Monday, September 14, 2009

Larry Gelbart


Gelbart had a substantial career writing for the stage and the big screen, but will be remembered primarily for his participation in one of the most successful television series of all time, M*A*S*H. He wrote the pilot and was script consultant for the first several years of its long run, winning an Emmy along the way.

Larry began his career on the airwaves, writing one-liners for a young Danny Thomas, who was appearing regularly with Fanny Brice on the radio (he snagged the gig as a teen-ager, after his father, Thomas's barber, bragged to the star that his son wrote as well as professional comedy writers). He was still writing for radio when World War II came along, and he was drafted. After the war, he moved to television, writing for Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and, most famously, Sid Caesar. Gelbart was part of the legendary writing team which made "Your Show of Shows" one of television's milestones (his co-writers included Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon). That early association with Reiner ultimately led to his first Oscar nomination, for Reiner's film Oh, God! in 1977.

Larry's career in the theatre was filled with highs and lows. His first effort, writing the book for a musical starring Tom Poston called The Conquering Hero, was a huge disaster, closing in a week. It was that experience which prompted Gelbart's quip, "If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical." That comment could have easily been applied to Larry's second Broadway effort, when he provided the book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The musical was in deep trouble on the road when Jerome Robbins was called in to try to fix the thing. The story is now show business lore: Robbins ejected the opening number and had Stephen Sondheim write a new one. With "Comedy Tonight" introducing the characters (and the tone) of the piece to the audience, the show became a success, and Gelbart won his first Tony. Forum has the funniest book of any American musical comedy, so funny, in fact, that the score is added to give the audience a respite from the non-stop hilarity. (It is the only Sondheim musical from which the songs can be removed and the full story still be told.) The show was poorly translated to film in 1966, but this clip is a fair illustration of Gelbart's way with the quip. This scene is the same, word for word, as the stage show, but is so badly directed that much of the comedy is lost. Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford are recreating their Broadway performances, and silent film comic Buster Keaton is truly dreadful as their dupe (he was dying of cancer during filming). Take a peek, then go find a live production of Forum to see how the thing really plays:

Though he soon transitioned into movies, Larry Gelbart periodically returned to Broadway. In 1976, his adaptation of Ben Johnson's Volpone, Sly Fox, was a hit, with George C. Scott heading a starry cast. 1989 saw a Gelbart flop (Mastergate, a political satire inspired by the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era) and a Gelbart hit (City of Angels, a musical originally titled Death is for Suckers, which provided an homage to 1940s noir films). He won his second Tony for the latter show.

Gelbart's film resume includes an obscure piece called The Wrong Box, a black comedy in which Michael Caine, John Mills, and Ralph Richardson battle over an inheritance, plus higher profile projects such as Neighbors and Movie Movie. His biggest film hit was Tootsie, which he co-wrote with Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire. It was not a happy experience for Larry (there were other writers tinkering with the script, but only the above three achieved writing credit), who clashed with star Dustin Hoffman. He later wrote, "Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue" (Hoffman is 5'6"). Regardless of the problems, Tootsie became a blockbuster hit, and the writers shared an Oscar nomination for their script.
Here's proof of Gelbart's talent, in an hilarious scene between Hoffman and his agent, played by Sidney Pollock (I think Pollock, who directed the film, swipes the scene):

With two Tonys, and two Oscar nominations, Larry Gelbart is still primarily remembered as one of the creative forces behind MASH. He had been living in London for years, "to escape religious freedom in America" he quipped, when he was enlisted by Gene Reynolds to adapt the Robert Altman counter-culture classic into a television series. His work resulted in one of the most successful and well-respected sitcoms in the history of television. Gelbart stayed with the program four years, and was particularly proud of his victory over the network regarding a laugh track: he was able to convince CBS to refrain from adding canned laughter to the operating room scenes.
Larry can be commended for effectively translating the film's characters to the small screen, but I have to confess that I feel the later years of MASH are superior to those first seasons. McLean Stevenson, Larry Linville, and Wayne Rogers were cast in roles which carried over from the film, but none of the three were able to bring much depth to their work. Gradually, they were replaced by Harry Morgan, David Ogden Stiers, and Mike Farrell, and MASH became a superb ensemble vehicle. Its final episode remains the most watched program in TV history.

After leaving MASH, Gelbart continued to dabble in television, including an ill-advised sequel to the series called AfterMASH, which lasted a season and a half in the early 80s. It could not hold a candle to the earlier show, though it earned Larry a Peabody Award for an episode about leukemia.
Last year, Gelbart was the subject of an Internet hoax announcing his death. When the LA Times called to get the scoop, he replied, "I was dead. But I'm better now."
Larry Gelbart died last Friday from cancer at the age of 81. I guess dry humor runs in that family. When the press inquired what kind of cancer it was, Gelbart's widow replied, "The fatal kind."

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