Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Larry Gelbart

Lost in all the horrors of 9-11 is that I lost another dear friend who died on that date.  Larry Gelbart in 2009.   Were it not for 9-11 I might have saluted him every year on that date.  But since almost ten years have gone by, I thought I'd share once again my thoughts on Larry Gelbart.  Usually when I write tributes I do them quickly and post them quickly.  For Larry it took two days just to compose myself.   Hopefully you'll see why he was such a special man and such a blessing to my life. 
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.


Andrew said...

Hi Ken. Thanks for the beautiful tribute.
A quick question. When he wrote Oh God!, did he have George Burns and John Denver in mind? Or did the casting come later? It was certainly a perfect match between the script and the actors.

Bob Gassel said...

Larry was a semi-regular and cordial presence on the old newsgroup, and he actually posted "The Interview" segments he imagined for Henry, Trapper, and Col. Flagg...



COL. FLAGG:!searchin/$27S$20%22THE$20interview$20interview%7Csort:date/

E. Yarber said...

All too often I've seen people reveal their true natures when confronted with the business. They become emotionally needy. They don't bother to hide their greed or disregard for others. It's good to remember that the opposite is also true. A love of the craft can ennoble someone with true talent.

RockGolf (not his real name) said...

Friday Question: Gotta ask - what's your thoughts on Linda Bloodworth-Thompson's article on how Les Moonves screwed her over?

bmfc1 said...

"Larry always sent thank you notes." In 1980 I wrote a letter to Newsday TV Critic Marvin Kitman praising "United States". Kitman forwarded it to Larry who send me a thank you note for liking the show.

Bob Gassel said...

...regarding the above "Interview" segments, we tried to get him to do one for Charles, but he didn't think it was appropriate as he had never written for the character

Duncan Randall said...

Seconding Rock Golf's Friday question - and adding, how do these nut jobs get to the top of the business?

VincentS said...

I've been watching some of the interviews he gave on YouTube lately. My God, what an intelligent, insightful guy. He seemed to have an ever-active mind to fuel his unsurpassed comic/writing talent. No wonder he conquered every writing venue he attempted. I envy you for having known and worked with him, Ken.

Anonymous said...

@Bob Gassel: Thank you for those links. Interesting reads. Much appreciated!

By the way, the links worked for me on desktop, but not on mobile. I converted them to alternate links which seem to work. Here they are to help anyone else who might find them useful:

Larry Gelbart's "The Interview" segments from




(I obtained these links from the "More message actions" in Google Groups)

Earl Boebert said...

His lesser-known and hard to find masterpiece "The Wrong Box" is one of the funniest movies ever and well worth hunting for. It's a great pity that it is not more readily available.

It truly is a joy to watch Wilfrid Lawson steal scenes from the likes of Michael Caine, John Mills, and Ralph Richardson.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've never met the man. But, I did recently see him on a Dick Cavett Show rerun. He was on the panel with Pat McCormick and David Lloyd. Larry was definitely the funniest one of the bunch. In fact, anytime I had seen him on a talk show he was hysterically funny. The thing I most admired was his quick wit. He didn't just rattle off jokes as a comedian would. He would have clever comments about whatever the subject was. I don't know if he ever tried improv, but he would have been great at it. I'm also glad to hear that he was a good man as well. This IS NOT a Friday Question, but who (whom?) do you consider to be the "first runner-up?"

Brian said...

Thanks for posting this again Ken. Oh God! is one of my favorite movies.

therealshell said...

Thank you for a lovely tribute to an obviously wonderful writer and chap among chaps.

DBenson said...

"The Wrong Box" is available on DVD. The cast also includes Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as a pair of devious nephews and a great cameo by Peter Sellers as an addled physician.

CarolMR said...

Lovely tribute. I read that Larry Gelbart played poker with Sinatra every week. Don't know if it's true.

Xmastime said...

Beautiful post. For what sounds like an even better guy than we already thought. I was gonna make a joke about "maybe he hand-wrote the More I See You script after hearing you say you liked it" but decided this wasn't the place. ;)

Thanks Ken!

Unknown said...

My writing career has always been Larry Gelbart adjacent, but now thanks to you and this wonderful eulogy of a mensch of a man, a handshake away... Drew Vaupen

Jahn Ghalt said...

In its way, this is a more impressive tribute to a fellow writer than the one for Angell. And, quite likely to say, Gelbart's genius is more impressive than the "Mozart legend". Dear old Wolfgang probably DIDrevise his work - given that many drafts must have been lost during his lifetime (or the same day - why keep them?) and almost certainly in the 200+ years since 1791.

You, at least, have a photocopy of the longhand draft. All that would remain would be to bind a typed copy along with it.

And the weekend rewrite of (what?) 100-200 pages of screenplay in 60-odd hours! What a savant!

It's surprising that Ruth didn't have a cassette recorder to supplement the "half" she got.

In the spirit of kindness, about a very kind superstar, it was nice to say that JKO "paid for her theatre ticket" - but, given that he was almost still warm, it would be more accurate to say that "Ari" paid for it.

Pete Grossman said...

So full of love and admiration, Ken. Thank you for posting it again.

ScarletNumber said...

I'm sure that Charlie Peters was surprised that his script wasn't used for Blame It on Rio. Peters went on to write 3 Men and a Little Lady and Krippendorf's Tribe. Keep in mind that Three Men and a Little Lady was the sequel to the much more charming Three Men and a Baby.

Then again, I want to give an award to whomever wrote Michelle Johnson's nude scene.

Johnny Walker said...

Sounds like an amazing guy. I’d love to understand why Woody Allen and Alan Alda seemingly took aim at him in CRIMES & MISDEMEANOURS. It just baffles me, as Alda has also professed himself to be a big fan of Gelbart’s, too. What am I missing?

Andrew said...

@Johnny Walker,
I've never heard of that. Could you say more about what you mean? I haven't seen that movie in a long time so I'm not sure what you're referring to. Was the Alda character supposedly based on Gelbart?

Mike McCann said...

It's always wonderful to have a colleague who doubles as a professional inspiration. Even greater when they're a better person than their body of work.


Jeff Maxwell said...

Wonderful, Ken.

My experience with the incredible Mr. Gelbart:

A publisher agreed to publish my book proposal, Secrets of the M*A*S*H Mess. Thrilled, I wrote and turned in the manuscript. At the last minute, the publisher called to say that Fox suddenly reversed its position and would not allow the book to go forward. I was devastated. Lots of work, entire cast on board, fun recipes, photos, etc., all seemed doomed.

On a Thursday, I called Larry Gelbart, who graciously had written a Forward, to express my appreciation and sorrow the book would not be published. He said, “Let me see what I can do.”

The following Monday I received mail from Larry. With no clue, I pulled a single note card out of the envelope that read simply: DONE. Love, Larry.

Literally, twenty-minutes later, the publisher called to say that Fox reversed its reversal and agreed to allow the book to be published.


I am blessed to have experienced whatever small amount of time with a true genius and beautiful human being.