It was a little over 30 years ago that I first laid eyes on the remarkable Larry Gelbart. The occasion was our high school’s 50th anniversary. I had been selected to host the celebration in the auditorium. It was also my duty to talk about what Fairfax High had been like when I was there during the 1950s. It was Larry’s job to report on the 1940s. As I recall, producer Mike Frankovich handled the 30s and singer Martha Tilton recalled the 1920s. Although I got to introduce Gelbart to the audience, we didn’t actually meet.
Several months later, in a weekly column I was then writing for the L.A. Times, I took exception to the constant trashing of TV. For all its obvious faults, I pointed out that over the years TV, not Broadway, books or the movies, was the place to find the best comedy in America. I went on to mention ten or twelve of the anonymous men most responsible for writing the funniest lines. Naturally, Larry Gelbart was one of the names on my list.
The next day, I got a phone call. It was Larry and he started out by apologizing. He said that he and his wife, Pat, had dreaded going to the Fairfax High bash, but that I had been very funny and they had had a terrific time. It seems he had meant to call me the very next day, but it had slipped his mind. Now he was calling to thank me for mentioning him in my article.
Oddly enough, I was anxious to get off the phone. Although I appreciate compliments as much as the next guy, I’m the guy who prefers them in writing. Even when I receive them over the phone, I feel like I’m blushing and have lost the power of speech. After being praised, just saying “Thank you” seems terribly lame, while trying to return the compliment seems awfully phony. But just before I was able to mumble my thanks and hang up, I heard him say, “I understand you sometimes write for TV. If you ever come up with an idea for a ‘MASH‘ script, just shoot it over to me. I’m here at 20th.”
It had long been my wish to write comedy for TV, but I had not been able to break through, only managing to accumulate credits on “Dragnet” and “McMillan & Wife.” So, while I was greatly motivated, my problem was that I wasn’t a fan of “MASH.” I hadn’t liked the movie and the one time I had watched an episode, it just seemed like all those other lousy service comedies, like “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “Operation Petticoat,” that I had already come to loathe.
But, at the time nobody else was inviting me to write a comedy or anything else, so I sat down with my steno pad and prayed for a miracle. The miracle came in the form of an idea about an injured soldier showing up at the 4077th, claiming to be Jesus Christ.
“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” led to seven additional MASH scripts, a shot at several other sitcoms and ultimately swung open the doors to writing TV movies.
Because I owed Gelbart a debt that I could never hope to re-pay, I was grateful when he called one day and asked for a favor. It seems the WGA was hosting a tribute to Larry that very evening and Mel Shavelson, who was scheduled to emcee the event, had taken ill. Larry wondered if I would agree to fill in.
Inasmuch as my responsibilities would be pretty much limited to pointing to people in the audience during the Q&A session, and in some cases repeating their questions into a microphone, I felt I was up to it, if just barely.
Larry was his usual droll and hilarious self. The most memorable moment, though, came during the intermission when Larry and I left the stage to sit with Pat in the front row. A young fellow came down the aisle and kneeled next to Larry. As expected, he began by saying what a great fan he was, and how, being a writer himself, he regarded Gelbart as a role model. Larry, far more adept at handling compliments than I because no doubt he had had so much more experience, was smiling and nodding graciously. The big surprise came when the young fan concluded his remarks by saying, “And that’s why I’m so excited to be re-writing ‘Rough Cut’.”
“Rough Cut,” you see, was a script Gelbart had been writing for Burt Reynolds and David Niven. Until that moment, he didn’t know that he’d been replaced by the producer.
So, forget all the stuff he wrote for the movies (“Tootsie,” “Oh, God!” “The Wrong Box”); the stage (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Mastergate,” “City of Angels”); and TV (“MASH,” “Your Show of Shows,” “Caesar’s Hour,” “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” “Barbarians at the Gate,”). Forget that at the age of 16, while still attending Fairfax High, he would go, still wearing his ROTC uniform, to write for “Duffy’s Tavern” and, later, Bob Hope on the radio. After all, anyone with the appropriate amount of God-given talent, wit and staying power, could do the very same thing for 65 years.
But the fact that he could listen to this pisher break the news to him that he had replaced him on a writing project and keep on smiling, shake his hand and wish him luck, tells you all you need to know about what sort of mensch Larry Gelbart was.