Larry Gelbart, the award-winning writer whose sly, sardonic wit helped create such hits as Broadway’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the films “Tootsie” and “Oh, God!” and television’s “M*A*S*H,” is dead.
Gelbart died at his Beverly Hills home Friday morning after a long battle with cancer, said Creative Artists Agency, which represented him. He was 81.
Gelbart, who won a Tony for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” an Emmy for “M*A*S*H” and was nominated for two Oscars, is most likely best remembered for the long-running TV show about Army doctors during the Korean War.
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,” said Reiner, who directed “Oh, God!” from Gelbart’s Oscar-nominated script. “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.”
“M*A*S*H” debuted on CBS in 1972, when the nation was still embroiled in the Vietnam War, and some viewers were initially puzzled or offended by its depiction of the cynical, wisecracking physicians who worked frantically to save the lives of soldiers.
By its second season it had caught on, however, and it remained one of television’s top-10 rated shows for a decade, until its final episode in 1983. Along the way, it won numerous awards including the Emmy for best comedy series.
“What attracted me to ‘M*A*S*H’ was the theme song, ‘Suicide is Painless,”’ Gelbart once remarked. “It was written in a very minor key and appealed to me emotionally.”
The show, based on a book and the 1970 Robert Altman film of the same name, starred Alan Alda. Gelbart was brought into the project by producer-director Gene Reynolds who worked with him shaping the show.
After writing 97 half-hour episodes and winning an Emmy, Gelbart quit during the show’s fourth season, saying he was “totally worn out.”
‘The wittiest man in the business’
His entry into the entertainment business 30 years before had been worthy of a TV script itself.
Gelbart’s father was a Los Angeles barber with a clientele of Hollywood notables, including Danny Thomas. While cutting Thomas’ hair one day, he bragged of his 16-year-old son’s writing ability and the comedian asked to see some of his work. Soon Thomas had hired Gelbart to write for his radio show.
“A comedy prodigy does not exist. A kid can make other kids laugh, but to make adults laugh with sophisticated humor at that age, it’s not heard of,” Reiner said Friday. “He had an unerring ear and eye for humor. He had a funny mother, which helps, and a father who loved jokes.”
He went on to write gags for Bob Hope, Jack Paar, Red Buttons, Jack Carson, Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis. In 1953 he accepted Sid Caesar’s offer of $1,000 a week to work for “Caesar’s Hour,” joining a legendary writing team that included Reiner, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon.
“He’s the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business,” Brooks once said of him.
Deciding to expand his horizons, Gelbart also co-authored a revue, “My L.A.,” which was a local hit in 1948.
His first foray to Broadway was far less successful. His 1961 play, “The Conquering Hero” closed after seven performances.
His next Broadway show, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” written with Burt Shevelove, enjoyed a far better fate the following year. Based loosely on the Roman plays of Plautus with songs by Stephen Sondheim, the show was a runaway hit, resulting in road companies and a 1966 movie with Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers.
After the play’s success, Gelbart decided to move with his wife and five children to England, quipping that he wanted “to escape religious freedom in America.”
They remained there for nine years, and his only notable work during that time was a script, written with Shevelove, for the 1966 black comedy, “The Wrong Box.”
By the time he returned to Hollywood, however, he had a broader view of the world that he said helped him tackle “M*A*S*H.”
“I make jokes all the time,” Gelbart once said of his penchant for comedy. “It’s a tic — a way of making myself comfortable. I can’t imagine not having humor to lean on.”
Gelbart also returned to the theater with “Sly Fox,” which transformed Ben Jonson’s Elizabethan “Volpone” to Gold Rush San Francisco. Starring George C. Scott as the devious miser, it was a solid success.
“Mastergate,” a scathing treatment of the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, flopped in 1989, but Gelbart scored the same year with “City of Angels,” a musical spoof of Hollywood movies and crime novels.
His films “Oh, God!” with George Burns as a philosophical deity, and “Tootsie,” with Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing actor, both brought him Academy Award nominations, and the HBO movie “Barbarians at the Gate,” about Wall Street chicanery, brought another Emmy.
Larry Simon Gelbart was born in Chicago, moving to Los Angeles while in high school.
He married singer and actress Pat Marshall in 1956 and they raised their two children, Becky and Adam, and her three by a previous marriage, Cathy, Gary and Paul. Cathy died of cancer at age 50.