Saul Turteltaub — Writer-Producer on 'Sanford and Son,' 'That Girl' and 'What's Happening!!' — Dies at 87

Saul Turteltaub - Publicity - P 2020
Courtesy Turteltaub Family

The three-time Emmy nominee was an original scribe on 'The Carol Burnett Show' and worked on 'Kate & Allie,' 'Love, American Style' and many other programs.

Saul Turteltaub, the writer and producer whose expansive television résumé included The Carol Burnett ShowThat GirlSanford and SonWhat's Happening!! and so much more, has died. He was 87.

Turteltaub died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, his youngest son, director Jon Turteltaub, announced. "To say this was a talented, funny, loving and beloved man is truly an understatement," he said.

Turteltaub was one of the original writers on The Carol Burnett Show and received an Emmy nomination in 1968 for his work on the legendary variety program's first season.

He also gave first jobs to the likes of Richard Pryor, Garry Shandling, Dana Carvey, Meg Ryan, Nathan Lane and George Clooney.

Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, who wrote together for more than 30 years — but never in the same room — formed TOY Productions with Bud Yorkin in the mid-1970s after he split with Norman Lear, and they got three comedies on ABC: What's Happening!!, about African American kids growing up in Watts; Carter Country, with Victor French and Kene Holliday as small-town cops; and 13 Queens Boulevard, starring Eileen Brennan. Their company would be sold to Screen Gems.

Turteltaub and Orenstein joined the Redd Foxx-starring Sanford and Son (developed by Yorkin and Lear) as producer-writers in 1974 for the fourth season and stayed through the sitcom's end in 1977. (In 1975, Shandling got his first writing credit on the show.) They also worked on the spinoffs Grady and Sanford Arms.

"I used to admire [comedians] … because they would say something and 200 people in the audience would laugh," he said in a 2016 chat for the Television Academy Foundation website The Interviews. "It was my job when I was doing Sanford to make 20 million people all over the country laugh at the same time."

The prolific Turteltaub and Orenstein also worked on the groundbreaking Kate & Allie, starring Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin; The New Dick Van Dyke Show; CBS' Cosby (they wrote the 1996 pilot); Hey, Landlord, co-created by Garry Marshall; One of the Boys, which starred Mickey Rooney alongside youngsters Carvey and Lane; E/R, featuring Elliott Gould; Love, American StyleYou Again? with Jack Klugman and John Stamos; Baby Talk, starring Scott Baio; The Beautiful Phyllis Diller ShowChicken Soup, starring Jackie Mason and Lynn Redgrave; and Good Morning World, with Ronnie Schell.

At one point, Turteltaub was congratulated for having done 23 sitcoms during his 50-year career. "You might be impressed that I've made 23 TV shows," he said, "but every producer will tell you that making 23 shows only means that you've had 23 shows canceled."  

The youngest of two kids, Turteltaub was born May 5, 1932, in Teaneck, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Englewood. His father, Bernard, walked with crutches after contracting polio as a child and would own an awning business; his mother, Anna, was a homemaker who died when Saul was 11.

Turteltaub attended Columbia University, where he received his bachelor's degree and then, in 1957, his law degree. He created the Columbia "Law Revue," a variety show that is still put on by the school, and wrote jokes for the comedy team of Marty Allen and Mitch DeWood.

A big fan of St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial, he had dated future TV star and Lamb Chop puppeteer Shari Lewis (real name: Phyllis Hurwitz) during summer camp in 1947, then met with her about a job when he got out of the Army. He was told there was nothing available, but after he put together a few sketches for her as a thank-you and sent them in, he was immediately hired for $60 a week.

In the early 1960s, he also wrote for Candid CameraJackie Gleason: American Scene MagazineOn Broadway Tonight, starring Rudy Vallée; and the satirical news program That Was the Week That Was, earning his first two Emmy noms for that. (When he left Candid Camera, he suggested that Orenstein replace him.)

In 1966, Turteltaub moved to Los Angeles and worked on variety shows for Diller, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Steve Lawrence, Pat Boone, Mama Cass and Perry Como. That led him to The Carol Burnett Show and then to That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas, beginning in 1969.

He and Orenstein headed to Arizona in 1971 to work on The New Dick Van Dyke Show before returning to L.A. to produce Love, American Style.

For the big screen, Turteltaub wrote Roseanna's Grave (1997), starring Jean Reno and Mercedes Ruehl.

Survivors include his wife, Shirley, whom he married in August 1960 after meeting her six months earlier; son Adam, his wife, Rhea, and their sons, Ross and Max; Jon, his wife, Amy, and their children Jack, Daniel and Arabella; and sister Helena.

In a statement, his family said he was "beloved and respected by his entire community for his generosity, endless philanthropy, the giving of his time, his work with civil rights, his role as a teacher to underprivileged or emerging writers, helping war veterans learning to write and his devotion to endless Jewish charities."