Emmy-Winning Comedy Writer Sam Denoff Dies
Scribe wrote for “Dick Van Dyke Show,” created “That Girl” with partner Bill Persky.
Sam Denoff, who wrote for The Dick Van Dyke Show and helped create the Marlo Thomas starrer That Girl, a TV staple of the feminist movement, died Friday from Alzheimer’s disease at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles. He was 83.
Denoff and Bill Persky, his writing partner for more than two decades, sold a script for The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran on CBS from 1961-66, and they went on to share two Emmys for that series.
Danny Thomas then asked the duo to write a show for his daughter, and after heading to London to see Marlo Thomas perform on stage in Barefoot in the Park, they created That Girl, which ran on ABC from 1966-71.
Denoff resume as writer and producer also includes such series as The Steve Allen Show, The Andy Williams Show, Good Morning, World, McHale’s Navy, The Funny Side, The Lucie Arnaz Show, Turnabout, Lotsa Luck, Harry and the Hendersons and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and such specials as Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman (1969) and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s The Man Who Came to Dinner (1972), starring Orson Welles.
The Brooklyn native also wrote for the annual American Comedy Awards and for years consulted for the Jerry Lewis telethon on Labor Day.
Denoff and Persky’s first episode for The Dick Van Dyke Show was the third-season opener “That’s My Boy,” in which Van Dyke’s character becomes obsessed with thinking that his son was switched with another couple’s boy at the hospital — only to discover that the other couple is African-American.
“The joke was not on the black couple, the joke was on Dick Van Dyke, the schmuck,” Denoff told the Archive of American Television in a 2000 interview. “As Dick Van Dyke used to say, schmuckery is the best thing you can do.”
For That Girl, Denoff said he and Persky weren’t trying to write a show about a feminist.
“No, we were trying to do a show for Danny Thomas’ daughter,” he said. “We had no agenda. Maybe Marlo did at the time. She professes now that she did. I don’t know whether she had the agenda as this woman’s statement. She wanted a show.”
On working with Persky, Denoff told the Archive:
“What evolved from our differences was a great dynamic that was that we would work together on every scene, we didn’t take separate stuff,” he said. “When you work with a partner, you trigger each other. Very often people would say, ‘Who wrote that?’ And we said, ‘The third person.’ A third writer evolves from the two different writers.”