Friday, September 11, 2009

RIP: Larry Gelbart

We lost legendary comedy writer Larry Gelbart. I had the chance to email back and forth with him for the past few years.

Gelbart was born February 25, 1928 in Chicago. He was 81 when he died this morning.

Gelbart is probably best known for developing M*A*S*H for television.

Here's an obit from the LA Times:
Larry Gelbart, the award-winning comedy writer best known for developing the landmark TV series "MASH," co-writing the book for the hit Broadway musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and co-writing the classic movie comedy "Tootsie," died this morning. He was 81.

Gelbart, who was diagnosed with cancer in June, died at his home in Beverly Hills, said his wife, Pat.

Jack Lemmon once described the genial, quick-witted Gelbart as "one of the greatest writers of comedy to have graced the arts in this century."

Gelbart's more than 60-year career began in radio during World War II when he was a 16-year-old student at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. He wrote for "Duffy's Tavern" and radio shows starring Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis, Jack Paar, Jack Carson and Bob Hope, with whom he traveled overseas when Hope entertained the troops.

He moved into television with Hope in 1950 and spent the next few years writing for the comedian as well as for Red Buttons' comedy-variety series.

He moved into television with Hope in 1950 and spent the next few years writing for the comedian as well as for Red Buttons' comedy-variety series.

In 1955, Gelbart joined the fabled writing staff of "Caesar's Hour," Sid Caesar's post-"Your Show of Shows" TV comedy-variety series. Among his fellow writers were Neil Simon and Mel Brooks.

In the writers' room, as colleague Carl Reiner later told Time magazine, Gelbart "popped jokes like popcorn."

Indeed, after Gelbart went to work for "Caesar's Hour," Hope contacted Caesar to say, "I'll trade you two oil wells for one Gelbart."

During his time on Caesar's show, Gelbart shared three Emmy nominations for comedy writing -- in 1956, '57 and '58 -- and earned the admiration of Brooks, who once described him as "the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business."

Moving to Broadway in 1961, Gelbart bombed with the musical "The Conquering Hero," for which he wrote the book. The show closed after eight performances.

But Gelbart returned to Broadway in triumph in 1962 with the hit Stephen Sondheim comedy musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Gelbart and Burt Shevelove wrote the book, which they based on the comedies of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus.

"Forum," whose cast included Zero Mostel, ran on Broadway for more than two years and won a Tony Award for best musical, as well as a Tony for Gelbart as coauthor.

Gelbart later wrote the 1976-78 Broadway comedy "Sly Fox," his updated adaptation of Ben Jonson's "Volpone"; the 1989 comedy "Mastergate"; and the book for the 1989-92 Broadway comedy musical "City of Angels," the Tony best musical winner for which Gelbart won a Tony for best book of a musical.

For films, he wrote the screenplay for "Neighbors" and co-wrote "The Notorious Landlady," "The Wrong Box," "Not With My Wife, You Don't!," "Movie Movie" and "Blame It on Rio."

He also received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for "Oh, God!," the 1977 comedy starring George Burns and John Denver. And he shared a screenwriting Oscar nomination with Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire for "Tootsie," the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange.[...]

But most famously there was "MASH," the long-running series whose blend of laughter and tragedy made TV history.

Set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, TV's "MASH" grew out of director Robert Altman's hit 1970 movie written by Ring Lardner Jr., which was based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker (the pen name of Dr. Richard Hornberger, who had been a military surgeon in Korea).

Gelbart and his family were living in London, and he was producing the British TV show "The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine" in 1971 when producer-director Gene Reynolds called him about writing a pilot script for a TV series based on "MASH."

In writing the pilot, Gelbart recalled in his 1998 memoir "Laughing Matters," he knew that it "was going to have to be a whole lot more than funny. Funny was easy. How not to trivialize human suffering by trying to be comic about it, that was the challenge."

"MASH" debuted on CBS in 1972, with Gelbart serving as executive script consultant. He and Reynolds were both executive producers of the show -- and shared Emmys -- when it won the award for outstanding comedy series in 1974.[...]

"MASH" ran for 11 years. But Gelbart's involvement ended in 1976 after four years and 97 episodes. As he later told The Times, "After four years, I had given it my best, my worst and everything in between."

The son of Eastern European immigrants -- his barber father was from Latvia and his seamstress mother was from Dumbrova, Poland -- Gelbart was born Feb. 25, 1928, in Chicago. Growing up on Chicago's mostly Jewish West Side, he spoke only Yiddish until he was 4.

Gelbart, who studied clarinet for 10 years while growing up -- "I wanted to be the next Benny Goodman" -- inherited his sense of humor from his mother.

"My mother was extremely witty and caustic," he told People magazine in 1998, "and my father knew more jokes than anyone I've ever known."

In 1942, Gelbart's family moved to Los Angeles, where his father's Beverly Hills clientele included actors and agents.

Gelbart had his father to thank for the launch of his comedy writing career in 1944 at age 16.

One of his father's show business customers was comedian Danny Thomas, who had a weekly segment playing a Walter Mitty-type character on "Maxwell House Coffee Time," a radio show starring comedian Fanny Brice.

After Gelbart's father boasted that his son had a gift for writing comedy, Thomas told him, "Have the kid write something and let's see just how good he is."

At the time, Gelbart recalled in his memoir, "my only real 'gift' was for showing off, doing imitations, putting together sketches, speeches, monologues at Fairfax High School."

But he wrote a sample comedy sequence for Thomas, who showed it to the radio show's head writer, and Gelbart suddenly had an after-school job writing comedy for "Maxwell House Coffee Time."

He was an 18-year-old staff writer on radio's popular "Duffy's Tavern" when he received a postwar draft notice.

But his career was not sidelined by his military service: Assigned to Armed Forces Radio Service, he continued to live at home while writing for the star-studded AFRS variety show "Command Performance," as well as continuing his other radio-writing jobs.[...]

He continued writing until three weeks ago, said his wife.

Gelbart married his wife, Pat, a Broadway actress and singer known professionally as Patricia Marshall and the mother of three children from a former marriage, in 1956. They had two children, Adam and Becky.

In addition to his wife and two children, Gelbart is survived by his stepchildren, Gary and Paul Markowitz; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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