Humorist Art Buchwald dies at 81

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Read Art Buchwald's final column

Art Buchwald, the beloved, Pulitzer Prize-wining satirist whose work in Hollywood was marked by landmark legal wranglings, has died. He was 81.

Buchwald died Wednesday at his home in Washington. He had been in failing health, and his prolonged physical decline provided him opportunity to turn his biting wit on his own mortality.

A celebrated humor columnist, he won the Pulitzer for newspaper commentary in 1982 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. Buchwald also was a screenwriter and playwright, but he mostly will be remembered in Hollywood for the legal showdown over profits from the Eddie Murphy film "Coming to America."

A judge ruled that Paramount stole Buchwald's idea and in 1992 awarded $900,000 to him and a partner. The case established that the studio based the movie on a film treatment Buchwald had written for Paramount, which had refused to acknowledge his role in the development of the 1986 comedy.

The ruling is considered watershed in establishing the legal rights of profit participants in Hollywood, infamous for its Byzantine accounting practices.

"The money was irrelevant to him, as he was well-established financially," said Pierce O'Donnell, the Los Angeles attorney who represented Buchwald in the court battle with Paramount. "He said time and time again that if they could steal from Art Buchwald, they could steal from anybody. So for him, it was a very important cause celebre. Art wasn't worried about his next movie deal or who he might offend; he was very principled."

Not that Buchwald wasn't possessing of his own impish ability to bend the rules. In later life, he confessed to having had a street bum pose as his father so Buchwald could get into the U.S. Marines when he was only 17.

"Paramount spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years on PR, and I had one guy -- but his name was Art Buchwald," chuckled O'Donnell, who remained good friends with the satirist. "He once said, 'I can't believe that the studio that made "The Ten Commandments" cooks its books.' I mean, you just can't train a guy to come up with stuff like that."

Buchwald's son, Joel, said his father passed away quietly at the younger Buchwald's home, where he had been living. He had refused dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys a year ago and was expected to die within weeks of moving to a hospice Feb. 7, where he held court as a parade of luminaries and friends came by to say farewell.

"I'm having a swell time," he said of his dying. "The best time of my life."

Joel Buchwald said, "The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap, and I think he was really grateful for it."

His father spent the year writing a last book, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye."

When death didn't come nearly as quickly as expected, Buchwald wrote that he had to scrap his funeral plans, rewrite his living will, buy a new cell phone and get on with his improbable life. "I also had to start worrying about Bush again," he deadpanned.

On Thursday, he was seen in a prerecorded video on the New York Times' Web site saying, "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald, and I just died." The clip was part of a video obit prepared for the site.

Buchwald was called the "Wit of Washington" during his years there, and his name became synonymous with political satire. He was well known, too, for his wide smile and affinity for cigars.

Among his more famous witticisms: "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

Former MPAA chief Jack Valenti recalled Buchwald's humor. The two had been friends since 1964.

"What Art had was the gift of laughter -- that's a rarity today," Valenti told the Associated Press on Thursday. "He could take simple, ordinary things and make you laugh. God knows all of us need that. I've been with him in all kinds of situations -- good and bad, triumph and tragedy -- but Art always was able to see a little wisp of humor in everything."

Born on Oct. 25, 1925, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Buchwald had a difficult childhood. He and his three sisters were sent to foster homes when their mother was institutionalized for mental illness. Their father, a drapery salesman, suffered Depression-era financial troubles and couldn't afford them.

He spent 3 1/2 years in the Pacific during World War II, attaining the rank of sergeant and spending much of his time editing a Corps newspaper. After the war, he enrolled at USC, where he became managing editor of the campus humor magazine and a columnist for the student paper.

"He was a unique American institution," O'Donnell said. "He was in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but he was a very unique guy."

In addition to son Joel, of Washington, Buchwald is survived by daughters Jennifer Buchwald, of Roxbury, Mass., and Connie Buchwald Marks, of Culpeper, Va.; sisters Edith Jaffe, of Bellevue, Wash., and Doris Kahme, of Delray Beach, Fla., and Monroe Township, N.J.; and five grandchildren.

A family spokeswoman said Buchwald would be interred at the Vineyard Haven Cemetery in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where his wife Ann is buried.

The Associated Press contributed to this report
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