Larry Gelbart's 'fatal stroke' just another setup for waxing comical
A funny thing happened to Larry Gelbart yesterday on the way to death's door: Having already placed himself in select comic-writing company over the past half-century and more, the two-time Tony winner and co-creator of the "MASH" television series woke up Monday to find himself rubbing elbows with Mark Twain on the list of notable wits who have been privileged to affirm that reports of their actual or imminent deaths had been greatly exaggerated.
In Gelbart's case, the blog alt.obituaries carried grim tidings in Monday's wee hours that he was "gravely ill ... from a massive stroke" and that "sadly, doctors are telling kin that hopes for a recovery are slim, and it's probably a matter of weeks." Alan Alda and Woody Allen were said to have called the unnamed hospital, "desperately in search of information" about their stricken friend.
Sounding chipper, unruffled and amused over the phone from his home in Beverly Hills, Gelbart told Culture Monster today that he'd learned of his dire condition over the Internet, like everybody else. "I got a Google alert: 'This is to inform you that you're apparently no longer with us.' "
One of the first things he did was tap out an e-mailed quip informing netizens that he wasn't in danger of cancellation just yet: "Does that mean I can stop exercising?"
Gelbart cooked up sketches for Sid Caesar's television shows in the 1950s, won his first Tony in 1963 for co-writing the book that went with Stephen Sondheim's score to "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and his second in 1990 for the book for "City of Angels," which featured a score by Cy Coleman. In between, he helped bring "MASH" to the tube, an antiwar statement masked as a sitcom.
Now, Gelbart says, he sees no reason why he shouldn't make it to his 81st birthday on Feb. 25 -- and perhaps linger on beyond that indefinitely as he develops ideas for new projects in theater, television and film.
Gelbart says that "a couple of years ago" a similarly unfounded report of his demise made it onto the radio. "I don't know how any of this gets reported. I guess there's life after life after death."
A writer to the core, he does admit being miffed that alt.obituaries couldn't give him sole billing in his own death scene, having to bring in famous faces Alda and Allen to ratchet up the drama.
"I was disappointed to see it takes some kind of star power to sell an obit. I didn't seem to be enough by myself."
But he's not holding any hard feelings -- nor is he feeling spooked by an apparent perception that, as show-biz eminences go, he's more mortal than most.
"There's something about [being] this age, which doesn't make you any braver. It just gives you a sense of equanimity. You need it if they're going to keep reporting your demise."
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Larry Gelbart in 1997, top. In bottom photo, he's third from left in December 2006 at a PEN USA Literary Awards Festival with Rainn Wilson, Jane Smiley and Bob Shaye.
Photo credits: Patrick Downs / Los Angeles Times, top; Amy Graves / WireImage.com, bottom