In a 2009 column for The Independent spotlighting once-popular but now lesser-read authors, prolific British thriller writer Christopher Fowler praised Robert Klane’s stories, stating, “they capture the sheer unfairness of life, particularly as it was lived in the early 1970s. Like great farceurs before him, Klane tackled sex, family, madness and death, roughly in that order.” Indeed, from the late ‘60s to the late ‘90s when Klane was an active writer, he constantly returned to the subject of tensions between children and their parents, and their deleterious effect on the younger generation’s ability to enjoy a simple life.
Klane made his first significant impact as a screenwriter with arguably the best of his particularly brand of fractious family relations, Where’s Poppa? from 1970, directed by Carl Reiner. Bound by a promise to his departed father not to abandon his willfully chaotic elderly mother (Ruth Gordon) to an outside facility, floundering lawyer Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) has reached the end of his tether, repeatedly and desperately attempting to scare her to death to be rid of her. Her erratic behavior, such as consuming Lucky Charms soaked in Pepsi, has scared off all the caregivers Gordon tries to hire, hurting his ability to serve his clients and retain a girlfriend, and his brother Sidney (Ron Leibman), married but not much happier in his home life, refuses to take her in either. When a comely nurse (Trish Van Devere) with a history of losing patients enters his life, Gordon thinks she may finally help solve all his problems. However, this goal may prove as fruitless as trying to cross Central Park without getting mugged.
When Where’s Poppa? was in production, writer Klane would have been around 29, star George Segal 36, and director Carl Reiner 48. So while none of them could feasibly be adhering to the ethos of “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” they were all likely more sympathetic to the under-30 types yelling in the streets than “The Silent Majority.” (Indeed, as demonstrated by his Twitter account, Reiner, who will turn 98 on March 20th, continues to be a vigorous champion of social movements benefiting those much younger than himself) As such, part of the longstanding cult appeal of Poppa, besides its macabre premise and its transgressive jokes, is its almost literal manifestation of how a young man like Klane at that time felt about the so-called “Greatest Generation.” In this film, parents, particularly of Momma’s age, were the people who looked the other way at racism, approved of the military-industrial complex, voted for Nixon, and were indifferent to how these choices have led to the mercenarial gangs in the city, the increased stress of keeping a job, and, yes, the failure to get laid.
Leaving geopolitics, it can also be deduced that the Hocheiser family has been an unhappy collective for years. After all, when Sidney and his wife argue over his troubling fealty to Momma, he is willing to take a page from the book of Abraham and sacrifice his own son. The term “Alzheimer’s Disease” is never mentioned, not just because it had not yet become a catch-all for dementia-related behavior, but also perhaps because Momma might not actually have it. She’s not as sharp as she used to be, but she seems to figure out that Louise is not just a nurse but a potential rival for her son’s attention, and that’s what prompts her infamous “tushie” reveal that became part of the film’s advertising. Either Gordon is stuck with a demanding parent with little self-awareness, or worse, she’s got just enough presence to make sure nothing comes between her and her son. The very name Hocheiser is a portmanteu of the German roots “hoch” meaning high or heavy, and “heiser” meaning rough or hoarse, suggesting that screaming until you lose your voice is literally in the family blood. And it seems the only good luck the Hocheisers will have in this time of history is that in Sidney’s lowest moment, he’ll find the one kinkster in New York City that appreciates him. Poppa likely gave the no-nursing-home edict to Gordon not out of concern for Momma, but because he stayed married to her for the sake of the family, and now that his debt is paid, it’s sonny’s turn now to put up with her shenanigans. After all, how many boys have been told, in the absence of a father, “You’re the man of the house now.”
In the years that followed, which saw Klane scripting episodes of “M*A*S*H,” creating TV pilots (including a sitcom version of Poppa with Steven Keats and Elsa Lanchester), directing Thank God It’s Friday, and adapting remakes of Unfaithfully Yours and The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe for 20th Century-Fox, he kept returning to the topic of fractious family dynamics. His book and screenplay Fire Sale, about a family business upended by parent/child miscommunication, was made into a 1977 film by Alan Arkin. And in 1987, he wrote and produced Walk Like A Man, directed by The Court Jester director Melvin Frank, depicting how a selfish child causes his younger brother to be literally raised by wolves, and when the lost sibling returns as a man, arranges to teach him how to be human solely for the purpose of assuming the debts the grown wastrel has amassed. Even a rewrite situation, punching up John Hughes’ screenplay for National Lampoon’s European Vacation, was a chance to tap into his theme of “I hate relatives.” But when Klane scored an unexpected smash in 1989 by writing Weekend at Bernie’s for director Ted Kotcheff, the two joined forces to make a followup that would be a virtual reinvention of Where’s Poppa?, which for all of its similarities, would turn out radically different.
