Walter Kempley

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The Independent Online

Walter V. Kempley, writer and producer: born 1927; married (one son, three daughters); died Sarasota, Florida 11 August 2001

Johnny Carson has been dubbed "King of the Talk Show", but that title more than fits the lesser-known Walter Kempley, who wrote not only for Carson but for such talk-show hosts as David Frost, Jack Paar and Merv Griffin. Kempley also provided witty scripts for a string of top-rated situation comedies.

Although his first job was as a farm and sports editor on a small Iowa newspaper, most of Kempley's long career was television- related. After serving as TV editor on the Dallas Post, he moved to New York in the late 1950s to work in the media department at NBC. There he came into contact with the comedian Jack Paar, who had recently become the host of the late-night Tonight show. Kempley showed some of his comedy material to Paar, and was invited to join his writing staff. By the time he left in 1961, Kempley had helped to make Paar's show a national addiction.

When he rejoined Tonight, it was as head writer for Paar's successor, Johnny Carson, whose one-liners, sketches and ad libs Kempley fashioned for five years. In 1969 he joined David Frost's New York-based talk-show. In his 1993 autobiography, Frost, recounting the day his staff assembled for the first time, wrote:

Three of the early suggestions for interviewees were Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo. Walter Kempley commented, "On any new talk-show, they always are."

In the mid-1970s the hugely successful television producer Garry Marshall, who had been encouraged by Kempley at the start of his career, hired him as writer and executive producer of his hit series Happy Days. Marshall later wrote that working under Kempley "inspired the show's younger writers, who lacked the discipline that comes with experience".

Not that Kempley didn't have his flops; in 1975 he was involved in a dire variety series conceived and hosted by an uncharismatic, toupeed football commentator. The premiere edition of Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell, in which the nervous host mangled Kempley's linking material, John Wayne ranted hawkishly, and the tennis player Jimmy Connors croakingly sang a song, was described by Kevin Allman in his book TV Turkeys (1987) as "something that seemed to be broadcast from a parallel universe". As quickly as possible, the network cancelled the series, which Kempley said should have been called "Unhappy Days".

He also wrote for The Jackie Gleason Show, The Merv Griffin Show, McHale's Navy and the classic Dick Van Dyke Show. As Van Dyke played the head writer of a television show which starred a neurotic comedian, Kempley was able to bring more than a hint of autobiography to his episodes.

In 1982 he moved to Europe, where he wrote novels and provided scripts for German films and television.

Dick Vosburgh

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