Thursday, November 19, 2015

Best Of: 2009 -- My thoughts on Larry Gelbart

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.
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.


Bill Avena said...

Gelbart was involved in THE WRONG BOX movie from 66 which had Sellers, Caine, Moore and Cook, and aired on TCM last week.

Anonymous said...

So you fell for the 'give him the final draft and tell him it's my first draft' routine.

villagedianne said...

In his autobiography Jackie Cooper speaks of his high opinion of Gelbart, and his gratitude that Gelbart gave him a chance to direct in MASH. Cooper didn't love everybody, though. He disliked Alan Alda, he found him to be "holier than thou."

Eric J said...

Your 2009 post is still the only reference reported by google for 'boulevard farcitiers'.

Mighty Dyckerson said...
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julian said...


Diane D. said...

Wow, what a splendid tribute.

Frank said...

Being able to write an entire Mash episode in one night is mind-boggling. I may have to go lay down now.

scott said...


Jeff Maxwell said...

I came up with the idea to write Private Igor's side of his MASH experience in the form of a cookbook. My agent sold the idea to a publisher. The publisher sent my treatment to FOX which approved the idea and negotiated financial details with the publisher. I got approval from specific individuals and actors who were gracious, supportive and enthusiastic. I immediately began compiling photos, recipes and stories. A month into the process, the publisher called to say that FOX suddenly decided against the idea, and "sorry," it was a dead deal.

I contacted Larry Gelbart for some guidance. He said he had heard nothing from the studio about the idea, and asked me to send him my treatment. I received a postcard one week after I mailed the treatment. All it said was: "DONE" - Larry.

That very day, the publisher called to say that FOX - just as suddenly - agreed to allow me to go ahead with the book.

Larry Gelbart could have easily ignored the issue. He could have objected to the idea. He could have put it on the back burner until I just burned up. But he didn't.

He was one of the nicest people I've ever met in or out of showbiz. His behavior, demeanor and genius were elegant. As Ken said, anyone fortunate to have worked with him on any level is blessed. I think his audiences are blessed, too. He was the real thing.

Mark Murphy said...

When I was a kid, my family and I watched an unsold comedy pilot that CBS was apparently burning off during a dull week.

I don't remember the name of the pilot, but it was about the behind-the-scenes workings of a soap opera and featured Janet Leigh and Barry Nelson.

And we all thought it was hilarious. I made it a point to remember the writer's name: Larry Gelbart, of course. (One joke I remember: the actors were always afraid that their characters would be banished to a place I'll call Winslow Falls. "Nobody comes back from Winslow Falls!")

From then on, I also made it a point to look at anything else I saw his name on, and it was always top-drawer stuff.

And it turns out that Mr. Gelbart himself was a top-drawer human being, which doesn't surprise me because whenever I saw him interviewed he always came across as a nice guy.

I'm so sorry I never got to meet him.

Rick Ollerman said...

Hey, Ken,

I have a "Friday Questions" question:

On many TV shows, when the stars finally hook-up or someone has a baby, that often marks the "jump the shark" point of the series. "The Dick van Dyke Show" was interesting in that Richie would just seem to be a part of the family or not, depending on the script. In watching "Frasier" reruns, I've been struck by Roz having baby Alice. What purpose did a secondary character having a baby serve? The show certainly didn't jump the shark with Alice's arrival, but just what was that event supposed to add to the show?

-Rick Ollerman

Gary said...

For a little taste of Larry Gelbart humor, definitely seek out the video "Caesar's Writers," a panel discussion of Sid Caesar's original writers, taped in 1996. Just a group of funny, funny men reminiscing and breaking each other up. Larry is easily one of the wittiest of the gang.

Cap'n Bob said...

Ken, it seems you've had to delete one comment a day for a while now. I suspect it's the same fool or spammer. What gives, if I may be so nosy?

Monica said...

Thanks for the timely reminder to appreciate the short life we have. Also, thanks for reminding us of your incredible writing talent. I'm always left in awe after reading any long piece you write. Your tribute to Larry was brilliantly moving, and, as always, you have my utmost respect, Mr Levine.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Elsig was a regular on the Usenet group. I don't know where he found the time to give to us, but we were very grateful for his input to our silly discussions.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I envy that you not only got to meet him, but work with him. His book "Laughing Matters" sits on my bookshelf.

Anonymous said...
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Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I was wondering if you could shed any light on Gelbart's "inspiration" for Alan Alda's character in CRIMES & MISDEMEANOURS? Alda had nothing but great things to say about Gelbart upon his death, as did Woody Allen ("the best comedy writer that I ever knew and one of the best guys"). Yet the depiction in C&M wasn't exactly... flattering. (Or was it?) Any thoughts? Thanks.