Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering Larry Gelbart

As if 9-11 wasn't tragic enough, it was also on this date one year ago that we lost Larry Gelbart. So, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to re-post my piece on this man I so loved. In 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 good.

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 even commit.

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 cherished possessions.

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 word.

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.

Larry 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.

His legacy 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.

Like any 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”.

Many 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.

Enjoy the 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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ken - it's nice that we both got to know, well, one of our heroes. I, too, miss him every day. Dan

J S Swanson said...

In the early 80s, I played a small part in the Rockford,IL New American Theater's production of Sly Fox. In the Mid 2000'S, I showed Mr & Mrs Gelbart to their seats for a Reprise Theater Co performance @ the Freud Playhouse. I was truly Star-Struck over the opportunity to usher Larry Gelbart to his seat. He was a Comedy God, after all. Even though we only interacted for about 3 minutes - I felt like we were friends.

Paul Duca said...

Off topic, Ken, but I just wanted to tell you about this.
I enjoy watching classic car auctions on my HDTVm and today on one they offered up a 1931 Ford Model A Touring Car--an early station wagon, with the wood body. It was in excellent condition, although not a true original vehicle, as it had a 80's vintage six cylinder engine and automatic transmission (many old cars are updated that way, to make it better for modern driving).
They had a picture of the man selling it, standing alongside the previous owner....Mary Tyler Moore.

It sold for $31,000

WV: flodstra--the philosopher of Empathicalism Audrey Hepburn wanted to meet in FUNNY FACE

Nancy Beach said...

Thanks for re-posting this heartfelt tribute.

Larry Gelbart -- impeccable manners, gracious gentleman, supreme talent. May there always be a place in our hearts for this wonderful man. Thanks for all the great work.

Matt Patton said...

If all that Larry Gelbart had ever done is co-write A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and THE WRONG BOX with Burt Shevelove, he'd deserve to be remembered.

Ian said...

That was a beautiful tribute, Ken. Thank you.