GELBART, LARRY

U.S. Writer-Producer

As producer of M*A*S*H, Larry Gelbart provided numerous contributions to one of television's most innovative and socially aware sitcoms. But he has been a dynamic force in broadcasting for more than thirty years. Gelbart has written for radio and television, as well as the script for the stage play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After leaving television in the early 1980s, Gelbart went on to produce feature films, including Oh God (1977) and Tootsie (1982).

During the 1940s, Gelbart began working as a writer for Fanny Brice's radio show, and as a gag writer for Danny Thomas. After a brief stint in the army, where he wrote for Armed Forces Radio, Gelbart joined the writing staff of Duffy's Tavern, a popular radio program. He also wrote for Bob Hope, whom he followed to television.

In the early 1950s, Gelbart became part of the extraordinarily talented crew of writers on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. This group, which included Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, in addition to Gelbart, helped define the medium in its earlier days. Shortly after becoming head writer for The Pat Boone Show, Gelbart became disgusted by broadcasting's communist witch-hunts and moved to England. While in London, he continued to work in British film and television.

In the early 1970s, Gene Reynolds, who was developing a television version of the film M*A*S*H, enticed Gelbart to write the pilot script. Gelbart was leery about returning to American television, but became interested when he learned that CBS was willing to allow the series to realistically depict the horrors of war. When CBS picked up the series in 1972, Gelbart became its creative consultant. One year later, Gelbart joined Reynolds as co-producer.

Gelbart provided numerous innovations to an idea which had already made for a best-selling novel and box office hit. Recalling a Lenny Bruce bit on draft dodges, Gelbart created Corporal Klinger, a character who dressed in women's clothing in hopes of getting a "Section Eight" discharge. Written as a one-time character, Gelbart's Klinger, played by Jamie Farr, became central to the long-running series. When actor McLean Stevenson decided to leave the series, Gelbart was involved in the decision to "kill off" Stevenson's character, Colonel Henry Blake. This was the first time a series regular had met such a fate. Furthermore, Gelbart is credited with "The Interview" episode, an innovative script in which journalist Clete Roberts, playing himself, interviews the doctors of the M*A*S*H unit. Produced with a cold opening (no teaser, lead-in, or commercial), filmed in black and white, and shot in documentary style, it paved the way for the numerous innovations carried out by later M*A*S*H producers. After four seasons with M*A*S*H, Gelbart became worried he would grow repetitive and left the series.

In 1973, Gelbart and Reynolds created Roll Out, a disappointing series about an army trucking company set in World War II. Gelbart's last outing with series television, the highly touted United States, also failed to score with the public. One of television's first stabs at dramatic sitcoms (dramedy), it fizzled out two months after its March 1980 debut.

-Michael B. Kassel


Larry Gelbart
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

LARRY GELBART. Born in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 25 February 1928. Attended John Marshall High School, Chicago; Fairfax High School, Los Angeles. Married Pat Marshall, 1956; children: Cathy, Paul, Becky, Adam, and Gary. Served in U.S. Army, 1945-46. Began career as radio writer, Danny Thomas (Maxwell House Coffee Time), 1945; moved into television as writer for The Bob Hope Show, 1948-52; best known for M*A*S*H series, 1972-76; artist-in-residence, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1984-85. Honorary degree: LittD, Union College, 1986. Member: Motion Picture Association of Arts and Sciences; Writers Guild of America; Writers Guild of Great Britain; ASCAP. Recipient: Sylvania Award, 1958; Emmy Awards, 1958 and 1973; Tony Awards, 1963, 1990 (twice); Peabody Awards, 1964 and 1975; Montreaux Television Festival Golden Rose Award, 1971; Humanitas Award, 1976; Edgar Allen Poe Awards, 1977 and 1990; Writers Guild of America Awards, 1977, 1978, and 1982; Christopher Award, 1978; Laurel Award, 1981; Los Angeles Film Critics Award, 1982; New York Film Critics Award, 1982; Pacific Broadcasting Pioneer Award, 1987; Lee Strasberg Award, 1990; Outer Critics Circle Awards, 1990 (twice); New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1990; Beverly Hills Theater Group Award, 1991. Address: 807 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills, California 90210, U.S.

TELEVISION SERIES (writer or writer-producer)

1952      The Red Buttons Show
1953      "Honestly, Celeste!" (The Celeste Holm              Show)
1954-62 The Patrice Munsel Show
1954      The Pat Boone Show
1955-57 Caesar's Hour (Your Show of Shows)
1958-59 The Art Carney's Specials
1963      The Danny Kaye Show (consultant)
1971      The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine
1972-76  M*A*S*H (also directed several episodes) 1975      Karen
1980      United States
1983-84 After M*A*S*H
1985, 1986  Academy Award Show
1992      Mastergate
1993      Barbarians at the Gate

FILMS

The Notorious Landlady, 1962; The Thrill of It All, with Carl Reiner, 1963; The Wrong Box, with Burt Shevelove, 1966; Not with My Wife, You Don't, with Norman Panama and Peter Barnes, 1966; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1966; A Fine Pair, 1969; Oh, God!, 1977; Movie, Movie, 1977; Rough Cut (as Francis Burns), 1978; Neighbors, 1981; Tootsie, 1982; Blame It on Rio, 1984.

RADIO

Danny Thomas (Maxwell House Coffee Time), 1945; The Jack Paar Show, 1945; Duffy's Tavern, 1945-57; The Eddie Cantor Show, 1947; Command Performance (Armed Forces Radio Service), 1947; The Jack Carson Show, 1948; The Joan Davis Show, 1948; The Bob Hope Show, 1948.

RECORDINGS

Peter and the Wolf, 1971; Gulliver, 1989.

STAGE

My L.A., 1948; The Conquering Hero, 1960; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962; Jump, 1971; Sly Fox, 1976; Mastergate, 1989; City of Angels, 1989; Power Failure, 1991.

FURTHER READING

Dennison, Linda T. "In the Beginning.... (Larry Gelbart, interview)." Writer's Digest (Cincinnati, Ohio), April 1995.

Kalter, Suzy. The Complete Book of M*A*S*H . Introduction by Larry Gelbart. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1984.

Reiss, David S. M*A*S*H: The Exclusive, Inside Story of TV's Most Popular Show. Foreword by Alan Alda. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill: 1983.

Rothstein, Mervyn. "Is There Life after 'M*A*S*H'?" The New York Times Magazine (New York), 8 October 1989.

 

See also M*A*S*H; Writer in Television