Hal Kanter: Director and writer who made the first US sitcom with a black female star

 

The screenwriter and director Hal Kanter wrote humorous material for such stars as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and directed Elvis Presley in the film Loving You (1957).

Though noted primarily for his witty comic writing, he collaborated with Tennessee Williams on the screen adaptation of Williams's play The Rose Tattoo (1955). He also made television history in 1968 when he created Julia, the first sitcom to feature an African-American actress (Diahann Carroll) in a role other than that of domestic help.

He wrote material for the Academy Award ceremony for over 30 years, first writing for the Oscarcast in 1952, a year before it transferred from radio to television, and he shared in two Emmy Awards for the show in 1991 and 1992. He contributed material for such hosts as Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, and was described by the noted humorist Carl Reiner as "one of the wits of the industry."

The son of Albert Kanter, who founded Classic Comics (later Classics Illustrated), which presented literaryclassics in comic-book adaptations, he was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1918. After contributing gags to comic strips and magazines as a teenager, he moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote for Jack Oakie's radio show in the late 1930s and began a prolific decade of radio work for such stars as Crosby and Kaye. He moved into television in 1949 as head writer on The Ed Wynn Show, a live variety show.

The first film he co-wrote was the musical Two Tickets to Broadway (1951), the story of hopefuls trying to break into television, after which Hope asked him to write additional dialogue for My Favorite Spy (1951), in which Hope had a dual role as an espionage agent and a looalike burlesque comic who is persuaded to impersonate him. Kanter was one of three writers on Road to Bali (1952), the sixth film in the popular Road series starring Hope with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Though critics complained that the film lacked the spontaneity that had been a trademark of the earlier films, it was a success, and Kanter was a writer on further Hope vehicles Here Come the Girls (1953), Off Limits (1953) and Casanova's Big Night (1954), in which he played a hairdresser mistaken for the great lover.

Producer Hal Wallis then asked Kanter to adapt a Damon Runyon story for the popular comedy team of Martin and Lewis. Money from Home (1953), a fanciful tale of gamblers and racketeers, was shot in 3D, but audiences had grown apathetic about the process and the film was shown "flat". Wallis then assigned Kanter to two dramatic movies. About Mrs Leslie (1954) was Shirley Booth's first starring role since her Oscar-winning debut in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). In the touching tale of a boarding-house owner who has a secret affair with a married millionaire (Robert Ryan), Booth was luminous but the film was too low-key for box-office success.

Kanter then collaborated with Williams on The Rose Tattoo, written by Williams as a play five years before for the Italian actress Anna Magnani, who had to decline because she was struggling with the English language. Her English now acceptable, she gave a magnificently earthy performance as a Sicilian widow who fights her attraction to a virile trucker (Burt Lancaster) because of fidelity to her late husband. Magnani won an Oscar and the film's success prompted Wallis to ask Kanter to direct as well as co-write an Elvis Presley vehicle, Loving You (1957), the story of a truck driver's rise to rock'n'roll fame. After Presley stated his theory that stars such as Marlon Brando were great actors because they never smiled, Kanter let him give a smile-free but effective performance.

"When Wallis asked me to look at a screen test of Presley, I was wary," Kanter recalled. "I thought he was just a passing fancy for youngsters, particularly girls, but my socks were knocked off by what I saw. I think if he had had better scripts and not been so reliant on songs, he might have been a superb screen actor."

Kanter's confident direction helped Loving You achieve massive success, but his next two films as a director, I Married a Woman, with comic George Gobel and Diana Dors, and a Dan Rowan and Dick Martin comedy, Once Upon a Horse (both 1958), were flops. He returned to writing, which he preferred, on a pleasant musical, Mardi Gras (1958); Let's Make Love (1960) starring Marilyn Monroe; another Bob Hope comedy, Bachelor in Paradise (1961); Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles; another Presley vehicle, Blue Hawaii (1961); and Move Over, Darling (1963), starring Doris Day and James Garner.

Kanter was also in demand as a TV writer, and in 1955 he won an Emmy for producing and writing The George Gobel Show. In 1969 he was nominated for another for producing and writing the landmark show Julia. Eighteen years earlier, Ethel Waters (succeeded by Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniell) had starred in a hit television series, The Beulah Show, but as a stereotypical black maid. In Julia, Carroll played a widowed nurse with a young child whose best friend is white, and Kanter was proud that it opened a door. "Bill Cosby first opened it with I Spy [1965]," he said, "but Julia opened it wider."

In 1975 Kanter was an executive producer on All in the Family, the US version of Till Death Us Do Part.

Hal Kanter, writer and director: born Savannah, Georgia 18 December 1918; married 1941 Doris Prouder (three daughters); Died Encino, California 6 November 2011.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Louis van Gaal
football
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own