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Larry Gelbart

Larry Gelbart

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Also Known As: Larry Simon Gelbart,Francis Burns Died: September 11, 2009
Born: February 25, 1928 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA Profession: Writer ... screenwriter producer director lyricist
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BIOGRAPHY

As one of the premiere writers to have worked on the small screen, Larry Gelbart was responsible for creating some of the finest television in history. After getting his start writing for Danny Thomas' radio show, Gelbart was at the forefront of the Golden Age of television, writing for such programs as "The Red Buttons Show" (CBS/NBC, 1952-55), "Caesar's Hour" (NBC, 1954-57) and "The Art Carney Show" (NBC, 1959). Having honed his chops among other top comedic talent like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, Gelbart broke away from television to write for the theater, penning the short-lived musical "The Conquering Hero" (1960) and the book for the stage musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962). After spending the rest of the decade writing various film, television and stage projects, Gelbart produced his first television series, "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983), arguably the greatest sitcom of all time. Part situation comedy; part rumination on the tragic consequences of war, "M*A*S*H" became not only a long-running ratings winner, but an iconic American series that boasted the most-watched final episode in television history, while continuing to live on in syndication for decades to come. Gelbart went on to find success in the feature world, earning Oscar nominations for writing "Oh, God!" (1977) and "Tootsie" (1982). Though he maintained a successful and lucrative career, writing an adaptation of "Barbarians at the Gates" (HBO, 1993) and producing "Weapons of Mass Distraction" (HBO, 1997), Gelbart never again reached the creative heights of "M*A*S*H." But he remained throughout the decades one of the most influential comedy writers of all time.

Born Feb. 25, 1928 in Chicago, IL to parents Harry and Frieda, Gelbart began his career while still in high school. His father, an L.A.-based barber, had sung his praises to comedian Danny Thomas as he cut the star's hair, who in turn hired the teenager as a sketch writer for his radio series, "Maxwell House Coffee Time with Danny Thomas" after reading some of the teen's jokes. Gelbart soon had an agent and his career was off and running. After graduating from high school, he wrote for such radio shows as "Duffy's Tavern" and "The Eddie Cantor Show." A stint in the U.S. Army led to work on "Command Performance" for Armed Forces Radio. Following his discharge, Gelbart continued to provide gags for such legendary figures as Jack Paar, Joan Davis and Bob Hope. As television entered its Golden Age in the early 1950s, Gelbart segued to the new medium; first as a staff writer on "The All-Star Revue" (NBC, 1950-53) and then alongside Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks on "Caesar's Hour" (NBC, 1955-57). Throughout the 1950s, he continued to provide amusing material for Red Buttons, Patrice Munsel and Pat Boone and garnered awards for his work on the NBC variety special, "The Art Carney Show" (1959).

At the dawn of the 1960s, Gelbart branched out to write the libretto for the ill-fated musical, "The Conquering Hero" (1960), but hit pay dirt with his second effort. Along with Burt Shevelove, Gelbart modernized the comedies of Plautus and created the book for one of Broadway's best musicals, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The original 1962 production, with a score by Stephen Sondheim, was produced by Harold Prince and directed by George Abbott. It would win six Tony Awards, including one for its book's writers and one for its star, Zero Mostel. (It was successfully revived in 1972 with Phil Silvers and in 1996 with Nathan Lane).

At the same time as his stage success, Gelbart co-wrote the screenplays for his first features. "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), scripted with Blake Edwards, was an enjoyable thriller that found Jack Lemmon investigating the mysterious death of Kim Novak's husband. With Carl Reiner, he penned "The Thrill of It All" (1963), a spoof of TV commercials with James Garner and Doris Day. That same year, Gelbart and his family relocated to London (quipping that he wanted "to escape religious freedom in America") where he spent nine years, in which time he worked on several film scripts, the best of which being "The Wrong Box" (1966), co-written with Burt Shevelove. Returning to the United States in the early 1970s, the writer worked on what was to be a critical and very lucrative project - as well as his defining creation. Ingeniously, he turned Robert Altman's black feature comedy "M*A*S*H*" (1970) into a weekly series. Working with Gene Reynolds, Gelbart spent four years (1972-76) shepherding the series into the rare kind of comedy and drama mix that would win several awards and earn it the reputation as one of the greatest television shows of all time. "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) ran 11 seasons, ending its run in 1983 with a bittersweet finale watched by 106 million viewers, making it the the most-watched final episode in television history.

