OBITUARIES: Larry Gelbart, 1928-2009

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Larry Gelbart died today. He was a legendary writer for Radio, Stage, Screen, and Television. He was 81 years old.

A nice Jewish kid from Chicago, he began writing for radio shows at the tail end of World War II, when he was only sixteen years old. His gift for words and his wit quickly endeared him to the talent of the day, and he quickly became a regular writer for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas. In the 1950s, he made the jump in to Television writing, becoming one of the staple writers on the various Sid Caesar shows. Through the 1960s he occasionally dabbled in musical theater, most noteably writing “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” in 1962. However, nlike a lot of his co-writers on the Caesar shows - Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon - who jumped to the Movies, Gelbart remained in television through the 1970s. In 1972 he was effectively one of the co-creators of the television version of M*A*S*H. He left the show in 1976.

Making the jump to films, he wrote the screenplay for “Oh God” in 1977, and co-wrote Tootsie in 1982. Around the same time, he returned to television writing and directed several episodes of “After M*A*S*H*”

He and his wife Pat were married for fifty-three years, one of the longest, and most successful marriages in Hollywood.

I don’t have any great or funny stories about Mr. Gelbart. I never met him. Insofar as I know, he never did any work at all in the Science Fiction genre, but there’s more to life than SF. He was always one of those people behind the camera when I was growing up - a name on the credits of a half-dozen shows I watched as a kid - a shadowy creative type that I kind of subconsciously associated with “Funny” and “Talented” and “Smart” because the shows he did were all of those things. As I got older and started to realize how TV worked, and what the people behind the scenes actually did, I grew to realize that, at least in this case, my assumption was right: He really was a funny, smart, talented, humane guy who made smart, funny, literate scripts that didn’t look down on their audiences, or treat them like idiots. That was as rare then as it is now, frankly, and probably even rarer when he was starting out.

Can you imagine that? You’re just a teenager and you get a job working for Danny Thomas and Jack Parr and Bob Hope, and all these other luminaries? I couldn’t have done it. Sure, I’m a reasonably funny guy, but part of humor is a degree of self-assurance and comfort that I certainly wouldn’t have had surrounded by people like that at the peak of their game, and knowing they’re relying on *you* personally to make them get laughs and not suck. Not only was Mr. Gelbart very talented, he must have had crazy-ludicrous guts to even have gotten his way in to that position to begin with. And to have the career he had, in as many mediums as he was successful in - it’s nothing less than astounding if you sit down and try to figure out the logistics of it.

He was a great writer, and, my all accounts, a great human being as well. I’ve never heard anyone tell a bad story about him. He gave us generations of entertainment, and was a good guy besides, and he will be missed.

Our condolences and all our prayers go to Pat, and his family.