Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Remembering Larry Gelbart

As if 9/11 wasn't already the bleakest day in modern history, three years ago on that date Larry Gelbart passed away.  He was 81.   He was a dear friend, mentor, and inspiration.   Thought I'd share with you again my thoughts on Larry. 

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 boulevardrd 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.


Carol said...

I said it before, and I'll say it again. You write beautiful eulogies yourself, and I would pay money for the book should you ever collect them together.

rassdmisr said...

Laughed continuous Thank you

Carter said...

What Carol said.

Also, what's 'farcitiers' mean?

The Curmudgeon said...

I remember this post, but it was so wonderful I had to read it again anyway.

I already said you should put together a book of eulogies; maybe you'll listen to Carol.

gottacook said...

I would kind of like to see Gelbart's short-lived series United States again; I caught an episode or two during its run, spring 1980. Starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver.

I also would like to find a copy of another Stanley Donen-directed Gelbart movie, one that I saw in the theater: Movie Movie - a double feature of parodies of 1930s movies, the black-and-white "Dynamite Hands" and the color "Blansky's Beauties of 1933" (so says Wikipedia; I'd forgotten the date). IMDB says there was a VHS version with the first part colorized, which I've just discovered in segments on YouTube, but a proper release would be nice.

chris mcdermott said...

Ken, you have been so blessed. Thanks for sharing your memories again.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Levine, I am a longtime fan and reader of your blog and also the associate publisher of Fantagraphics Books in Seattle. We have published a series of art books by Drew Friedman titled Old Jewish Comedians that I would love to send you if I could get a mailing address. Larry Gelbart was kind enough to write the introduction to one and was an absolute pleasure to work with. I think you would enjoy them. Feel free to email me a mailing address at reynolds at fantagraphics dot com.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

In the days when the Internet action was on Usenet, Gelbart used to hang out on the newsgroup (I'm sure his postings are still in the Google Groups archive; to help you search, his posting email address was elsig at He answered people's questions, but most notably participated in conversations like any other member of the newsgroup. I have saved in my old newsreader a brief exchange with him in which we traded stories about George S. Kaufman.


Dave Handerson said...

"Blame It On Rio" is probably my all-time favorite movie. Perhaps that was the movie Mr. Gelbart was turning into a musical?

VincentS said...

Oh, how dull my upbringing would have been without Larry Gelbart's work. I grew up on MASH, TOOTSIE and OH,GOD are two of my favorite movies, and recently I saw FORUM for the first time. The reason it took me so long is that I'm not into musicals, but this one had me in stitches! His was an immense talent and a great loss and we can only speculate at what further triumphs whe would have given us if he were still here. Thanks, Ken, for letting us know he was also a great person.

gottacook said...

VincentS: I hope by "Forum" you mean you've seen the stage musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and not the Richard Lester-directed film version. The latter has Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford from the original production, and has its moments - but the Gelbart/Shevelove script was rewritten by other hands, and more than half of the Sondheim songs dare gone.

gottacook said...

Sorry, should have ended "are gone."

Wayne said...

If the rewrite room was Larry Gelbart and David Lloyd, who would be quickest with a great joke?

How did Larry write scripts, longhand or type?

I'm currently reading Larry's "Laughing Matters". It's the reason they invented the initials LOL.

Maxwell said...

About ten years after the end of the series, I finally wrote the book, Secrets of the M*A*S*H Mess: The Lost Recipes of Private Igor (this is not shameless promotion, the book did well but is now out of print).

A publisher read my book proposal and agreed to go ahead with it. After exhaustive negotiations between myself and Twentieth Century Fox, various cast members and a few security guards, the publisher finally had permission from all concerned to publish the book.

I was truly thrilled about the prospect of sharing the story of my nine-year experience with some of the most brilliant actors, writers, producers, directors and all around wonderful folks I'd ever known. However, on my way to put the down payment on the Ferrari, I got a call from the publisher telling me that Fox suddenly reversed its position and pulled out of the deal. That meant there would be no book.

Admittedly heart-broken, I called Larry Gelbart. I was told he was not in the country but that he would get my message. I then called a fiend to whine about what happened when I got an incoming call. I hit the flash button to hear, " Jeff, this is Larry. I'm in Italy. Tell me what's going on." Somewhat tongue-tied, I related the story from beginning to end. He asked me to send a copy of my book proposal to his home and that he'd get back to me. I was stunned that not only did he react so quickly - but he called me from Italy!

I received a Fed Ex delivery within forty-eight hours after sending him the proposal. Inside was a 5x7 card printed with the name Larry Gelbart. Written in the middle was one word: DONE. Literally, one hour later, the publisher called to tell me that Fox changed its position and had, once again, agreed to allow the book to be published. Not only did Larry save the project for me, but then humbled me to my knees by agreeing to write the forward.

In my opinion, everyone on stage nine during his time there was made better by being in his presence. His genius was exceeded only by his decency.

But I never did get the Ferrari.

With Love,
Private Igor

By Ken Levine said...


Larry would be faster in a photo finish. Before computers, Larry wrote all his scripts longhand on yellow legal pads.

Carol said...

I read Maxwell's comment, and my first thought was 'I want that book.' It may be out of print but there are some copies for sale on Amazon.Maxwell's book, so yay.

Johnny Walker said...

Brilliant post made even better by some brilliant comments. Thanks for sharing that story, Jeff Maxwell!