Jerry Belson

Screen comedy writer


Jerry Belson, television writer and producer: born El Centro, California 8 July 1938; married (one son, two daughters); died Los Angeles 10 October 2006.

Slapstick and physical humour were the trademarks of Jerry Belson, the screen comedy writer who also enjoyed attacking pomposity and pretension. He achieved some of his greatest television sitcom successes in partnership with Garry Marshall, writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show and producing The Odd Couple, before creating The Tracey Ullman Show, which gave the British comedy actress the breakthrough she had been looking for after moving to Hollywood.

With another American producer, James L. Brooks - who had worked on Taxi and Cheers - Belson devised a winning format by showcasing Ullman's talents for characterisation and dialects. Each week, she performed a string of comedy playlets, split up with animated sequences drawn by Matt Groening, but his cartoons of a dysfunctional American family called the Simpsons were actually omitted from the BBC's screenings in Britain, perhaps considered too weird for domestic audiences - before they later achieved global success in their own right.

In fact, The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-90) was a flop in Britain while becoming a huge hit in the United States for the newly launched Fox channel - winning four Emmy Awards, including the network's first.

Belson was also one of the writers - and credited as consulting producer - when Ullman and her husband, the producer Allan McKeown, launched their own American television production, Tracey Takes On . . . (1996-99), featuring the comedienne tackling a different topic each week with a wardrobe of characterisations. Filmed on location, it won eight Emmy Awards and many other honours.

Born in El Centro, California, in 1938, Jerry Belson set off for Hollywood as soon as he could leave high school. He earned a living as a magician, comic-book writer and drummer before, at the age of 22, he sold a script to the long-running sitcom Make Room for Daddy (also titled The Danny Thomas Show, 1953-65).

Also on the programme's scriptwriting team was Garry Marshall and, together, they went on to write episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show and Love, American Style. They also had success with the film comedy How Sweet It Is! (based on Muriel Resnik's 1961 novel The Girl in the Turquoise Bikini and starring James Garner and Debbie Reynolds, 1968).

Then, they produced the landmark television sitcom The Odd Couple (1970-75), based on Neil Simon's Broadway play and the subsequent film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. On the small screen, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman took over the roles of the fastidious Felix Unger and his lazy childhood friend Oscar Madison, who shared a Park Avenue apartment in New York, and the series ran for five years and 114 episodes.

With David Giler and Mordecai Richler, Belson scripted the film comedy Fun with Dick and Jane (starring George Segal and Jane Fonda as a once well-off couple turning to crime when they fall into debt, 1977) and, with Brock Yates, he wrote the action comedy sequel Smokey and the Bandit II (starring Burt Reynolds, 1980).

Alone, Belson wrote and directed the film Surrender (1987), starring Michael Caine as a novelist who has been through two divorces and one palimony settlement, and keeps his wealth a secret from a new girlfriend (Sally Field) to test whether she wants him for himself or his money. In a memorable early scene, when robbers break into a charity benefit and force everyone to strip before making off with the women's jewellery, Caine and Field are tied together naked, face to face.

As well as contributing, uncredited, to the screenplay of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Belson scripted Steven Spielberg's romantic fantasy Always (starring Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter, 1989).

He wrote two Broadway plays, Smile (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1986-87), a musical based on his 1976 film, and - in partnership with Garry Marshall - the short-lived The Roast (starring Doug McClure, Winter Garden Theatre, 1980), which closed after just five performances.

Anthony Hayward

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