'M*A*S*H' creator Larry Gelbart dies

Oscar nominee for 'Tootsie,' 'Oh, God'

Larry Gelbart, who created the classic TV adaptation of Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" and whose talented comedy writing stretched from the days of radio to the big screen and cutting-edge cable shows, died of cancer at his Beverly Hills home on Friday. He was 81.

Gelbart, the principal writer on "M*A*S*H" during the first four years of the hit CBS series, was responsible for 97 episodes of the show, one of TV's most literate comedies. He also directed some early episodes.

Beginning as a gag writer in days of radio and honing his comic craft for such talents as Jack Carson and Bob Hope, Gelbart was a versatile stylist who succeeded in a variety of mediums.

Gelbart won an Emmy with co-producer Gene Reynolds for "M*A*S*H" as well as three WGA Awards for the episodes he wrote. He picked up two Tonys for writing the books for the musicals "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "City of Angels." He collected five other awards from the WGA, as well as the Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement. And he earned Oscar nominations for the screenplays for "Oh, God!" (1977) and "Tootsie" (1982).

Carl Reiner, his longtime friend and colleague, called Gelbart "the Jonathan Swift of our day."

"It's a great, great, great, great, great, great loss. You can't put enough 'greats' in front of it," said Reiner, who directed "Oh, God!" from Gelbart's script. "The mores of our time were never more dissected and discussed. He had the ability to make an elaborate joke given nothing but one line."

Gelbert's other screenwriting credits include "Neighbors" (1981), "Not With My Wife, You Don't!" (1966) and "Blame It on Rio" (1984). He had his name removed from the 1980 screwball comedy "Rough Cut," starring Burt Reynolds, and fought other battles over script changes and credits, "Tootsie" included.

"Writers are a vital part of the filmmaking process, as vital as a virgin at an Aztec sacrifice," he once quipped.

Larry Gelbart was born in Chicago on Feb. 25, 1928. When he was in his teens, his family moved to Los Angeles, where his father, a barber, set up shop in Beverly Hills with a clientele that included Danny Thomas. Having listened to the elder Gelbart extolling his son's comedy skills while getting shorn, Thomas asked to see the teen. Thomas was impressed with the kid's intelligence and nimble wit and put him on the payroll for his show, "Maxwell House Coffee Time."

Gelbart was signed by William Morris and soon joined the writing staff of "Duffy's Tavern," working for the taskmaster Ed Gardner. After earning his spurs, he left to write for "The Joan Davis Show." While there, he was drafted. In the military, he was attached to the Armed Forces Radio service and wrote "Command Performance." After discharge, he continued to write for Davis and, additionally, took on Jack Paar, who was then doing a summer replacement show for Jack Benny.

Writing for both radio and the new medium of TV, Gelbart wrote for Carson and Hope. He also wrote for Red Buttons' TV show and in 1953 joined the staff of "Caesar's Hour," modeled after "Your Show of Shows." Hope at the time asked Sid Caesar, "I'll trade you two oil wells for one Gelbart."

Gelbart also turned to theater. He wrote "My L.A.," "The Conquering Hero" and in tandem with Burt Shevelove, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which turned into a Broadway hit starring Zero Mostel.

When the musical went to London, Gelbert and his family moved there, remaining in England for nine years. During this time, he wrote the 1966 film comedy "The Wrong Box," a play, "Jump," and numerous TV scripts.

Gelbart returned to the U.S. and television to write the series "M*A*S*H." During his "M*A*S*H" period, he also transformed Ben Johnson's "Volpone" into "Sly Fox," another Broadway hit. It was directed by Arthur Penn and starred George C. Scott.

Responding to the political scene, he exercised his satirical sensibility with such political salvos as his 1989 play "Mastergate," about the Iran-contra scandal, and "Power Failure," about the abuses of high power.

He wrote the 1980 TV series "United States," a marital comedy starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver. More recently, he wrote the HBO movies "Barbarians at the Gate" (1993), an entertaining and scathing look at big business, and "Weapons of Mass Distraction," a 1997 satire of the media.

"Time after time he created comedies that made audiences laugh until they hurt while at the same time offering them a serious examination of politics, society and the human condition. Our sadness is at least somewhat mitigated by our knowledge that Larry will live on through his writing," WGAW president Patric Verrone said.

Gelbart penned a 1998 autobiographical book about his life as a writer, "Laughing Matters." "If Hitler were alive today, may he be a playwright with a musical opening out of town, because few things in life are more punishing than that," he observed.

In 1996, Gelbart received the first Writers Award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.
He is survived by his wife, Pat; their two children, Adam and Becky; two stepchildren, Gary and Paul Markowitz; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.