When I was a kid, my mom used to complain that there was nothing on TV half as funny as Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” used to be. One Saturday night, when I was a kid, I turned on our old Zenith and happened onto a movie called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I’d never laughed so hard in my 11 year-old life. When I was about 14, I remember loving the weekly smart-ass banter of doctors Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicut on M*A*S*H. In my early 20’s, I saw a Broadway musical called “City of Angles” that I thought was tremendously clever and innovative. And like everybody else in the country, I found the movie “Tootsie” completely hilarious. In the early 90’s, when I was trying to get started as a writer, I caught a movie on HBO called “Barbarians at the Gate” and for the first time ever, took the time to notice who the screenwriter was. I remember thinking “Wow. This guy is good.” Soon after, I discovered that “this guy” had written (or co-written) all the aforementioned projects. He had literally been making me laugh my entire life. His name was Larry Gelbart.
When Larry passed away on Friday at the age of 81, he left behind an impressive and influential body of work. Although most of his obituaries have focused on the seminal effect that M*A*S*H had on television humor, his influence on the whole art and craft of television and film writing would be hard to measure. The guy was a legend. I can’t think of anyone I know who didn’t want to write like Larry Gelbart. He could infuse intelligence, pathos, morality and political comment into a script and still make you laugh. He was a keen observer of his times and a master satirist. Born to working class immigrant parents, he had started his career in radio before moving on to huge successes in television, films and on Broadway. In his later years, he even became a “take-no-prisoners” blogger on The Huffington Post. Plus, he pulled off the single most incredible feat any writer can aspire to: He was still working (and when I say “working” I mean getting paid to write) at age eighty!
When his memoir, “Laughing Matters” came out in 1998, I grabbed it off the shelf at Borders and rushed home to read it. Sadly, I was disappointed to discover that it read like the work of a guy who was a little too busy to write a book. The chapters were disjointed and came off more like essays that had been written years apart. It felt like he had cleaned out his file cabinet, handed the pile to the editor and said “Here, make a book out of this.” Given what a remarkable writer he was (and what an incredible journey he had taken in his career) it seemed like a missed opportunity. But then maybe Larry wasn’t the type to look back. I guess he had scripts he needed to write.
Truth be told, I wasn’t just a fan of Larry Gelbart; I wanted to be him. He seemed to have done all the things that I wanted to do (including live in London for nine years). He was fiercely respected and had no problem speaking the truth about any situation, no matter who was involved. After experiencing “creative differences” with Dustin Hoffman on “Tootsie,” he said of the star, “Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue.” After his Broadway musical, “Conquering Hero” closed after a tortuous try-out in Philadelphia, he gave us one of the most quoted lines in writing history: “If Hitler’s alive, I hope he’s out-of-town with a musical.”
Back in June, I attended a staged reading of a pilot that Larry had written called “Pinnacle.” I had always wanted to meet him and hoped that this would be my chance. The script was vintage Gelbart: clever, tightly-plotted; full of dicey moral situations and plenty of unsentimental observations about the less attractive sides of human nature. During the Q & A, Larry told us that although the script had been turned down by HBO, he hoped to interest the BBC in doing it. He was, at the time, also busy finishing up the screen adaptation of his musical “City of Angels” which Barry Levinson attached to direct. Listening to him filled me with hope. Obviously, Larry wasn’t a young guy, but he certainly didn’t seem “old” either. He was working, engaged, interested and even after 60 years in the business; he was still (like all good writers) a closet optimist.
I hovered for a bit after the Q & A, hoping that the perfect opportunity would arise for me to slip in and shake his hand, but it never did. He was mobbed by his fans, both old and new, who were peppering him with questions about his career, his craft and even soliciting his opinions on the current political climate. Finally, I slipped out, saying to myself, “Maybe, next time.” Unfortunately, there was no next time. Larry was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly thereafter.
If I am lucky enough to live a long life, I hope I’m able to do it as gracefully as Larry did – with humor and honesty and interest. Last December, when a rumor flew around town via the Internet that he had died of a massive stroke, Larry reportedly sent out an email to his friends that simply read: “Does this mean I can stop exercising?” He seemed like a modest guy, but to me (and a lot of others) he was a giant.
Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/