There are different theories to where Zeppo got
his stage name: Groucho said in his Carnegie Hall concert ca.1972
 that the name was derived from the Zeppelin, a new invention
at the time of his birth. However, the chronology of the history
of that airship company does not correlate with Herbert's birth.
In his autobiography Harpo Speaks, ca.1964, Harpo states (p.130)
that there was a popular trained chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, and
that "Herbie" was tagged with the name "Zippo"
because he liked to do chinups and acrobatics, as the chimp did
in its act. The youngest Brother objected to this nickname, and
it was altered to "Zeppo".
Zeppo appeared in the first five Marx Brothers movies,
as a straight man and romantic lead, before leaving the team. According
to a 1925 newspaper article, he also made a solo appearance in the
Adolphe Menjou comedy A Kiss in the Dark, but no known copy of the
film exists, and it is not clear if he actually appeared in the
finished film.  He stood in for Groucho when the brothers performed
on stage, and he was reputed to be very funny offstage. As the
youngest and having grown up watching his brothers, he could fill
in for and imitate any of the others when illness kept them from
performing. "He was so good as Captain Spaulding [in Animal
Crackers] that I would have let him play the part indefinitely,
if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience," Groucho recalled.
(Zeppo did impersonate Groucho in the film version of Animal Crackers
in the blackout scene in which the Beaugard painting is stolen.
Despite popular belief, the blackout scene was not added to the
film because Groucho fell ill, but was in fact in the original Broadway
play.) However, he never invented a comic persona of his own that
could stand up against those of his brothers, even though the
role he formerly filled would continue to exist to some extent in
the brothers' remaining films. He also had perhaps the best singing
voice among the four brothers.
The popular assumption that his character was superfluous
was fueled in part by, interestingly enough, Groucho. According
to Groucho's own story, when the group became the Three Marx Brothers,
the studio wanted to trim their collective salary, and Groucho replied,
"We're twice as funny without Zeppo!"
Offstage, Zeppo had great mechanical skills and
was largely responsible for keeping the Marx family car running.
Zeppo later owned a company which machined parts for the war effort
during World War II, Marman Products Co. Inglewood, CA later known
as the Aeroquip Co. (still in business today) He also made a Motor
Bike called the Marman Twin and the Marman clamps used to hold
the "Fat Man" atomic bomb inside the Enola Gay. He
also founded a large theatrical agency with his brother Gummo, and
invented a wristwatch that would monitor the pulse rate of cardiac
patients and give off an alarm if they went into cardiac arrest.
During his time as a theatrical agent, he and Gummo,
although primarily Gummo, represented their brothers, among many
On April 12, 1927, Zeppo married Marion Benda. The
couple would adopt one child, Timothy, in 1944 and would later divorce
on May 12, 1954. On September 18, 1959, Zeppo married Barbara Blakeley,
whose son, Bobby Oliver, he adopted and gave his surname. Zeppo
and Blakeley would divorce in 1972. Blakeley would later marry singer
The last surviving Marx Brother, Zeppo died of lung
cancer in 1979 at the age of 78.
In recent years, a surge of adamant Zeppo supporters
have risen to challenge the notion that he did not develop a comic
persona in his films.
James Agee considered Zeppo "a peerlessly cheesy
improvement on the traditional straight man." Along similar
lines, Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies
(University of Chicago Press: 1979), notes that Zeppo's comedic
persona, while certainly more subtle than his brothers', is undeniably
[He] added a fourth dimension as the cliché
of the [romantic] juvenile, the bland wooden espouser of sentiments
that seem to exist only in the world of the sound stage. [... He
is] too schleppy, too nasal, and too wooden to be taken seriously.
Danél Griffin, film critic for the University
of Alaska Southeast, elaborates on Mast's theory:
Zeppo’s parts were always intended to be a parody
of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s
era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise
be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his
face. In these roles, he was a lampoon of the infamous extra, always
grinning widely as a needless decoration, and always stiff and wooden.
In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the
romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and,
yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be
considered a real straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the
real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with
the other Brothers. We perceived him as the "normal, good-looking"
one of the bunch, but was he really? Wasn’t there something about
that line from The Cocoanuts, 'You can depend upon me, Mr. Hammer,'
that was a little too ... happy? Roger Ebert called Zeppo 'superfluous,'
and that is the point of his character in the five Paramount films.
He was the straight man only in pure Marxian sense — while his Brothers
spat on movie clichés, he imitated them, proving in his own
way to be quite a brilliant comedian.
In her book Hello, I Must be Going: Groucho &
His Friends, Charlotte Chandler defends Zeppo as being "the
Marx Brothers' interpreter in the worlds they invade. He is neither
totally a straight man nor totally a comedian, but combines elements
of both, as did Margaret Dumont. Zeppo's importance to the Marx
Brothers' initial success was as a Marx Brother who could 'pass'
as a normal person. None of Zeppo's replacements (Allan Jones, Kenny
Baker, and others) could assume this character as convincingly as
Zeppo, because they were actors, and Zeppo was the real thing, cast
to type" (562).
