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The oldest of the Marx Brothers, Chico Marx had an antic personality and a savvy eye for how to keep the group going, but that was also because he had a weakness for both gambling and chasing women.
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The oldest of the Marx Brothers, Chico Marx had an antic personality that included the adopted persona of an Italian dimwit as a foil for Groucho's sarcasm and Harpo's horn. It was his savvy dealing, however, that secured his brothers' wealth. Ironically, his own wealth was illusive due to his lifelong gambling addiction and penchant for chasing women, from whence he got his nickname.
"I wasn't kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth."
"How much money have I lost from gambling in the past ten years? Find out how much money Harpo's got ... that's how much I've lost."
Chico Marx was born Leonard Marx in New York City on March 22, 1887, the second son of Jewish immigrants Sam "Frenchie" and Minnie (Schoenberg) Marx. Because the couple's first son had died in infancy, Chico was the eldest of the famed Marx Brothers.
According to his brother, Groucho, one of the reasons their father was a less-than-successful tailor was because Chico was always pawning his scissors to fund his gambling habit. Said to be his mother's favorite (which was perhaps why he was loosely disciplined), Chico in inherited her drive to keep the act afloat, and took over as manager after her death in 1929.
Another maternal influence was making sure the boys all learned to play musical instruments, and, thusly, Chico took up the piano. He actually joined the brothers' act later, after holding various jobs, including playing the piano in brothels—ideal, given his eye for the ladies—during the Marx Brothers' early years.
In fact, the origin of his nickname, he told a BBC interviewer in 1959, evolved from his penchant for womanizing, often called "chicken chasing" at the time. The name should actually be pronounced Chick-o, which was the way Groucho had always said it, but in an early show program, the "k" was inadvertently dropped, and the new spelling and pronunciation, Cheek-o, stuck.
When Chico joined the brother act, they were a musical group on the vaudeville circuit; legend has it that audience inattention in Texas spurred Groucho to start heckling them and they discovered their flair for comedy.
For the Marx Brothers act, Chico adopted the persona of an Italian dimwit—complete with accent, curly-haired wig and Tyrolean cap—based on denizens of their East New York neighborhood. His dull-witted character masked a savvy businessman; Chico negotiated a percentage of their films' gross ticket receipts for the brothers—a benchmark in early film industry relations with performers—which sustained them, despite huge financial losses during the Great Depression.
The Marx Brothers' sketch comedy on the vaudeville circuit and in Broadway shows, as well as Groucho's and Chico's radio performances, were the spine of their material for the movies. Among their films, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers were the most successful for Paramount. But when Duck Soup, now often considered their masterpiece, didn't do as well, it was Chico's friendship with Hollywood heavyweight Irving Thalberg—probably through card games—that got the brothers a contract with MGM.
The Marx Brothers went on to make a number of classics, including Night at the Opera and A Day a the Races.
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Find out more about the Marx Brothers, the immensely popular family act known for their stage and film performances from the early 1920s to the late '60s, including Animal Crackers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Explore full biographies, and view photos and videos, of Groucho, Gummo, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo.
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