Larry Gelbert, 1928-2009

Larry Gelbert is one of those names that writers hear and for someone who grew up too young to watch “M*A*S*H” when it originally aired, it was a larger than life name. He was one of the people who wrote for Sid Caesar as part of one of the greatest writers rooms ever. He wrote movies including “Tootsie” which was brilliant. He wrote television movies including “Barbarians at the Gate” and “And Introducing Pancho Villa as Himself.”

He was also a theater guy. “City of Angels” and “Sly Fox” were hits but he’ll always be associated with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” which originally starred Zero Mostel and was revived with Nathan Lane in a great production I saw back in the 90s. I’m not a huge fan of the Richard Lester-directed film, but Zero Mostel shines in it as do Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton and Jack Gilford. I would have liked to have seen what Zero could do on stage. There is a reason why every actor who’s played Pseudolus on Broadway has won a Tony Award because it’s a great script that inspires actors to do their best work.

I’m also a big fan of Gelbert’s book “Laughing Matters” which was less an autobiography than a collection of stories from throughout his professional life, and with a life like his, who could argue?

There are plenty of people who are far better writers than I who knew Gelbert and his work better than I. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and Carl Reiner and other giants have spoken of Gelbert as a giant in comedy but also a great guy. That’s a rare combination.

In an interview, Gelbert called Hawkeye from MASH as an an idealized version of himself and went on to describe him as “capable — that is, at work, at what he does. He’s an idealist. He’s a romantic. Somebody who cares about himself and other people. He’s often frustrated by whatever particular system he finds himself fighting against.”

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