|Subject: Larry Gelbert dead at 81
Next Thread |
Previous Thread |
Next Message |
Date Posted: 09/11/09 1:50:08pm
'MASH' writer Larry Gelbart dies at 81
Gelbart, who was diagnosed with cancer this year, died at his home in
Beverly Hills. He also wrote for Broadway and the movies, including
By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times
September 11, 2009
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
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-
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 he 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
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 Award 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 Award 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 nominationwith Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire for
"Tootsie," the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange.
Among his other credits: He wrote the screenplays for the HBO movies
"Barbarians at the Gate" (1993), "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (1997)
and "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" (2003).
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.
Gelbart's influence on "MASH," Reynolds told the New York Times in
1989, was "seminal, basic and enormous."
"Larry not only had the wit and the jokes," Reynolds said, "he had a
point of view. He not only had the ribald spirit, he had the
sensibility to the premise -- the wastefulness of war."
Looking at the show's success, Gelbart told the New York Times, "It
was a time -- it still is the time, to some degree -- of great
disillusionment. And the characters filled a hero vacuum. I think they
behaved in the way a viewer would like to think they would behave in a
A sense of disillusionment, he said, was part of his own personality.
"I'm not a comfortable person," he said. "There are a lot of elbows
inside me bumping up against one another. I think that if you're a
reasonably well-informed, caring person, you think life is basically
sad . . . that this is a sad world we live in.
"The thing that most appealed to me about 'MASH' was not even the
movie. It was the theme song ['Suicide is Painless' written by Johnny
Mandel and Mike Altman], the movie music, which was written in a very
minor key and appealed to me emotionally. And I know that I pegged all
that comedy to that sound."
As for the regulation-breaking surgeon Hawkeye Pierce -- the lead
character played by Alan Alda -- Gelbart said, "I didn't have to think
of why he was saying what he said. He was saying what I felt. I mean,
he is an idealized me."
Hawkeye, he said, "is capable -- that is, at work, at what he does.
He's an idealist. He's a romantic. Somebody who cares about himself
and other people. He's often frustrated by whatever particular system
he finds himself fighting against."
"MASH" ran for 11 years. But Gelbart's involvement ended in 1976 after
four years and 97episodes. 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 Polish-born 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, when he was 14, 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 comedienne Fanny
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 post-war 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.
In December, 2008, the still-professionally active Gelbart found
himself the subject of an Internet hoax on the online bulletin board
alt.obituaries, which reported that he was "gravely ill . . . from a
He was fine, of course -- and in fine comedic fettle. Referring to his
alleged pending demise, he e-mailed alt.obituaries: "Does that mean I
can stop exercising?"
But ever the re-writer, Gelbart came up with another witty response in
a brief chat with an inquiring Los Angeles Times reporter: "I was
dead, but I'm better now."
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
In addition to his wife and two children, Gelbart is survived by his
stepchildren, Gary and Paul Markowitz; six grandchildren and two great-
Next Thread |
Previous Thread |
Next Message |