During the run of "M*A*S*H", he returned to Broadway with "Sly Fox" (1976), an adaptation of Ben Johnson's "Volpone" that starred George C. Scott.He also resumed his film career by nabbing an Oscar nomination for his genial script of "Oh, God!" (1977), in which a supermarket manager (John Denver) is visited by the cigar-smoking Almighty (George Burns). Gelbart co-wrote the pastiche of a double bill "Movie Movie" (1978), Stanley Donen's paean to 1930s Hollywood that featured a Technicolor musical and a black and white boxing drama. Disappointed with the final version of "Rough Cut" (1980), a Burt Reynolds caper, he eschewed credit in favor of the pseudonym, Francis Burns. In 1980, Gelbart attempted the intriguing "United States" (NBC, 1980), a serio-comic look at contemporary marriage starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver. Audiences were not primed for such an atypical series, one that abandoned a laugh track, dealt with mundane issues and failed to wrap things up with a happy ending. Ahead of its time, the series had its champions, but failed to earn high ratings and was canceled after two months

Despite not being involved with "M*A*S*H" for years due to burnout, Gelbart helped create the unsuccessful spin-off (sans Alan Alda), "After MASH" (CBS, 1983-84). The failure of the spin-off was cushioned by the success of his next effort; this time on the big screen. The troubled production of Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie" (1982), for which he provided the original story and clever script, yielded a second Academy Award nomination. Gelbart frequently clashed with director Pollock, who, in turn, clashed with the film's star, Dustin Hoffman. In the end, Gelbart was unhappy to share final credit with Murray Schisgal (although others were also said to have tweaked the script as well) - no doubt due in part to the film's massive critical and commercial success and its status as one of the top feature comedies of all time. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his next feature - a dismal reteaming with the classic movie musical director, Stanley Donen, "Blame It on Rio" (1984), a romantic comedy starring Michael Caine and the up-and-coming Demi Moore.

Returning to the stage, Gelbart had two very different shows on the boards during the 1989-1990 theatrical season. The short-lived "Mastergate" was a satirical examination of political scandals (i.e., Watergate, the Iran-Contra hearings) that closed quickly, although a 1992 television version for Showtime fared better. Gelbart had a bona fide hit, however, with the musical "City of Angels." With a score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, "Angels" was both a pastiche of film noir and a behind-the-scenes skewering of Hollywood. It earned Gelbart his second Tony Award for source material, as well as five others including for Best Musical.

The 1990s saw Gelbart back on the small screen, this time in tandem with cable channels. He penned the highly entertaining adaptation of "Barbarians at the Gate" (HB0, 1993), chronicling the rise and fall of Nabisco chairman F. Ross Johnson. Gelbart then turned his sights on tabloid media moguls in the black comedy "Weapons of Mass Distraction" (HBO, 1997). He also served as executive producer of "Fast Track," a 1997 Showtime series set in the world of professional stock car racing. As the nineties were drawing to a close, the busy writer was juggling a number of projects, including writing drafts of the script for the proposed film version of "Chicago" (2002) and writing an HBO series about a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. Gelbart also contributed to the screenplay for the pallid remake of the Elizabeth Hurley/ Brendan Fraser vehicle, "Bedazzled" (2000).

With his career as TV and film writer beginning to wind down, Gelbart still remained politically active as a resident blogger on The Huffington Post and a vocal supporter of the 2007 Writer's Strike. He would often contribute to "M*A*SH" tributes, including the show's induction into the TV Land Hall of Fame in 2009 - one of his last public appearances - in which he shared the stage with Hawkeye, Hot Lips and Radar. The legendary scribe would pass away from cancer on Sept. 11, 2009 in Beverly Hills. He was 81 years old. Upon hearing the news, Carl Reiner, his longtime friend and colleague, called Gelbart "the Jonathan Swift of our day. It's a great, great, great, great, great, great loss. You can't put enough 'greats' in front of it. The mores of our time were never more dissected and discussed. He had the ability to make an elaborate joke given nothing but one line."

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