Filmmaker Jeff Sumerel wandered into a New York City theater one day to inquire about renting space. As he left, he shouted out, “Tell Theodore he’s got a fan in South Carolina. If he ever wants a documentary made about him, give me a call!” Sumerel was referring to Brother Theodore, the cult monologuist who performed at the theater, and within a month he actually got that call and found himself staring at a soft-spoken Theodore Gottleib in Mt. Sinai Hospital. “There’s a reason you’re going to meet all of these people,” Theodore told him. “Do you understand?” Sumerel replied, “No, I don’t, but probably in another three or four years I will.” It’s been five.
Gottleib, dubbed Brother Theodore by Merv Griffin, was a monologuist known for streaming rants of sardonic debauchery concerning the cosmic entropies of the human condition. Stripped of a family fortune, survivor of the Holocaust and set free unto America by family friend and chess partner Albert Einstein, Theodore spent 17 years on a stage performing a tightrope act between sanity and genius. Billy Crystal, Eric Bogosian, Penn and Teller, Dick Cavett, Tom Hanks, George Carlin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles: were all inspired or affected by him. Of himself, Gottleib said, “I detest everything I stand for.... I’m the bride at every funeral, I’m the corpse at every wedding. Each time I look in the mirror I break into tears.” What is truly strange, however, is how unrecognized Theodore’s influence over such a wide range of actors and performers is today, just a few years after his death. “It is my sincere wish that immediately after my death my head be severed from my body and that it be replaced with a bouquet of broccoli,” he once said about the idea of a legacy.
Sumerel’s documentary isn’t the first attempt to make something of Theodore’s life. Many others have been tried and most often the demise of each was due to some swift retreat by Theodore himself. In a recent interview Woody Allen recalled him as “wildly inconsistent” as an actor, sometimes “brilliant” and other times just “off.” Theodore’s only true act was being himself. “Now that he’s dead, he can’t shoot himself in the foot anymore,” Sumerel says.
Sumerel’s persistence has spanned five years of elusive interviews and skittish financing. Hours of archival footage now roost in the barn of his Greenville, S.C., studio. With help from co-producer Peter Wentworth (Metropolitan) and longtime editor and colleague Peter Rhodes (Bragging Rites), Sumerel estimates completion by early fall. His approach to production has been simple from the beginning: a Sony DVX200 and existing light. But his approach to the editing process has followed a much more exacting methodology. The first cut is for audio only. The right arrangement of Theodore’s voice, performance and interviews will alert Sumerel to the necessary narrative thread. Once the audio track is right, he’ll add video, and “the fun will begin.” Inspired by previous work, Sumerel is using the help of Clemson University’s Maya 3D Animation department to add a caricature of Theodore throughout the film. This way Theodore can still bark and snarl from beyond.
Asked if he finally understands Theodore’s hospital-bed question, Sumerel, modestly as usual, says no. While completion funding remains a question, he knows he’ll finish the film. Should it not arrive, it will only prove that Theodore’s ghost is probably being a bit more animated than the filmmaker would like. But Sumerel doesn’t seem anxious about the remaining dollars; he’s simply captivated by the entire experience of meeting all of these incredible people. “It’s this web of kindred spirits surrounding Theodore,” he says. “A single degree of separation touches so many people who don’t even know each other. When you mention Theodore, so many say, ‘Hey, yeah! What a guy!’” The honesty and personal sacrifice of this stage martyr has certainly left an indelible mark on those who saw or worked with him. Brother Theodore is truly a man of the in between, and Sumerel’s film should be the vessel that finally brings this negative space into view.”