Larry Gelbart


Screenwriter

About

Also Known As
Larry Simon Gelbart, Larry Gelbert, Francis Burns
Birth Place
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Born
February 25, 1928
Died
September 11, 2009
Cause of Death
Cancer

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 Ar...

Family & Companions

Patricia Marshall
Wife
Actor, singer. Married on November 25, 1956; had three children from previous marriage to Dan Markowitz.

Bibliography

"Laughing Matters"
Larry Gelbart, Random House (1998)

Notes

Gelbart is one of the owners of the restaurant Basin Street West

"You really had to earn the laugh in the old days. Now, we've got shock in place of wit, shock wven in place of jokes. And some people aren't even shocked: they're just laughing because, 'Hey, this guy talks just like me.'" --Larry Gelbart in The New York Times Magazine, February 1, 1998.

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."

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (1998)

Writer (Feature Film)

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)
Writer
Bedazzled (2000)
Screenplay
Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997)
Screenplay
The Nutty Professor (1996)
Screenwriter
Barbarians At the Gate (1993)
Screenplay
Mastergate (1992)
Screenplay
Mastergate (1992)
Writer (Adaptation)
Mastergate (1992)
Play As Source Material
Blame It on Rio (1984)
Screenwriter
Tootsie (1982)
From Story
Tootsie (1982)
Story By
Tootsie (1982)
Screenplay
Neighbors (1981)
Screenplay
Rough Cut (1980)
Screenplay
Movie Movie (1978)
Screenplay
Oh, God! (1977)
Screenplay
On My Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who ... (1969)
Screenwriter
A Fine Pair (1969)
Screenwriter
The Wrong Box (1966)
Screenwriter
Not With My Wife, You Don't! (1966)
Screenwriter
The Thrill of It All (1963)
Story
The Notorious Landlady (1962)
Screenwriter

Producer (Feature Film)

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)
Executive Producer
Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997)
Executive Producer
Blame It on Rio (1984)
Executive Producer
The Wrong Box (1966)
Co-producer

Music (Feature Film)

Movie Movie (1978)
Theme Lyrics

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)
Writer (Tv)

Cast (Special)

Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie (2006)
Intimate Portrait: Angie Dickinson (2003)
Brilliant But Cancelled (2002)
M-A-S-H 30th Anniversary Reunion (2002)
Hail Sid Caesar!: The Golden Age of Comedy (2001)
History vs. Hollywood (2001)
The College of Comedy With Alan King III (2001)
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs (2000)
The 70s: The Decade That Changed Television (2000)
Norman Jewison on Comedy in the 20th Century: Funny Is Money (1999)
Neil Simon: The People's Playwright (1999)
NYTV: By the People Who Made It (1998)
Alan Alda: More Than Mr. Nice Guy (1997)
Jackie Mason: An Equal Opportunity Offender (1996)
Caesar's Writers (1996)
The American Television Awards (1993)
Performer
Bob Hope: The First Ninety Years (1993)
Memories of M*A*S*H (1991)
The 58th Annual Academy Awards Presentation (1986)
Presenter

Writer (Special)

Riding High (1977)
Writer
If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? (1974)
Writer
Eddie (1971)
Writer
My Wives Jane (1971)
Writer
Opening Night (1962)
Writer
The Best of Anything (1960)
Writer
Four For Tonight (1960)
Writer
The Rosalind Russell Show (1959)
Writer

Producer (Special)

If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? (1974)
Producer

Special Thanks (Special)

Riding High (1977)
Writer
If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? (1974)
Writer
Eddie (1971)
Writer
My Wives Jane (1971)
Writer
Opening Night (1962)
Writer
The Best of Anything (1960)
Writer
Four For Tonight (1960)
Writer
The Rosalind Russell Show (1959)
Writer

Misc. Crew (Special)

To Life! America Celebrates Israel's 50th (1998)
Creative Consultant

Life Events

1946

Served in the US Army

1946

Wrote for the radio show, "Duffy's Tavern"

1950

Produced first play, "My L.A."

