Comedy Genius Behind 'M*A*S*H,' 'Forum'

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.

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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