Larry Gelbart was one of the best comedy writers, but he was also a fine playwright and producer. He didn’t just write jokes, he constructed scripts around a clear theme and three-dimensional characters. His material was funny but smart at the same time.
Gelbart is probably most famously known for writing and producing M*A*S*H, adapting it from the film of the same name.
Older generations might remember him as one of the many talented writing who wrote the skits and programs for Sid Caesar in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Caesar assembled quite a collection of talent on his weekly series and specials.
Gelbart got his start writing for radio in the 1940’s for Danny Thomas, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope and Jack Paar, before moving into television. Besides Caesar, he wrote for Red Buttons, Dinah Shore and Art Carney.
In the 1960’s, Gelbart co-wrote the very successful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, winning Tony Awards for best musical and best author. It was been revived many times and was made into an award-winning film musical.
When M*A*S*H came along, he wrote the pilot episode and then many others, serving as a script consultant and then producer. He left after season four, which introduced B.J. Hunnicut and Col. Sherman Potter to the cast.
The show changed during the first seasons, moving further away from the original film and treating the stories more seriousness and deeper characterization.
Gelbart didn’t move completely away from television although film became more of his focus, either as the main writer or as a script “doctor” as the popular role became. Fixing scripts was like being the closer in baseball, you don’t get the win but your contribution is extremely valuable. Fixers are usually uncredited but can earn a substantial fee for adding dialogue or jazzing up a character.
Two of Gelbart’s best known projects were Oh, God! (1977), starring George Burns and John Denver, and Tootsie (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Bill Murray. Oh, God! was directed by Carl Reiner, his colleague from the old Your Show of Shows.
Tootsie, went through many writers and script versions. It is credited to Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Barry Levinson, but Elaine May and other writers had a hand in it.
Gelbart returned to Broadway, writing City of Angels which premiered in 1989, and won several Tony Awards for best musical and best book, and won him a Drama Desk Award and an Edgar Award.
Back to television, he adapted Barbarians at the Gate as a television film starring James Garner. The film, about the leverage buyout out of a major tobacco company, won several Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
In his later years, Gelbart wrote his autobiography and was even a blogger for the Huffington Post. Recognizing his life achievement and legacy, the American Theatre Hall of Fame and the Television Hall of Fame came calling.
I heard that he had been contacted by Robert Redford to possibly write a sequel to Redford’s 1972 film, The Candidate. In a letter I received from Gelbart he explained the frustration of working with Redford and how after many meetings and effort, the project dissolved. Writers have many story meetings and make attempts at scripts that don’t go anywhere. That’s life, but I detected great disappointment by Gelbart that this project with Redford meant more to him than the unusual aborted project.
Gelbart worked until his death in 2009 after a short battle with cancer.
“He’s the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business,” said Mel Brooks, another writing colleague from the Sid Caesar days.
“He had the ability to make an elaborate joke given nothing but one line,” said Carl Reiner.
In the pantheon on comedy, what is Larry Gelbart’s contribution? He wrote comedy for the masses, but he never underestimated their intelligence.
In reflecting in his role in developing television comedy in the earliest days, he said in an interview with the London Sunday Times, “There were no footprints in the snow. You weren’t worried about doing something that somebody else had done the night before, because there was no night before.”
Hawkeye Pierce existed before Larry Gelbart, but he wasn’t funny until Gelbart got a hold of him. Maybe this is his most lasting contribution.