1952

Wrote for "The Red Buttons Show" (CBS, 1952-54; NBC, 1954-55)

1952

Was a staff writer on NBC's "The All-Star Revue"

1954

Teamed with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Mel Tolkin to write for NBC's "Caesar's Hour" starring Sid Caesar

1959

Co-wrote for the NBC variety special, "The Art Carney Show"

1960

Penned the libretto for the musical, "The Conquering Hero"; show closed after seven performances

1962

Co-wrote with Burt Shevelove, the book for the stage musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"

1962

Wrote first film, "The Notorious Landlady"

1963

Was a writer for the CBS series, "The Danny Kaye Show"

1963

Penned the variety special "Judy and Her Guests, Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet"

1966

Produced first feature, "The Wrong Box"; also wrote screenplay

1969

Co-wrote "A Fine Pair"; last fim for eight years

1972

One of the creators of CBS' "M*A*S*H"; also wrote, produced and directed many episodes until leaving after the fourth season

1973

Produced and wrote several episodes of the CBS sitcom, "Roll Out!"

1973

Co-wrote the award-winning variety special, "Barbra Streisand...and Other Musical Instruments" (CBS)

1975

Executive produced and wrote episodes of the ABC sitcom, "Karen" starring Karen Valentine

1976

Returned to Broadway as the playwright of "Sly Fox" starring George C. Scott (and later Jackie Gleason)

1977

Earned first Academy Award nomination for his script, "Oh, God!"

1978

Contributed to the script of "Movie Movie"; directed by Stanley Donen

1980

Took his name off the final version of "Rough Cut" (billed as Francis Burns)

1980

Scripted the TV series, "United States" (NBC)

1982

Shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for "Tootsie"

1983

Wrote and directed episodes of the CBS series, "AfterMASH"

1984

Wrote last feature for over a decade, "Blame It on Rio"; directed by Stanley Donen

1989

Scored a success with the Broadway musical, "City of Angeles"

1989

Wrote the play, "Mastergate," a satire on the Iran-Contra hearings; opened and closed on Broadway after just 68 performances

1992

Adapted his play "Mastergate" for Showtime

1993

Wrote the TV adaptation of "Barbarians at the Gate" (HBO)

1997

Served as executive producer of the Showtime series, "Fast Track"

1997

Executive produced and wrote the TV-movie, "Weapons of Mass Distraction" (HBO)

2000

Contributed to the script for the remake of "Bedazzled"

2000

Penned 26 five-minute episodes for a politically-themed Internet comedy

2002

Writer for the screen adaption of the musical, "Chicago"

2002

Had adaptation of "Lysistrata" (with music by Alan Menken) cancelled by the American Repertory Theater for being "ferociously obscene"

2003

Executive producer and writer for the HBO special, "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself"

