Larry Gelbart: Comedy writer best known for 'M*A*S*H' on television and 'Tootsie' in the cinema
Tuesday 22 September 2009
Described by Woody Allen as "the best comedy writer I ever knew", Larry Gelbart was a skilled humorist who had hits in the theatre, cinema and on television. He received both a Tony Award and an Emmy, and his Broadway show libretti included the boisterous and bawdy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the first Broadway show to have both words and music by Stephen Sondheim, based on the plays of Plautus, and the deliciously witty pastiche of film noir, City of Angels (1989). On screen, he won Oscar nominations for his scripting of the George Burns vehicle, Oh, God! (1977) and the hilarious gender-swapping tale Tootsie (1982).
On television, he was co-producer and writer of one of the most acclaimed and influential television series, M*A*S*H (1972), a searingly uncompromising depiction of medical staff serving in a field hospital during the Korean War. The show broke several rules in its combination of humour and tragedy and in its innovations. It was the first situation comedy in which one of the leading players is killed. One episode – dealing with a documentary being made on the unit – was filmed entirely in black and white, and one of the characters created by Gelbart was Corporal Klinger, who dressed in women's clothes in the hope that it would get him discharged.
Gelbart later described the early episodes of the show as "the Marx Brothers superimposed on All Quiet on the Western Front." Alan Alda, the star of the series, said, "Larry Gelbart could take an event where sentimentality was allowed, even expected, and turn it on its ear. My friend Allan Katz, who also wrote for M*A*S*H, was with him once at a friend's funeral. When Larry realised he had to leave early, he leaned over to Allan and said simply, 'I'm sorry to grieve and run.'"
The son of a Latvian barber and a Polish seamstress, he was born Larry Simon Gelbart in 1928, and spoke only Yiddish until he was four. In the early 1940s his family moved to Beverly Hills, California, where he was attending Fairfax High School when his father, finding the entertainer Danny Thomas in his barber's chair, told him that his young son had a flair for humour. Thomas agreed to look at some of the young Gelbart's material and promptly hired him to write gags for himself and for Fannie Brice's radio show, on which he was playing.
During a brief spell in the Army (1945-46), Gelbart wrote for the Armed Forces Radio, after which he joined the writing staff of the hit radio series Duffy's Tavern. He also wrote gags for Jack Paar, Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis, Jack Carson and Bob Hope, and when Hope moved from radio into television, Gelbart went with him, writing for The Bob Hope Show from 1948 to 1952. In 1954 he was head writer on The Pat Boone Show, and the following year he joined the legendary team that wrote Caesar's Hour for the comic Sid Caesar. His colleagues included Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. Neil Simon was later to write a stage comedy, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, based on his experiences as a junior member of the team.
In 1956 Gelbart married the actress Patricia Marshall, the collegiate vying with June Allyson for the affections of football hero Peter Lawford in the captivating MGM musical Good News (1947). The couple had two children and Gelbart adopted Marshall's three children from a previous marriage.
In 1960 he had his first experience of Broadway when he wrote the book for Hail the Conquering Hero, a musical version of Preston Sturges' film that satirised war heroism. The project had originated with Bob Fosse, who planned to direct and choreograph. The production proved chaotic, and when the show was trying out in Washington, Fosse was fired. It opened on Broadway with no director or choreographer listed and closed after eight performances, the distressing experience prompting Gelbart to remark: "If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."
In 1962 Gelbart made his screen-writing debut, co-writing with Blake Edwards a genial comedy-mystery The Notorious Landlady, starring Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak. The same year he joined Burt Shevelove on the book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an adaptation of Plautus stacked with low humour and bawdy situations. Initially the show had problems: the Sondheim songs, sophisticated and witty, were at odds with the show's flavour, and confused audiences. When the director Jerome Robbins was asked to look at the show during its try-out, he told Sondheim to drop the opening number, the delicate "Love is in the Air", and replace it with something that set the tone for a raucous, unsophisticated romp. Sond-heim obliged with one of his most rousing and invigorating numbers, "Comedy Tonight", which stopped the show and made the audience receptive to gags such as the remark of a courtesan to a eunuch, "Don't you dare lower your voice to me!"