Folks!, released in 1992, offers an initially more at-ease protagonist in Jon Aldrich (Tom Selleck), a Chicago stockbroker content in his marriage and children, with a divorced sibling and retired parents living in Florida. The first volley against his happiness comes from without, when, as he leaves the city to visit his mother (Anne Jackson) in hospital. the firm he works for is raided by the FBI and his assets are frozen. The bigger volley comes from within, as he learns that his father (Don Ameche) has had senile dementia for eight years, and now without his wife to keep him in check, the well-meaning paterfamilias leaves a trail of chaos that exacerbates Jon’s trouble with the FBI, sends his wife and kids away, costs him his home, and brings him physical harm. Jon’s mother has already been contemplating a joint death-pact with her husband due to his deteriorating state, and suggests if he helps them stage it as an accident, their insurance can allow him and his indolent sister Arlene (Christine Ebersole) to start over again. And with little relief in sight, Jon decides to try indulging his parents’ wish…
The primary elements of Folks! are practically taken wholesale from Where’s Poppa?, but given some tweaks. Gordon Hocheiser is struggling to hold his law practice, while Jon Aldrich is a general success suddenly rendered skint. Each man has an uncooperative sibling, but Sidney is at least still loyal to his mother to the expense of his marriage, while Arlene is divorced, seeking a man to do all the heavy lifting, and has little regard for her parents beyond material provision. Crucially, while both films’ parents have mental decline, Gordon’s mother is a manipulator, while Jon’s father has no malice to his behavior. And in the turn that still confounds most unprepared viewers, death is presented as a threat to Momma, but a desired (albeit very rash) outcome for Jon’s parents; considering that recently a sitting government Representative tweeted that “I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus,” one must acknowledge there’s a significant demographic that may well agree with the elder Aldrichs proposiiton. Curiously, both titles even include dramatic punctuation marks (? vs !), and the former features the normally baby-faced George Segal with a bushy upper lip, while the latter offers Tom Selleck, a man who made mustaches iconic, with a rare clean shave.
When Folks! was released, many critics seemed unaware of the existence of Where’s Poppa?, let alone made the connection that the same author was responsible for both, but Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were well-versed in Klane’s output, and their reactions to each film offers some insight to why one has been revered while the other reviled. Ebert, who gave Poppa 3 stars, wrote of it, “There is a certain kind of humor that rises below vulgarity. It isn’t merely in the worst possible taste; it aspires to be in the worst possible taste. Where’s Poppa? is the best example of the genre since The Producers…Reiner goes for laughs with such a fanatic dedication that there’s no time for logic, plot, character. And why should there be?…Go if you want to laugh and like being offended.” Whereas with Folks!, which he did not review in print but included on his Worst of 1992 list for the syndicated “Siskel & Ebert” TV series, he opined, “Not only one of the worst, but certainly one of the most inexplicable movies of the year…What in the world were they thinking of when they green-lighted this…it’s really hard to understand what comic approach would have been appropriate to make [elderly death] funny.” Siskel, who had been less enthused with Poppa, giving it only 2.5 stars, liking its central premise but feeling the jokes outside of it made it cluttered and unfocused, agreed with Roger on Folks!, suggesting that since Poppa was more about verbal antagonism between child and parent, versus actually attempting the act in the latter film, it made the dark humor more palatable. Casting is cited as well – Ebert said of Segal, “[He] is good as playing the harassed son of the archetypal Jewish mother,” but of Selleck he observed, “[He] was obviously the wrong actor…You see Selleck on screen, you like him. He ought to be playing heroes. He can’t play a convincing creep. With this screenplay, even James Woods would have had to reach for it.”
This indirectly points out a very striking matter about Folks! and its crew. In contrast to Poppa’s team, Klane was now 50, during its filming, director Kotcheff was 60, and Selleck 46, rendering the creators now much closer to elder status, and its star having a decade’s more life experience than Segal did in 1970. Klane, now having married, divorced, and raised children himself, was perhaps now feeling more charitable to the notion of family in general. So, while young Klane would acknowledge that Gordon Hocheiser is his avatar but that he’s not a good person, older Klane sets up Jon Aldrich as a legitimate nice fellow, albeit maybe a little neglectful of his parents since he became one himself, but hardly the kind of person with vindictive thoughts. And when Jon is indefinitely separated from the family he created as an adult, amidst his bad luck, his primary family is all he still has that’s familiar, even if they’re not helpful. And then comes the moment one parent openly asks for an extreme instance of assisted suicide. Contrary to Ebert’s reading, Jon is not supposed to be a creep like Gordon, he’s an ordinary man at the brink who, even if he ultimately decides not to give in to his parents’ despair, that in his bleakest hour, he’d succumb to the idea for a little while, and have to contemplate the void that would leave behind. Seeing as Folks! concludes much happier than either of the two endings Where’s Poppa? had in its theatrical run, it either demonstrates Klane’s mellowing of attitude, or an unwillingness to embrace darker possibilities as he did in his youth, rendering the film as a cinematic platypus.
In the present day, Weekend at Bernies and its divisive sequel have become the most familiar works created by Robert Klane, but Where’s Poppa? still remains a close second. In 2009, the Comedy Death Ray podcast presented a Los Angeles screening introduced by Sarah Silverman, who said, “[It] blew my mind…It’s so hardcore and silly, and funny in a way that I think is emerging now. I was surprised it existed then.” Folks! has not yet had its reputation turn around. At the end of the day, a fair assessment could be that comedy audiences can accept a calamitous attempt to eliminate a difficult parent when it’s the secret wish of a frustrated offspring, because that scenario stays almost entirely in a fantasy realm, but not when it’s the secret wish of that parent themselves, because as we all grow older, sometimes it’s a frightening reality.
Meanwhile, generous wishes of good health to Robert Klane, who will turn 79 this year.