Larry Gelbart, Who Helped Create 'M*A*S*H,' 'Tootsie' and 'Forum,' Dies at 81

Mr. Gelbart, in a 1998 photo, was praised by funnyman Mel Brooks as
Mr. Gelbart, in a 1998 photo, was praised by funnyman Mel Brooks as "the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business." (By Rick Maiman -- Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

Larry Gelbart, 81, a celebrated writer and producer whose socially innovative TV series "M*A*S*H" helped demonstrate that the half-hour comedy could win huge ratings while addressing contemporary issues such as war and gender relations, died Sept. 11 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

He had cancer. Asked to specify what kind, his wife, Patricia Marshall, said, "Just the lethal kind."

Mr. Gelbart's career spanned nearly every entertainment medium for six decades. After starting in radio comedy as a teenager, he entered television during its formative years and joined a renowned stable of comedy writers -- including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon -- who worked for Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows" or "Caesar's Hour."

Brooks, who once praised Mr. Gelbart as "the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business," told the New York Times that his colleague "was always generous with his laughter, even in such a competitive situation. If I came up with something funny -- and I must admit I often did -- he was the first one to laugh, and really loud. Which helped sell Sid on the idea that we should use it."

Mr. Gelbart wrote or co-wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplays for the comedy films "Tootsie" (1982) starring Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing actor and "Oh, God!" (1977) with George Burns as the Almighty.

With Burt Shevelove, Mr. Gelbart shared a Tony Award for writing the book of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962), a vaudevillian-style farce based on writings by the Roman satirist Plautus. The show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and starring Zero Mostel, proved an enormous and much-revived hit.

Mr. Gelbart won another Tony writing the book to the Cy Coleman-David Zippel musical "City of Angels" (1989), which paid tribute to detective movies of the 1940s. Keeping with its humorously hard-boiled theme, Mr. Gelbart said the initial name for the musical was "Death Is for Suckers."

His most enduring accomplishment was "M*A*S*H," which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1983 and starred Alan Alda as a Korean War surgeon at a mobile army hospital. The theme was the absurdity of war and military regulations and was based on a book by a Korean War doctor who used the pseudonym Richard Hooker. The book had also been popularized by Robert Altman's 1970 film version that was widely viewed as biting critique of the Vietnam War.

The CBS show, which Mr. Gelbart and several collaborators helped develop and produce, made the characters even more familiar to millions of Americans.

They included some of the most memorable ever etched on the small screen: the wisecracking surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers); the bumbling Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff); the sexually repressed head nurse Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit) who is having an affair with the officious Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville); and Cpl. Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr), the operating room aide who cross-dresses in the hope of a winning a discharge for being mentally unfit.

The "M*A*S*H" finale drew the largest audience ever to watch a single television program, according to "The Complete Dictionary to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." For his work on the program, Mr. Gelbart shared a 1974 Emmy for outstanding comedy series.

Television historian Robert J. Thompson said the show's impact was enormous. He said "M*A*S*H," along with "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the 1970s, brought a topical seriousness to television comedy that had been a genre of "talking horses, cars and genies" but managed "to still be really funny." In contrast, the CBS show "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C" with Jim Nabors as a bumbling Marine, ran during much of the Vietnam War without any mention of combat in Southeast Asia.

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