Saturday, September 12, 2009

Larry Gelbart — 1928-2009

Larry Gelbart, the writer who helped create some of the more memorable characters on stage and screen, has died.

Mr. Gelbart’s career spanned nearly every entertainment medium for the last six decades. After starting in radio comedy as a teenager, he entered television during its formative years and joined a renowned stable of comedy writers — including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon — who worked for Sid Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” or “Caesar’s Hour.”

Brooks, who once praised Mr. Gelbart as “the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business,” told the New York Times that his colleague “was always generous with his laughter, even in such a competitive situation. If I came up with something funny — and I must admit I often did — he was the first one to laugh, and really loud. Which helped sell Sid on the idea that we should use it.”

Mr. Gelbart wrote or co-wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplays for the comedy films “Tootsie” (1982) starring Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing actor and “Oh, God!” (1977) with George Burns as the Almighty.

With Burt Shevelove, Mr. Gelbart shared a Tony Award for writing the book of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), a vaudevillian-style farce based on writings by the Roman satirist Plautus. The show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and starring Zero Mostel, proved an enormous and much-revived hit.

His best-known work, however, was a TV sitcom that premiered in 1972 and promptly struggled in the ratings. But it went on to become a huge hit. It was M*A*S*H.

The CBS show, which Mr. Gelbart and several collaborators helped develop and produce, made the characters even more familiar to millions of Americans.

They included some of the most memorable ever etched on the small screen: the wisecracking surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers); the bumbling Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff); the sexually repressed head nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) who is having an affair with the officious Col. Frank Burns* (Larry Linville); and Cpl. Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr), the operating room aide who cross-dresses in the hope of a winning a discharge for being mentally unfit.

The “M*A*S*H” finale drew the largest audience ever to watch a single television program, according to “The Complete Dictionary to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” For his work on the program, Mr. Gelbart shared a 1974 Emmy for outstanding comedy series.

Television historian Robert J. Thompson said the show’s impact was enormous. He said “M*A*S*H,” along with “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s, brought a topical seriousness to television comedy that had been a genre of “talking horses, cars and genies” but managed “to still be really funny.” In contrast, the CBS show “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C” with Jim Nabors as a bumbling Marine, ran during much of the Vietnam War without any mention of combat in Southeast Asia.

His style has been influential to an entire generation of writers and wisecrackers (me included), and even in his passing, his wife Patricia showed a touch of his humor. When asked what kind of cancer Mr. Gelbart had, she replied, “Just the lethal kind.”

Goodbye, farewell, and amen.

*The obit writer has it wrong. As any M*A*S*H fan knows, Frank Burns was a major.