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M*A*S*H* Writer Larry Gelbart


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"M*A*S*H*" Writer Larry Gelbart

by Dennis McLellan

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Writer/Author Larry Gelbart

LOS ANGELES, California -- Larry Gelbart, the award-winning comedy writer best known for developing the landmark TV series, "M*A*S*H*," 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 from cancer on Friday, September 11 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

According to his wife of 53 years, Pat, Gelbart died from a long battle with cancer on Friday morning at his home in Beverly Hills, California. "It wasn't a surprise. He had cancer, we've known that. We didn't know what the outcome would be, the result, whatever. And so here we are and we were sort of prepared for this. It's enough to be able to be resourceful and go forward."

"Larry Gelbart was among the very best comedy writers ever produced in America," said Mel Brooks, whose friendship with Gelbart dated to when they both wrote for Sid Caesar's comedy-variety show, "Caesar's Hour," in the 1950s. Gelbart "had class, he had wit, he had style and grace. He was a marvelous writer who could do more with words than anybody I ever met," Brooks said.

Carl Reiner, his longtime friend and colleague, called Gelbart "the Jonathan Swift of our day." Reiner added, "It's a great, great, great, great, great, great loss. You can't put enough 'greats' in front of it. The mores of our time were never more dissected and discussed. He had the ability to make an elaborate joke given nothing but one line."

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Larry Gelbart

Reiner and Gelbart had a long history together. Reiner knew Gelbart since the "Caesar's Hour" days when Reiner was a cast member and Reiner directed "Oh, God!" from Gelbart's script. Reiner explained, "The main thing about Larry, he was a comedy prodigy who developed into a national treasure. The man was one of the most gifted satirists who ever lived."

Actor 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." In a statement Friday, Woody Allen called Gelbart "the best comedy writer that I ever knew and one of the best guys."

For many, Gelbart is best remembered for his work on "M*A*S*H*," 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 "M*A*S*H*" grew out of director Robert Altman's hit 1970 movie written by Ring Lardner Jr.

The movie, "M*A*S*H*," was based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. Hooker was 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 "M*A*S*H*."

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The Cast and Producers of 'M*A*S*H*' together for a photo op at the TV Land Awards:

(L-R) William 'Father Francis Mulcahy' Christopher, Kellye 'Lt. Kellye Yamato' Nakahara,

Alan 'Benjamin 'Hawkeye' Pierce' Alda, Mike 'B.J. Hunnicutt' Farrell, Loretta 'Margaret

'Hot Lips' Houlihan' Swit, Alan 'Maj. Sidney Freedman' Arbus, Producers Burt Metcalfe

and Larry Gelbart, Jeff Maxwell and Wayne ''Trapper' John McIntyre' Rogers

In writing the pilot, Gelbart recalled in his 1998 memoir, "Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H*, Tootsie, Oh, God! and a Few Other Funny Things," 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."

"M*A*S*H*" 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 "M*A*S*H*," Reynolds told The New York Times in 1989, was "seminal, basic and enormous." Reynolds added, "Larry not only had the wit and the jokes, he had a point of view. He not only had the ribald spirit, he had the sensibility to the premise -- the wastefulness of war."

As for the regulation-breaking surgeon, Hawkeye Pierce -- the lead character played by Alan Alda -- Gelbart told The New York Times in an interview, "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."

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Executive Producer/Writer Larry Gelbart attended the

'M*A*S*H*' 30th Anniversary Reunion in 2002

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."

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

In a statement Friday, Alda said: "Larry's genius for writing changed my life because I got to speak his lines -- lines that were so good they'll be with us for a long, long time; but his other genius -- his immense talent for being good company -- is a light that's gone out and we're all sitting here in the dark."

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.

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Sid Caesar's 'Show of Shows' had a legendary writing team with (front, from

left) Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart, Mel Brooks and (rear, from

left) Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart.

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 writing staff of "Caesar's Hour," Sid Caesar's post-"Your Show of Shows" TV comedy-variety series, whose writers included Neil Simon.

In the writers' room, as 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, 1957 and 1958.

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 comedy musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Gelbart and Burt Shevelove wrote the book for the award-winning Stephen Sondheim theatrical vehicle, 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 co-author.

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Larry Gelbart

Gelbart later wrote the 1976-78 Broadway comedy, "Sly Fox," his updated adaptation of Ben Jonson's "Volpone;" the 1989 satirical comedy about the Iran-contra scandal, "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 television, Gelbart wrote the 1980 series, "United States," a marital comedy starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver. More recently, he wrote the 1993 HBO movie, "Barbarians at the Gate," an entertaining and scathing look at big business. In 1997, he also wrote a satire of the media for HBO, "Weapons of Mass Distraction."

"Time after time he created comedies that made audiences laugh until they hurt while at the same time offering them a serious examination of politics, society and the human condition. Our sadness is at least somewhat mitigated by our knowledge that Larry will live on through his writing," WGAW President Patric Verrone said.

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.

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Larry Gelbart in 2009

And, he shared a screenwriting Oscar nomination with 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" in 1993, "Weapons of Mass Distraction" in 1997 and "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" in 2003.

The son of Eastern European immigrants -- his barber father was from Latvia and his seamstress mother was from Poland -- Gelbart was born Larry Simon Gelbart on February 25, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. Growing up on Chicago's West Side, he spoke only Yiddish until he was four years old.

"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.

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Larry Gelbart in younger days

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." Gelbart was then signed by William Morris and found employment as an 18-year-old staff writer on radio's popular "Duffy's Tavern."

After earning his writing spurs, Gelbart left to write for "The Joan Davis Show." While there, he received his postwar draft notice and soon donned a military uniform. 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."

In addition, Gelbart continued his other radio-writing jobs. After his military discharge, he continued to write for Joan Davis and, additionally, took on Jack Paar, who was then doing a summer replacement show for Jack Benny.

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Larry Gelbart with his wife of 53 years, Pat

In 1956, Gelbart married Pat, a Broadway actress and singer known professionally as Patricia Marshall who was the mother of three children, Cathy, Gary and Paul, from a former marriage. During their marriage, Gelbart and wife, Pat, had two more children together, son, Adam and daughter, Becky.

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 massive stroke." 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 rewriter, 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, his wife said.

Gelbart is survived by his wife of 53 years, Pat; their two children, son, Adam and daughter, Becky; two stepchildren, Gary and Paul Markowitz; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Gelbart was preceded in death by his stepdaughter, Cathy, who died of cancer at age 50.

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