Moving along year by year during my "Best Of" look at the first ten years of my blog, we come to 2009. One of the features of my blog is tributes to artists and people I have known who had passed away. Unfortunately, I've had to write way too many of these over the past decade. On September 11, 2009 my mentor and literary hero, Larry Gelbart died at 81. Usually I would write my tributes that day, but Larry's passing was so devastating that it took two days before I was able to compose semi-coherent thoughts. Here's what I wrote... truly from the heart.
addition to everything else, he wrote beautiful eulogies. With his
flair for words and wit and warmth he constructed eloquent touching
tributes. I used to kid him that he had to live forever because no one
else could write them as well. And now I find myself in the agonizing
position of trying to write his. First off, let me say, it won’t be as
So rather than tell you what you probably already know –
that he was the Mozart of comedy writing and recipient of every honor
but the Heisman Trophy – I’ll try to share some things you might not
know; some personal stories.
In many ways the hardest part of
writing scripts is turning them in. Because then you have to wait. And
wait. And wait. It’s a stomach churning exercise filled with angst
and insecurity and flashbacks of high school. After a day you’re an
utter basket case. After a week you’re confessing to crimes you didn’t
When you turned in a script to Larry at 5:30 he
called you at home to say he loved it… at 6:30. The first Rolaid hadn’t
even dissolved in your stomach yet. Trust me, this is unheard of. But
that was Larry. Empathetic, considerate, a mensch. He was the kindest
man in an industry that seriously frowns on that sort of thing.
Fortunately, he had the talent to overcome it.
And despite his enormous success, he was just as human as the rest of us mere boulevard farcitiers.
He arranged for house seats for my wife and I to see the original
production of SLY FOX. Jacqueline Kennedy was sitting next to me.
When I called the next day to thank him and tell him who was sitting on
my left, he got very nervous. “Did she like it? Did she laugh? Which jokes?”
He was thrilled to learn she did laugh, and I’d like to think thrilled
that my wife and I laughed too but probably more Jackie. After all,
she paid for her seat.
I mentioned one day in a rewrite that my favorite MASH episode was “the More I See You”
with Blythe Danner guesting as Hawkeye’s former flame. A few days
later I received a gift. In those days Larry used to write his scripts
longhand on legal pads. He gave me a Xeroxed copy of his original
first draft. And the Mozart comparison continues. There were no
cross-outs. Every line was perfectly constructed. Emotion and humor
flowed from speech to speech with absolute ease. How does one do that?
It’s impossible! That draft (now bound) remains one of my most
And by the way, he could write an entire
MASH script in one night. He was incredibly fast. Stanley Donan was
going to direct a movie called BLAME IT ON RIO. He was not happy with
the draft his writer had, turned in and asked Larry if as a favor, he’d
read it and offer his suggestions. Larry said sure (Larry always said
sure). The script was delivered to him Friday at 5:30. No, he didn’t
call back with his reaction at 6:30. He waited until Monday morning.
But he said he had so many problems with it that instead of just
scribbling down some notes he took the liberty of REWRITING the whole
screenplay himself. Unbelievable. Even Mozart didn’t compose an opera
over the weekend. Larry said use what you like. Donan used every
A similar story: For rewrites we would dictate to our
assistant, Ruth, who was lightening quick. There was a big Radar
speech. Larry started pitching and was just on fire. We were in
stitches. Ruth broke in, telling him to slow down. Even she couldn’t
write that fast. Larry said, “Just get half” and kept going. The half she didn’t get was better than anything else on television.
always sent thank you notes. Larry always dropped you a line wishing
you well on your upcoming project. Larry always returned phone calls.
Larry always emailed you right back. Larry even left comments on my
blog. I half expect a thank you note for this essay.
will last forever. His work was timeless, universal, steeped in
humanity, and brilliant. MASH will always air eight times a night,
TOOTSIE and OH GOD! will forever be on your screens (be they 64” plasmas
or 2” iPods), FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and CITY OF
ANGELS will be revived as long as there are stages.
screenwriter, Larry had drawers and drawers of unproduced or unsold or
unfinished projects. In June he just had a reading of a pilot he
conceived. Last year he mounted a play in Chicago he was shepherding
to Broadway. At the time of his death he was adapting one of his films
into a musical and one of his musicals into a film. So yes, he left
behind an amazing body of work but still we “just got half”.
people who knew him felt that Hawkeye Pierce was an idealized version
of Larry. I’d like to think one of his other character creations was a
more accurate representation of just who he was. God.
work of Larry Gelbart. You will laugh until you hurt. And for those
of us who were blessed to have known him, we will hurt until we laugh.