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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Ken Levine on Larry Gelbart: Nice guys don't finish last

September 15, 2009 |  1:12 pm

Wherever he is up in Showbiz Valhalla -- no doubt helping out some hapless previous arrival on a rewrite -- Larry Gelbart has to be secretly delighted, reading all the good notices he's received since his death late last week at age 81. My paper ran a fine story by Alan Alda, who had the pleasure of delivering Gelbart's dialogue in "MASH." But for my money, the best tribute to the comedy writing king came from one of Gelbart's peers, TV writer-producer Ken Levine, who took time out from his day job hosting Dodger Talk to pen a delightful appreciation of the man he calls "the Mozart of comedy writing and the recipient of every honor but the Heisman Trophy."

Gelbart To hear Levine tell it in his blog post, Gelbart, best known for helping create "MASH" as well as writing movies such as "Tootsie" and "Oh God!" and Broadway's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," was a prince -- empathetic, considerate, menschy and "the kindest man in an industry that seriously frowns on that sort of thing." According to Levine, if he turned in a "MASH" script to Gelbart at 5:30, he didn't dilly-dally and make you wait weeks for a reaction. He called you .. .at 6:30, so fast that "the first Rolaid hadn't even dissolved in your stomach."

Gelbart not only could write an entire "MASH" episode in one night, but when Stanley Donen asked Gelbart to look over a problematic draft of "Blame It on Rio" that a writer had turned in, Gelbart didn't just offer a few fixes -- he said "he had so many problems with it that instead of just scribbling down a few notes he took the liberty of REWRITING the whole screenplay himself." Over the weekend!

Of all the stories that Levine tells, my favorite reveals that Gelbart, despite his seemingly effortless brilliance, was just as much in need of praise and reassurance as the rest of us mere mortals. Gelbart once arranged for house seats so Levine and his wife could see the original production of "Sly Fox." When they arrived, the couple found themselves seated next to Jackie Kennedy. "When I called the next day to thank him and tell him who was sitting to my left, he got very nervous. 'Did she like it? Did she laugh? Which jokes?' He was thrilled to learned she did laugh, and I'd like to think thrilled that my wife and I laughed too, but probably more Jackie. After all, she paid for her seat." 

There are more great tales in Levine's post, but here's his final benediction, which pretty much captures the warm and fuzzy air of hero worship that thousands of writers had toward Gelbart: "Many people who knew him felt that Hawkeye Pierce was an idealized version of Larry. I'd like to think one of his other character creations was a more accurate representation of just who he was. God."

Los Angeles Times file photo of Larry Gelbart