"I think Forum is the best farce ever written," said Sondheim. "Forum is much more elegant than anything Feydeau ever wrote and much, much more tightly plotted." Starring Zero Mostel, the show won six Tony Awards, including Best Book, and it repeated its success in London, where Frankie Howerd topped the cast. A film version by Richard Lester in 1966, dropped many of the songs and retained only a modicum of the fun.
Gelbart re-teamed with Carl Reiner for the screenplay The Thrill of it All (1963), a satire on advertising starring Doris Day and James Garner. The same year he travelled to London to supervise rehearsals for A Funny Thing, and he remained for nine years – to the end of his life, he was a staunch Anglophile. With Burt Shevelove he wrote The Wrong Box (1966), a period screwball comedy which benefited from a sterling cast, including Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock, and his television work included The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (1971).
He was lured back to the US when producer Gene Reynolds asked him to write a pilot script for a series based on M*A*S*H, Robert Altman's 1970 film adapted by Ring Lardner Jnr from a novel by Dr Richard Hooker. He wrote that he realised "it was going to have to be a whole lot more than just funny. Funny was easy. How not to trivialise human suffering by trying to be comic about it, that was the challenge." Reynolds made Gelbart co-producer, later stating, "His influence on M*A*S*H was seminal, basic and enormous. Larry not only had the wit and the jokes, he had the sensibility to the premise – the wastefulness of war."
Alan Alda, who played the wise-cracking surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, said, "He never took lightly the deaths of the people in the real MASH units. He knew we could never adequately tell their story or do justice to the sacrifice of their lives. He told me once about his dream for a final episode of the series. At the very end, the camera would pull back and reveal the fake set with its lights and crew, even the snack stand with its coffee pot and peanut butter jar – as if to say, 'we know this was just a show; the real people in this story really hurt and died'."
The series ran for 11 years, but Gelbart left in 1976, partly because he was tired of fighting network executives nervous about some of the controversial themes. He returned to Broadway with a hit comedy, Sly Fox (1976), starring George C. Scott in Gelbart's amusing updating of Ben Jonson's Volpone, and the following year he won an Oscar nomination for Oh, God!, directed by Carl Reiner and starring George Burns as the Almighty visiting earth to recruit a supermarket assistant (John Denver) to spread the word that he is still around. Reiner and Shevelove made the tricky material both tasteful and amusing.
Stanley Donen's Movie Movie (1978), written by Gelbart and Sheldon Keller, was an ambitious attempt to convey the mood of a Thirties double-bill by combining two films – a boxing melodrama and a backstage musical - with a trailer in the middle. Gelbart had his biggest film hit when he collaborated with Murray Schisgal on Tootsie (1982), in which a struggling actor pretends to be a woman to get a part in a soap opera and unintentionally becomes a national treasure. It won Gelbart his second Oscar nomination, though the writer's conflict with his star, Dustin Hoffman, was well publicised and brought from Gelbart the remark, "Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue."
In 1983 Gelbart conceived a sitcom about the post-war lives of characters from M*A*S*H. After M*A*S*H lasted for two seasons. His play Mastergate (1989), a satire on duplicitous politicians inspired by the Iran-Contra scandal, was perhaps too unsettling for Broadway, but Gelbart followed it with a libretto parodying Forties film noir and private-eye movies, City of Angels (1989), a musical with a book stronger than its score. It won Gelbart his second Tony, and was a hit, though a London production was less popular despite rapturous reviews.
Barbarians at the Gate (1993) was the first of three outstanding movies Gelbart wrote for HBO, a scathing black comedy of corporate greed based on the true story of the takeover battle for Nabisco. It was followed by Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997), which targeted media moguls, and the account of Pancho Villa's decision to allow D.W. Griffith to film him in battle. And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) featured Antonio Banderas as Villa.
In 1998, Gelbart wrote his memoirs, Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God! and a Few Other Funny Things. Last year his play Better Late opened in Chicago. His wife said he was working until three weeks ago, adapting City of Angels as a film.
"He was genial from his toenails to his scalp," said Alda, a sentiment echoed by friends. "Larry's genius for writing changed my life because I got to speak his lines; 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."
Larry Gelbart: playwright, screenwriter and author: born Chicago 25 February 1928; married 1956 Patricia Marshall (one son, one daughter, one stepson, one stepdaughter, one stepdaughter deceased); died Beverly Hills 11 September 2009.
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