|Award-Winning Legendary Comedy Writer Larry Gelbart Dies at 81
LOS ANGELES -- Acclaimed, award-winning television, stage, and screenwriter Larry Gelbart died today at the age of 81. Gelbart passed away at his Beverly Hills home Friday morning after a lengthy battle with cancer, leaving an indelible mark on the entertainment industry and audiences around the world.
An iconic comedy writer known for his sharp wit, Gelbart contributed many acclaimed and popular works spanning film, television, theater, and radio, having penned seminal TV touchstones such as M*A*S*H, a string of big-screen hits including Tootsie and Oh, God!, and Broadway smashes like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, among other memorable works that influenced generations of comedy writers.
"Larry, a truly virtuoso writing talent who worked in radio, TV, film and the theater, stood tall among all of us who aspire to writing that truly matters. Time after time he created comedies that made audiences laugh until they hurt while at the same time offering them a serious examination of politics, society, and the human condition. Our sadness is at least somewhat mitigated by our knowledge that Larry will live on through his writing,” said WGAW President Patric M. Verrone.
Having earned 13 Writers Guild Award nominations, Gelbart garnered eight WGA wins over the course of his writing career, including three Writers Guild Awards for feature film comedies, including Oh, God! (Screen, Comedies Adapted from Another Medium, 1978), Movie, Movie (Screen, Comedies Written Directly for the Screen, co-written with Sheldon Keller, 1979), and Tootsie (Screen, Comedies Written Directly for the Screen, co-written with Murray Shisgal, 1983), as well as five television Writers Guild Awards for M*A*S*H (“Chief Surgeon Who?,” Episodic Comedy, 1974; “O.R.,” Episodic Comedy, co-written with Laurence Marks, 1975; “Welcome to Korea,” Episodic Comedy, co-written by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, 1976), Barbarians at the Gate (Long Form Adapted, 1994), and most recently, the HBO telefilm, And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself (Long Form Original, 2004). Earlier in his screenwriting career, Gelbart received WGA nominations for such popular screen comedies as The Notorious Lady (co-written with Blake Edwards, 1963) and The Thrill of It All (screenplay by Carl Reiner, story by Reiner and Gelbart, 1964). In 1981, Gelbart received the WGAW’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television for lifetime achievement for his TV work.
Gelbart received two Oscar nominations for his screenplays, Tootsie (Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, shared with Shisgal, 1983) and Oh, God! (Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, 1978). Having earned ten Emmy nominations, he received two Emmy Awards, for his work on M*A*S*H (Outstanding Comedy Series, shared with producer Gene Reynolds, 1974), as well as Barbarians at the Gate (Outstanding Made for Television Movie, 1993), for which Gelbart also shared a Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series of Motion Picture Made for TV the same year.
Gelbart’s other screen credits include Neighbors (1981), Blame It on Rio (co-written with Charlie Peters, 1984), and Bedazzled (co-written with Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan, 2000). On the small screen, Gelbart also contributed to several Oscar telecasts, including the 57th and 58th Academy Awards; other TV credits include telefilms Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997), which earned him the PEN Center USA West Literary Award for Best Teleplay, and Mastergate (1992), based on his novel, as well as TV series such as the sequel, After M*A*S*H, and United States, among other programs.
On stage, Gelbart’s credits include the musicals, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (co-written with Burt Shevelove, 1966), for which he received an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and was later made into a 1966 feature film version, and City of Angels, for which hereceived the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Best Musical and Best Book for a Musical, as well as his triptych of acclaimed theatrical productions, Mastergate, Floodgate, and Abrogate.
Having first made his mark in radio, Gelbart’s early credits include The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Paar Show, The Eddie Cantor Show, and The Jack Carson Show. During TV’s Golden Age, Gelbart’s writing credits included Caesar’s Hour, The Bob Hope Show, The Red Buttons Show, and The Danny Kaye Show.
A Writers Guild member since 1945, Gelbart received the Guild’s prestigious Valentine Davies Award at the 2007 Writers Guild Awards, given to writers who have “contributed to the entertainment industry, as well as the community at large, and who have brought dignity and honor to the profession of writing everywhere.” An enduring fixture in the entertainment industry, Gelbart remained an active member of many guilds and other civic organizations over the years; In addition to the WGAW, Gelbart was also affiliated with the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, the Dramatists Guild, the Authors League, PEN USA, ASCAP, as well as serving as a two-term board member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).
This past June, Gelbart premiered his latest project, Pinnacle, a dark comedy television pilot, that launched the WGAW’s newest Seasoned Readings staged readings series to spotlight the work of older writers and address ageism in the entertainment industry. Gelbart himself recently graced the cover of the WGAW’s Written By magazine as part of a special issue on writers’ “second acts” and the continuing challenge of maintaining a successful writing career over 50 in Hollywood.
Among numerous accolades over his decades-spanning career, Gelbart earned both coveted Humanitas Prize and Peabody Awards for his work on M*A*S*H. In 1987, he received the Pacific Broadcasting Pioneer Award for Creativity and Achievement in Radio and Television. In addition, he has also served on the Kennedy Center Honors Committee and taught as an Artist-in-Residence at Northwestern University (1984-85). In 1998, Gelbart was the first writer ever to be honored with a lifetime tribute at the U.S. Festival of Comedy Arts. In 2000, Gelbart was inducted into the California Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. Gelbart’s own humanitarianefforts extend beyond the small and silver screens – in 2001, he received the Citation for Distinguished Service from the American Medical Association, that organization’s highest honor given to a non-physician.
In addition to his wife, Pat, and two children, Adam and Becky, Gelbart is survived by his three stepchildren, Cathy, Gary, and Paul Markowitz; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Memorial service and donation details are pending at press time.
To access a press photo of the late Larry Gelbart, please visit the following WGAW link to access/download:
Photo credit: © 2009 Jilly Wendell Photography