Videos

Movie Clip

Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, A - Comedy Tonight! Director Richard Lester with the opening tune, as catchy as any in composer Stephen Sondheim's catalog, delivered with the credits by star Zero Mostel as slave "Pseudolus," who gets caught by his owners (Michael Hordern, Patricia Jessel), in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, 1966.
Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, A - Erotic Pottery Michael Crawford as Roman Hero finishes his Sondheim tune with the slave girl Philia (Annette Andre) he hopes to buy, his family's head slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford) objecting, and his underling Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) advocating, in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, 1966.
Fine Pair, A (1969) - Two Basic Requirements After credits in which she lands in New York from Rome, Claudia Cardinale is pretty convincing as a playful Italian jet-setter, inexplicably dropping in on businesslike police suit Rock Hudson, early in director Francesco Maselli's little-noticed A Fine Pair, 1969.
Fine Pair, A (1969) - You Want Two Rooms? Crossing the pond with Esmerelda (Claudia Cardinale), the now grown-up amateur criminal daughter of his late Italian colleague, New York police executive Harmon (Rock Hudson) is looking only semi-competent at helping her out of a jam, in the multi-national rom-com A Fine Pair, 1969.
Oh, God! (1977) - God Grants You An Interview Extreme ordinary from director Carl Reiner, the singer and sometime actor John Denver is an LA grocery manager, Teri Garr his somewhat distracted wife, script by longtime Reiner collaborator Larry Gelbart, from a book by Avery Corman, opening the 1977 comedy Oh, God!, starring George Burns.
Oh, God! (1977) - You're Not Allowed To See Me LA grocery manager Jerry (John Denver) is irked because the note he got inviting him to an interview with God keeps popping up, so he goes to the address and discovers the voice of George Burns on an intercom, early in the Carl Reiner/Larry Gelbart comedy hit Oh, God!, 1977.
Oh, God! (1977) - Life Is a Crap Shoot Third day for grocery manager Jerry (John Denver) in his inexplicable encounter with “God,” showering when the supreme being appears in person for the first time, George Burns, the same voice from the previous day, giving not quite satisfactory explanations, in director Carl Reiner’s Oh, God!, 1977.
Thrill Of It All, The (1963) - I Am A Great Doctor Just the second scene for Doris Day as Mrs. Beverly Boyer, (ZaSu Pitts, impressively, the maid) as her husband Dr. Jerry (James Garner) arrives home to learn that she didn't get the message that they're going to dinner at the home of wealthy clients he's just helped, in The Thrill Of It All, 1963.
Tootsie (1982) - Can I Call You Dotty? Michael (Dustin Hoffman), standing up erstwhile girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr), and known to his fellow soap opera cast members only as "Dorothy," arrives to run lines and share dinner with new friend Julie (Jessica Lange) who, it turns out, has a child, in Tootsie, 1982.
Tootsie (1982) - No One Will Hire You Angry that he wasn't sent to audition for the Eugene O'Neill play, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) rushes to see his agent George (director Sydney Pollack), with whom he tangles about his career, a famous scene from Tootsie, 1982.
Tootsie (1982) - I Said Good Day, Sir! Moments after Michael's (Dustin Hoffman) first appearance in drag, he auditions for the soap, meeting director Ron (Dabney Coleman), producer Rita (Doris Belack, herself a daytime-drama veteran) and actress Julie (Jessica Lange), ending with a famous line, in Sydney Pollack's Tootsie, 1982.
Not With My Wife You Don't (1966) - Italian, You Know? Tony Curtis is Col. Ferris, man-Friday for Cold War-era American brass in Europe, Richard Eastham his superior and Carroll O’Connor visiting General Parker, but his Italian wife Julie (Virna Lisi) isn’t convinced his brown-nosing is going to pay off, early in Not With My Wife, You Don’t!, 1966.

Trailer

Family

Harry Gelbart
Father
Barbershop owner. Died in December 1997 at age 90.
Frieda Gelbart
Mother
Cathy Gelbart
Step-Daughter
Screenwriter. Died of cancer at age 50 on October 10, 1998.
Gary Gelbart
Step-Son
Paul Gelbart
Step-Son
Adam Gelbart
Son
Special effects specialist. Born in October 1960.
Becky Gelbart
Daughter
Boutique manager. Born c. 1965.

Companions

Patricia Marshall
Wife
Actor, singer. Married on November 25, 1956; had three children from previous marriage to Dan Markowitz.

Bibliography

"Laughing Matters"
Larry Gelbart, Random House (1998)

Notes

Gelbart is one of the owners of the restaurant Basin Street West

"You really had to earn the laugh in the old days. Now, we've got shock in place of wit, shock wven in place of jokes. And some people aren't even shocked: they're just laughing because, 'Hey, this guy talks just like me.'" --Larry Gelbart in The New York Times Magazine, February 1, 1998.

"We've been homogenized, standardized. There's a sense of downsizing in creativity as well. We want happy endings, people to root for, so there's some hope no matter how bleak the situation." --Gelbart to The New York Times. May 15, 1997.

"When Gelbart received a New York Film Critics Award ... for 'Tootsie', he tartly introduced himself to [Murray] Schisgal, his 'collaborator', in front of the audience at Sardi's so that Schisgal wouldn't think that Gelbart was 'some bum who'd just run in to steal the award.'" --From The Hollywood Reporter Larry Gelbart Salute, January 28, 1997.

"I have this relentless internal monologue that I'm trying to write down as fast as I can. Sometimes I just walk around town rewriting license plates." --Larry Gelbart in The New York Times, December 10, 1989.

"Getting a Broadway musical ready to open is like trying to housebreak a dinosaur." --Gelbart quoted by The New York Times, December 10, 1989.