Larry Gelbart, the award-winning comedy writer best known for developing the landmark TV series MASH, co-writing the book for the hit Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and co-writing the classic movie comedy Tootsie, died Friday. He was 81.
Gelbart, who was diagnosed with cancer in June, died at his home in Beverly Hills, said his wife, Pat Gelbart.
Comic actor Jack Lemmon once described the genial, quick-witted Gelbart as "one of the greatest writers of comedy to have graced the arts in this century."
Gelbart's more than 60-year career began in radio during World War II when he was a 16-year-old student at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. He wrote for Duffy's Tavern and radio shows starring Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis, Jack Paar, Jack Carson and Bob Hope, with whom he traveled overseas when Hope entertained the troops.
He moved into television with Hope in 1950 and spent the next few years writing for the comedian as well as for Red Buttons' comedy-variety series.
In 1955, Gelbart joined the fabled writing staff of Caesar's Hour, Sid Caesar's post-Your Show of Shows TV comedy-variety series. Among his fellow writers were Neil Simon and Mel Brooks.
But most famously there was MASH, the long-running series whose blend of laughter and tragedy made TV history.
Set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, TV's MASH grew out of director Robert Altman's hit 1970 movie written by Ring Lardner Jr., which was based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker (the pen name of Dr. Richard Hornberger, who had been a military surgeon in Korea).
In writing the pilot, Gelbart recalled in his 1998 memoir Laughing Matters, he knew that it "was going to have to be a whole lot more than funny. Funny was easy. How not to trivialize human suffering by trying to be comic about it, that was the challenge."MASH debuted on CBS in 1972, with Gelbart serving as executive script consultant.