I wish the earth would open and swallow you up!"
Such was a typical greeting Brother Theodore would have for David Letterman, when the pitch-dark comic monologuist would occasionally guest on the dry, wry host's late night TV show in the 1980s. Television viewers knew Theo, with his gnomish frame and tousled mess of strandy white hair, as a typical Letterman human sight-gag (a la Larry "Bud" Melman or Captain Haggerty). Savvy New York theatregoers also knew him as the (seemingly) dangerous comedian who'd been holding court at Off Off-Broadway's 13th Street Theatre for nearly two decades. And true Theodore fans also knew his unhappy personal history as a concentration camp survivor who lost essentially everything but his life in the Holocaust.
Despite astonishing odds and years of later-life ailments, Theodore extended that life to 94 years before succumbing, April 5, at Mount Sinai Hospital.
He once told the audience at a 1950s Carnegie Hall concert, "My name, as you may have guessed, is Theodore. I come from a strange stock. The members of my family were mostly epileptics, vegetarians, stutterers, triplets, nailbiters. But we've always been happy."
As reported by the New York Times, Theodore Gottlieb was actually born Nov. 11, 1906 to a wealthy publishing family in Dusseldorf, Germany. Despite disagreements with his business-oriented father over Theo's artsier leanings, he led a high-class life until the Nazis came to power. Mr. Gottlieb was sent to Dachau on his 32nd birthday. He told Jewish Week journalist Jon Kalish in 1995, "I saw so many people maimed and killed. They threw people out of the window like that, just for being Jewish." He also told various interviewers of seeing the Nazis laughing while men were being eaten alive by dogs.
Mr. Gottlieb's parents and grandmother were slaughtered, though he survived by signing over the family's entire multi-million dollar fortune. He was allowed to emigrate to Switzerland, where, according to the New York Times, he became a chess hustler — which turned out to be against Swiss law. He was deported to Austria and then, with the help of family friend Albert Einstein, to California in 1941.
Broke and with no prospects, Mr. Gottlieb did janitorial work at Stanford University and dock work in San Francisco. He also started performing. He began with Edgar Allan Poe readings, telling the New York Mirror in 1958, "In the two weeks I had one person in the audience. My wife. And if I didn't give her a complimentary ticket, she wouldn't have come." His wife ended up running off with his best friend, though they did have a son, Thomas Lonner.
In Hollywood, Mr. Gottlieb met Orson Welles, who wanted to give the actor a major role in "The Stranger." But the producers didn't go for it, and Theo had only a small part. Still, he soon started developing the weird, philosophical, sick-funny monologues that would be his greatest legacy. Calling his act "stand-up tragedy," Theodore would, with dark glare and thick German accent, alternately rail at and flirt with audience. Nearly all the jokes had a dark or absurdist edge, and some of his favorite themes included completely giving up food and convincing humans to walk on all fours instead of two legs.
By the 1950s, his cult celebrity was large enough to sell out six performances at Town Hall, and it was TV talk show host Merv Griffin who added the "Brother" to Theodore, no doubt inspired by the comedian's monkish garb and tonsure. The high-profile years didn't last, but they did give Mr. Gottlieb the foundation for a steady career, perked up in the 1980s by appearances on "Late Nite with David Letterman." There the host would tease Gottlieb about his hair and attitude, only to receive such poisonous rejoinders as, "I am squirming with delight to meet an intellectual colossus... I should have known better than to sell roses in a fish market!"
Asked once by Letterman what his ideal girlfriend would be, Theodore replied, "A rich widow, 13 years old, with firm, bouncing breasts, a frenzied little behind... 90 pounds of quivering, submissive flesh!"
The Letterman gigs also led to lucrative character-weirdo work on television, voice work in animation ("The Last Unicorn"), and a bit part in the movie "The `Burbs," all the while maintaining his small Greenwich Village apartment and his late-night solo act at the 13th Street Theatre.
By the late 1990s, Theodore had become frail and had trouble walking. He survived a bout with pneumonia in March and was taken to a nursing home but was then brought back to the hospital owing to further complications.
"As long as there is death, there is hope," Brother Theodore once said. "The only thing that keeps me alive is the hope of dying young."
— By David Lefkowitz