Zeppo's comic persona is highlighted in the "letter
scene" of Animal Crackers. In his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico,
and Sometimes Zeppo, Joe Adamson analyzes the scene, showing how
it reveals Zeppo's ability to one-up Groucho with simple, plain-English
rebuttals. In the scene, Zeppo is told to take a letter to Groucho's
lawyer. Adamson notes,
There is a common assumption that Zeppo = Zero,
which this scene does its best to contradict. Groucho dictating
a letter to anybody else would hardly be cause for rejoicing. We
have to believe that someone will be there to accept all his absurdities
and even respond somewhat in kind before things can progress free
from conflict into this genial mishmash. Groucho clears his throat
in the midst of his dictation, and Zeppo asks him if he wants that
in the letter. Groucho says, 'No, put it in the envelope.' Zeppo
nods. And only Zeppo could even try such a thing as taking down
the heading and the salutation and leaving out the letter because
it didn't sound important to him. It takes a Marx Brother to pull
something like that on a Marx Brother and get away with it. (114)
Allen W. Ellis writes in his article Yes, Sir: The
Legacy of Zeppo Marx (The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, No.
Indeed, Zeppo is a link between the audience and
Groucho, Harpo and Chico. In a sense, he is us on the screen. He
knows who those guys are and what they are capable of. As he ambles
out of a scene, perhaps it is to watch them do their business, to
come back in as necessary to move the film along, and again to join
in the celebration of the finish. Further, Zeppo is crucial to the
absurdity of the Paramount films. The humor is in his incongruity.
Typically he dresses like a normal person, in stark contrast to
Groucho's greasepaint and 'formal' attire, Harpo's rags, and Chico's
immigrant hand-me-downs. By most accounts, he is the handsomest
of the brothers, yet that handsomeness is distorted by his familial
resemblance to the others — sure, he's handsome, but it is a decidedly
peculiar, Marxian handsomeness. By making the group four, Zeppo
adds symmetry, and in the surrealistic worlds of the Paramount films,
this symmetry upsets rather than confirms balance: it is chaos born
of symmetry. That he is a plank in a maelstrom, along with the very
concept of 'this guy' who is there for no real reason, who joins
in and is accepted by these other three wildmen while the narrative
offers no explanation, are wonderful in their pure absurdity. 'To
string things together in a seemingly purposeless way,' said Mark
Twain, 'and to be seemingly unaware that they are absurd, is the
mark of American humor.' The 'sense' injected into the nonsense
only compounds the nonsense. (21-22).
In a eulogy for Zeppo written in 1979 for The Washington
Post, columnist Tom Zito writes,
Thank goodness for Zeppo, who never really cracked
a joke on screen. At least not directly. He just took it from Groucho,
in more ways than one. ... If Groucho, Chico and Harpo were the
funny guys, Zeppo was the Everyman, the loser who'd come running
out of the grocery store only to find the meter maid sticking the
parking ticket on his Hungadunga.
In popular culture
Another measure of Zeppo's legacy and impact are
some popular culture references, some of which acknowledge Zeppo's
minimal flair, some acknowledge his usefulness to the team, and
still others ironically paint Zeppo as being the funniest:
In the movie Good Morning Vietnam, a grinning officer
compares Adrian Cronauer's comic broadcast as being "like one
of the Marx Brothers." The uptight Lieutenant Hauk replies
"Which one? Zeppo? I don't think it's very funny at all."
As the Philadelphia Phillies approached their 10,000th all-time
loss in the summer of 2007, Sports Illustrated ran an article about
the Phillies' many trials and tribulations through the years. The
article pointed out how the Phillies often seemed to end up with
the lesser players of a ballplaying family, for example hiring Vince
DiMaggio instead of Joe DiMaggio or Dom DiMaggio. Making a comparison
with the brothers Felipe Alou, Matty Alou and Jesus Alou, the writer
said, "If there had been a Zeppo Alou, the Phillies would have
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cordelia Chase tells
Xander Harris that he is "the Zeppo", the least useful
member of the Scooby Gang, whose only functions are to fetch doughnuts
and make unfunny jokes. That evening, Xander proves himself every
bit the hero, and saves the day without anyone else knowing.
On the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murray asks, in reference to the dim
Ted Baxter, "What can you expect from a man whose favorite
Marx Brother is Zeppo?"
Lilith Sternin, the straight laced ex wife of Frasier Crane, considered
Zeppo to be the funniest of the Marx Brothers
In an episode of Garfield and Friends, Jon fills out a questionnaire
for a date service that includes the question "Favorite Marx
Brother", which Jon (and his subsequent date) answers "Zeppo".