Gary Belkin

Emmy-winning comedy writer

Larry Gelbart was once asked why all Sid Caesar's writers were young and Jewish. He replied, "It was probably because all our parents were old and Jewish." Gary Belkin was only 27 when he joined the legendary television series Caesar's Hour in 1954. Belkin, Sheldon Keller and the future Hello Dolly, Bye Bye Birdie librettist Michael Stewart were among the show's junior "staffers". Its head writers were Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Neil and Danny Simon and Gelbart, who described the air in the writers' office as "thick with laugh-lines lobbed like grenades, each seeking to land in the script at hand". Most of the writers were reunited in 1996 for a TV special which was so rowdy, Belkin shouted over the din, "It's just like the old days - nobody can finish a sentence!"

Like so many comedy writers, Gary Belkin was born in the Bronx, New York. After service in the Army during the Second World War, he got his feet wet in comedy by selling gags to radio comedians and cartoon ideas to The New Yorker. He couldn't believe his luck when, after a few minor television assignments, he landed the Caesar's Hour job.

After that series ended its run in 1957, Belkin was rarely short of work. In the early 1960s, concerned that many buildings in his old neighbourhood were being razed to make way for new housing projects, he drafted a script for Car 54, Where Are You? a sitcom set in the Bronx. His episode, about a Jewish grandmother who refuses to move from her apartment building when it is scheduled to be levelled, was so successful, it led to two more instalments.

In 1963 he emigrated to California to write for Danny Kaye's television variety series. Belkin enjoyed life on the west coast and the Los Angeles Times often printed his snippets of "Beverly Hills Philosophy". These included his Chinese-style proverb, "If you give a man a fish, also give him a lemon wedge and some basil."

His Caesar's Hour colleague Mel Brooks, co-creator of the James Bond spoof Get Smart, hired Belkin to script some of the funnier misadventures of the woefully inept secret agent Maxwell Smart. He was next invited to write for Brooks's wife Anne Bancroft. Her television special, Annie, The Woman in the Life of a Man (1970), which also employed Brooks, the novelist Jacqueline Susann and the playwright William Gibson, won its writers an Emmy Award nomination and its star an actual Emmy. Belkin also received two Emmy nominations during his eight years on The Carol Burnett Show, for which he wrote many movie burlesques, as well as episodes of its soap opera satire, As the Stomach Turns. His other Emmy nominations were for Sesame Street and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

At long last, Belkin received an Emmy, for VD Blues, a sex education programme, written for the Public Broadcasting System. He found this award particularly satisfying as the American Medical Association had refused to endorse the programme because of the humour content.

Gary Belkin was known as a man who could turn his hand to anything. When asked to name his strangest ever assignment, his immediate reply was, "Ghostwriting poetry for Muhammad Ali."

Dick Vosburgh

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