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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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Mr. Gelbart's politics ran counter to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He settled with his family in England for much of the 1960s in part because of the war, although he later quipped, "I went to escape religious freedom in America."

One of the creators of "M*A*S*H," Gene Reynolds, once said Mr. Gelbart "not only had the wit and the jokes. He had a point of view. He not only had the ribald spirit, he had the sensibility to the premise -- the wastefulness of war."

Mr. Gelbart said he waged a periodically successful campaign not to use a laugh track on the show.

The son of Eastern European immigrants, Larry Simon Gelbart was born Feb. 25, 1928, in Chicago, and spent his teenage years in Los Angeles. "My mother was extremely witty and caustic, and my father knew more jokes than anyone I've ever known," he told People magazine. "There were two books in our house: the Haggadah for Passover seders and Superman comics. And I never confused the two. Superman always flew from left to right."

His father, a Latvian-born barber with many clients working in entertainment, "just took it in his head that I should be a comedy writer, without checking with me," he told the New York Times. "And one day he was shaving Danny Thomas, and my dad told him he had this very, very clever son who could write comedy, and Thomas said 'Have him write a sketch for me.' " Thomas, who was appearing on Fanny Brice's radio comedy show, smoothed Mr. Gelbart's way into a job writing for the program. After brief Army service in an entertainment unit, Mr. Gelbart contributed jokes and scripts to radio shows hosted by Bob Hope, Red Buttons and Ed Gardner ("Duffy's Tavern").

In addition to Marshall, a singer whom he married in 1956, survivors include two children; two stepsons; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A stepdaughter died in 1998.

After his years with Caesar, Mr. Gelbart began to focus on a career in theater. Working with composer Moose Charlap and lyricist Norman Gimbel, his maiden effort was "The Conquering Hero" (1961), a musical version of Preston Sturges's brilliant movie farce of a Marine dismissed for hay fever during World War II, "Hail the Conquering Hero."

The play met with such punishing reviews that Mr. Gelbart quipped, "If Hitler's alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."

Mr. Gelbart had been at work on another stage project, "Forum," which drew big crowds for years and was turned into a film in 1966. New York Times theater critic Howard Taubman called the Broadway production "noisy, coarse, blue and obvious like the putty nose on a burlesque comedian." He also called it irresistible.

In 1976, Mr. Gelbart quit "M*A*S*H" at the peak of its success to focus on other projects. He wrote or contributed to several films, including "Oh, God!," the suburban comedy "Neighbors" (1981) with John Belushi and "Tootsie" with Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who wins a coveted soap opera role after pretending to be a woman.

In his memoir, "Laughing Matters," Mr. Gelbart wrote of his clashes with the diminutive Hoffman, "Never work with an Oscar winner who is shorter than the statue."

Mr. Gelbart's Broadway shows included the hit "Sly Fox" (1976), based on Ben Jonson's "Volpone," and "Mastergate" (1989), a farce inspired by the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal of the 1980s. Several other ventures into television were considered unsuccessful, including the NBC marriage sitcom "United States" (1980) with Beau Bridges and the "M*A*S*H" sequel "After M*A*S*H" (1983).

But Mr. Gelbart remained active in his field, and it came as a surprise when an Internet hoax late last year purported that he had died. A Los Angeles Times reporter phoned him. "I was dead," Mr. Gelbart said, "but I'm better now."


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