Uncle Chico was a really smart guy. Uncle Groucho always said if he'd ever gone to MIT and studied he'd have been a great mathematician. He had a photographic memory and a knack for numbers. He was incredibly charming and flirtatious... and a very comfortably casual performer. Watch him in A Day At The Races when he's playing his piano solo - it says a lot about him.
He's as relaxed as can be. (Despite the fact that I'm sure he never practiced this number before doing it in front of the cameras.) How can I tell? Watch him hear a little flute solo that takes him by surprise - he looks up, startled, without missing a beat. Pleased by the surprise, he smiles that sly grin of his, and looks back at the piano. He didn't know the flute solo was coming because he'd never heard it before. Because he never rehearsed.
Because he didn't really care.
He made his career playing an Italian character with what must be the worst Italian accent in theatrical history. In his movies you can hear him either garbling or completely forgetting his lines. He remains one of the best-known pianists in entertainment, despite the fact that he could barely play with his left hand and never rehearsed.
And to Uncle Groucho's endless frustration, he was still great.
In that one little scene Uncle Chico manages to flirt with the audience watching him. An audience that didn't even exist when they shot that scene! He' still flirting with new audiences who discover him... more than half a century after he died! I think Uncle Chico could flirt with anything... a walrus or a chair... or even an audience that lives in the future.
Unfortunately, Uncle Chico was also a gambling addict with almost no self control. He was reckless with money and died penniless. In 1959 somebody asked him how much money he lost gambling. "Ask Harpo how much money he has," answered Chico. "That's how much money I've lost." He didn't say it with bitterness; it was matter-of-fact. Chico didn't blame anyone for his circumstances... and he led a fairly happy life.
For a guy who never really pursued a career with the kind of dedication that my Dad and Uncle Groucho did, Chico did pretty well. He was the first Marx Brother to star in his own TV show - the long-lost College Bowl from 1950-51. (Andy Williams was a co-star, and he remembers Uncle Chico going on live without having any idea what his lines were... and not being worried about it at all!) Uncle Chico also starred in another TV show in 1956 - a local Los Angeles show called "Say It With Music."
And in the 1940s he toured with a "Big Band" organized by Ben Pollack that included Mel Torme as a singer-drummer. Not bad for a guy who just wanted to fool around with girls and gamble.
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