Obituary: John Fenton Murray

Dick Vosburgh
Friday 23 August 1996 23:02

"My humour's on the wild side," said John Fenton Murray. "I tend to write for clowns, not light comedians." During a long career in radio, television and films, he provided comedy material for such clowns as Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Danny Kaye, Mickey Rooney, Martha Raye and Phyllis Diller.

Born in Nebraska, Murray was 13 when his family moved to California. After taking a writing course at Los Angeles City College, he became a radio writer, turning out scripts for a variety of programmes. In 1941, he was hired for Red Skelton's first starring radio series. By its second season, the show was America's No 2 show, and might have reached the No 1 spot had not the Second World War intervened. In 1945, after Murray had been mustered out of the navy and Skelton out of the army, the series continued, complete with its pre-war writing staff: Murray, Jack Douglas and Benedict Freedman. The New Red Skelton Show ran for the next eight years.

In 1951 Skelton began his own NBC television series, also written by Murray, Douglas and Freedman. At first, it won high ratings, but by 1953 audiences were finding the comedian's characterisations overfamiliar, and the series was cancelled. When CBS, a rival network, signed Skelton for a series, he told his writers, "Sorry, boys - I'm hiring a whole new writing staff. CBS said to get rid of the guys who ruined me last season."

"After a dozen years with Red, I felt like a lost lamb," said Murray, but he was soon writing for Jimmy Durante, and later for McHale's Navy (1962-65), a series with a Second World War setting, starring Ernest Borgnine as Quinton McHale, an inept PT boat commander. Murray also worked on Gilligan's Island (1964-67). This disarmingly corny series, about seven stereotypical castaways, a millionaire couple, a farmgirl, a college professor, a gormless sailor, his blustering captain and a glamorous movie star, has been repeated even more often than I Love Lucy.

Murray scored another success with Chico and the Man (1974-78), which co-starred the veteran character actor Jack Albertson and the young comedian Freddie Prinze. After Prinze's tragic suicide in 1977, other characters were added, but the series didn't survive. Murray also provided scripts for Good Times (1974-79), a boisterous sitcom about an urban black family, which was a spin-off of Maude, itself a spin-off of All in the Family, the American version of Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part.

With his Skelton colleague Benedict Freedman, Murray wrote his first screenplay, The Atomic Kid (1954). Mickey Rooney produced and starred, and the then Mrs Rooney played the female lead. It was a somewhat misleading farce about a young uranium hunter who survived a nuclear detonation because he happened to be eating a peanut butter sandwich at the time. Seven years later, Murray and Freedman wrote Everything's Ducky (1961), another Rooney vehicle, about a sailor whose life is changed when he encounters Scuttlebutt, a talking duck.

In It's Only Money (1963), Murray's screenplay ended with Jerry Lewis fleeing an army of giant remote-controlled lawn mowers. It's Only Money was directed by Frank Tashlin, who shared Murray's sense of the ridiculous; later that year they joined forces again on The Man from the Diners' Club, in which an IBM machine went berserk, burying Danny Kaye beneath thousands of cards.

Because of his experience on the McHale television series, Murray was invited to write the screenplay for McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force (1964), a film that only lacked one thing - McHale; Ernest Borgnine had declined to appear. A Variety film critic felt the actor's absence unbalanced the story, but added: "There can be no quarrel with the script, which has one of the nuttiest closing sequences in recent times." The sequence involved two naval officers, who somehow happened to be sitting in a jeep when it fell out of a cargo plane, to which it was still attached by stout ropes. Soon, they found themselves passing over the entire Japanese fleet. Thinking the manned, flying jeep was some new secret weapon, the Japanese went into a mass panic that led to the sinking of all their ships.

Murray's other movies include Howard Hawks's screwball comedy Man's Favourite Sport? (1964) with Rock Hudson, the western romp Did You Hear the One About the Travelling Saleslady? (1968) with Phyllis Diller, and his final film, Arnold (1973), in which a dead millionaire's ruthless mistress (Stella Stevens) went through a marriage ceremony with her lover's cadaver, in order to claim his inheritance. Wild to the last.

Dick Vosburgh

John Fenton Murray, writer: born Lincoln, Nebraska 19 February 1917; died Sherman Oaks, California 24 July 1996.

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