodore drawing packed crowds at small, funky and eclectic clubs all across the Lower East Side (Greenwich and the East Village) and sought him out for his new club. This resulted in a resurgence of interest in Brother Theodore that brought him success in his later years starting with Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show in 1977 followed by more TV appearances and movies. According to Brooks, it took multiple calls to Theodore to convince him to make a comeback. Theodore's attitude was very bleak, and he felt his career was over. Brooks wanted to charge ten or more dollars, but Theodore insisted on four dollars, so as not to scare people away. The show was a success and ran for several seasons. A picture of the Magic Towne House ad appeared in local New York newspapers such as the Village Voice and The New York Post.
Theodore made 16 appearances on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980s. In the early 1980s, he was a regular on the Billy Crystal Comedy Hour. He also did voice work, including the voice-over to the American trailer for Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery in 1981. In 1989 he appeared in the Joe Dante comedy film The 'Burbs. Up until the late 1990s, he was a guest actor in several episodes of Joe Frank: Work in Progress radio show on National Public Radio (NPR).
An article on Theodore appeared in RAVE magazine with color photos. Segments from it are in the book Who's Who in Comedy. Just prior to his death from pneumonia, he recorded several monologues for the controversial documentary series, Disinfo Nation. He appeared in Billy Crystal's mockumentary Don't Get Me Started and voiced the character of an ointment expert on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday version of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer in 1995.
In early 2001, from the encouragement of his long-time friend & confidant, Jack Finelli, Theodore requested to meet with film artist Jeff Sumerel to consider the possibility of him producing a documentary about Theodore. After an in-person meeting, Sumerel received Theodore's approval, and they agreed to proceed with the film.
Theodore was cautious, because of past documentary attempts that were aborted because of his eventual suspicions and distrust of the filmmaker(s). Sumerel was too, hearing of Theodore's tendencies to self-sabotage past efforts. In February, preliminary shooting began, with informal interviews with Theodore in his apartment; however, in April, Theodore became ill with pneumonia and died.
Nevertheless, Sumerel was encouraged by Theodore's family and friends to continue with the documentary. Since no funding was available, Sumerel continued the project as a "labor of love", when time and financing allowed. It was his interview with Henry Gibson that began to lead to other notable performers who were Theodore devotees. Gibson connected Sumerel with Penn & Teller (friends of Gibson's) who were long-time, avid Theodorians. Over the next 5 years Sumerel was able to capture interviews with Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian, Tom Schiller, Len Belzer, Joe Dante, Mark Shulman, and Woody Allen, among others. All of them gave no hesitation to participate, because of their admiration of and respect for Theodore. Sumerel spent the next 2 years gathering archival materials and working with editor, Jeter Rhodes, to sift through the vast amount of content conveying Theodore's personal and professional life. In the end, Sumerel & Rhodes wove both stories into a non-traditional documentary fitting for Theodore and titled To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore. The film was selected for premiere, February 13, 2008 at the opening night of The Museum of Modern Art's Fortnight Series.
His headstone reads: Known as Brother Theodore / Solo Performer, Comedian, Metaphysician / "As Long as There Is Death, There Is Hope"