TV NotesLee and Morty Kaufman: Cleaning Up in Their 90s
By Steve Kurutz, The New York Times
' 'Home & Garden' Column - Jan. 22, 2014
Valley Stream, N.Y. — “I was retired for 30 years, until at the age of 90 I got swept up in this commercial bit,” Morty Kaufman said.
He was referring to the popular TV spots for Swiffer, the maker of household cleaning products, which he stars in with his wife, Lee. In a series of unscripted 30-second ads, the couple discuss their blissful 44-year union and their division of household labor (Mrs. Kaufman does the cleaning; Mr. Kaufman the napping), and marvel at the Swiffer Sweeper and other supplies that have been left on their doorstep.
In one spot, Mr. Kaufman addresses the camera, saying: “There’s only two of us. How much dirt can we manufacture?” He and Mrs. Kaufman answer in unison — “Very little” and “More than you think” — in a perfect encapsulation of the male-female cleaning divide that has no doubt existed since before the invention of the broom.
After the commercials began airing six months ago, the Kaufmans became Lee and Morty, TV personalities. The couple, whose names and alternating one-liners have the ring of a Catskills comedy duo, have appeared on the “Today” show and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”; have been interviewed by the local PIX 11 weatherman Mr. G (“A hell of a nice guy,” Mr. Kaufman said); and were recently honored by the Senior Pops Orchestra of Long Island.
Last week, they greeted a reporter on the set where the commercials were filmed: their tidy one-story ranch house on suburban Long Island.
“I bought it 62 years ago,” Mr. Kaufman said from his favorite leather recliner in the living room. “It was new. I paid $15,000 for the house and another $1,000 for the garage.”
He had dressed for the interview in gray pants, a white shirt and a tie. Mrs. Kaufman wore a sparkly purple ensemble and sat perched near her husband on a floral upholstered couch. Their daughter, Myra Allen, 62, whose friendship with a casting director led to the couple’s unlikely late-life career as pitchmen, looked on affectionately.
The commercials were filmed over two days last winter. “Two days of work,” Mr. Kaufman said, shaking his head. “After that, it was all residuals and personal appearances.”
He remains mystified by their popularity. “I look at commercials very casually,” he said. “It’s very hard to let it sink in that people are interested. My reaction was, ‘Why?’ ”
For her part, Mrs. Kaufman found it strange to be recognized when she and her husband would go to Woodro Kosher deli and other local spots. “I didn’t understand why people would be looking at me, I really didn’t,” she said. “I looked down. I thought my pants fell off.”
The ads’ success lies less with the magic of the Swiffer WetJet than with the Kaufmans, who project an appealing picture of marriage and old age. They are both 91 and still in their home, and they appear loving and physically spry on camera (to demonstrate her chandelier-dusting method, Mrs. Kaufman scales a dining chair).
“Well, on the TV we look viable,” said Mr. Kaufman, who has twice battled cancer. “They’re not going to show me hobbling around.”
Nevertheless, he drives two days a week to Nassau Community College, where he helps supervise a seniors learning program. And Mrs. Kaufman said she is active in the alumni association of Hunter College, her alma mater. “Make no mistake, we are goers and doers,” she said. “We are not stay-at-homes. We see a lot of opera in Manhattan.”
Mr. Kaufman pointed out that they have slowed down in recent years, and Mrs. Kaufman agreed. “We used to do a lot more, that’s very true,” she said.
Though the couple come across as lifelong companions, they married in their 40s, after their previous spouses died and left them with children. He had four; she was raising a son and daughter and was the reading teacher for his youngest son, Scott. They met at a school parent-teacher conference, Mr. Kaufman said.
“The second time I went I said: ‘I didn’t come to discuss Scotty. Would you care to go out with me?’ ” he recalled. “From there it blossomed. We fit like gloves.”
Mrs. Kaufman smiled at hearing the lines again. “It’s exactly how he said. He remembers every word.”
Of their courtship, she added, “We had very strange date hours.”
Mr. Kaufman explained that he owned a pharmacy in Brooklyn he had taken over from his father. It was open seven days a week, often late.
Mrs. Kaufman said: “He was a man with four children, a store in Brooklyn and rotten hours. That was how we started.”
These days, they are asked as often about their relationship as they are about the Swiffer ads. People see them as oracles who hold the secret to a happy marriage.
Ms. Allen, who is Mrs. Kaufman’s daughter (although the couple doesn’t differentiate between his and her children), said she has observed the way they readily compromise. “Each one at any given moment is willing to let the other one take the day,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has a vested interest in standing their ground.”
Mrs. Kaufman noted they were both the youngest children in large families. “That teaches you how to get along,” she said.
Asked for his take on lasting romance, Mr. Kaufman said: “We’re in love with each other. That’s essential. You have to be compassionate, caring.” Then he turned to his wife and, almost embarrassed, said, “We’re revealing an awful lot about ourselves.”
She cheered. “It’s an evaluation of our lives.”
When the two married, she moved into his ranch house and set about sprucing up the place and making room for their blended family. But where once the house was busy and a little cramped, it now seems calm and right-size for a nonagenarian couple. The living room, with its burnt-orange shag carpet and artwork from their world travels, has the decades-long constancy one associates with grandparents’ homes. The only nod to this century is Mr. Kaufman’s new recliner: He wore the old one out.
Much of their time is spent in his-and-hers dens. Mr. Kaufman’s is wood-paneled and crowded with a large collection of VHS tapes, while Mrs. Kaufman’s has jazzy wallpaper and lots of light and family photos on the walls. It’s noticeably tidier, too.
She was always the house cleaner, she said, “Especially when the children were younger, tracking in dirt, the back door, the front door — all the kinds of things that go on in a household.”
She added: “I like to live clean. I guess that’s really the bottom line.”
Mr. Kaufman sounded philosophical about dust balls: “I can accept dirt.”
He handles the laundry, as Mrs. Kaufman finds the washing machine with its many buttons confusing. For the deep cleaning, what she calls the “soap-and-water work,” the couple hires a cleaning person who comes every two weeks. Theirs is now a Swiffer household, of course.
Are there plans to appear in more commercials in the future?
“Well, we’re waiting,” Mr. Kaufman said.
Mrs. Kaufman said she would be happy either way. “I have nothing to complain about. We’ve had our day in the sun.”
He agreed. “How much more can we ask for? We’re overwhelmed by the nicety of it.”
She summed it up. “What an experience to come to you at this age.”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/23/garden/lee-and-morty-kaufman-cleaning-up-in-their-90s.html?ref=media&_r=0