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Allan Burns, the six-time Emmy winner who partnered to create one of the best sitcoms of all time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and one of the worst, My Mother the Car, has died. He was 85.
Burns died Saturday, his frequent writer partner, James L. Brooks, reported on Twitter.
“His singular writing career brought him every conceivable recognition.” he wrote. “But, you had to know him to appreciate his full rarity. He was simply the finest man I have every known. A beauty of a human.”
In a paid obituary, his family said the cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He died in his Los Angeles home.
Burns, who got an early career break working for animation legend Jay Ward on Rocky and his Friends and The Bullwinkle Show, also co-created Rhoda and Lou Grant, two Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs, as well as The Munsters; wrote for a season on Get Smart; and invented a famous cereal character, Cap’n Crunch, and his nemesis, the pirate Jean LaFoote.
He also can make the claim that he discovered Jim Carrey.
Burns occasionally worked in the movies, and he was nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar for A Little Romance (1979), a whimsical teen adventure that starred a young Diane Lane and Laurence Olivier.
Burns, though, made his everlasting mark in television, spending more than two decades as a writer and producer for MTM Productions. His first job for the fledgling company, launched by producer Grant Tinker and his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, was concocting the premise for a CBS comedy that would star Moore, who had sparkled for five seasons on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
It was Tinker’s idea to pair Burns with Brooks. The two had worked together on Room 222, an ABC comedy-drama set at an inner-city school that Brooks had created, and Brooks had written spec scripts for My Mother the Car.
“He and Mary were looking around for somebody to write a pilot and come up with a concept for her show, which had a 13-episode commitment on CBS, and he chose us,” Burns said in a 2012 interview for the Writers Guild Foundation’s The Writer Speaks web series. “That to me was somewhat amazing; I mean, we had credits, and they were pretty good, but still …”
Their original concept had Moore’s Mary Richards portraying a divorcee working as a stringer for a Hollywood columnist. “No one had done a show about someone being divorced,” Burns noted. Tinker and Moore loved the idea — both had been divorced — but CBS execs had “a corporate heart attack” when they heard what the writers had in mind.
According to Burns, a CBS exec told them, “Our research shows us there are four things American television audiences do not like: New Yorkers, Jews, people with mustaches and divorce.”
He added: “In the next couple of weeks, we came up with the idea of doing it in a newsroom — Jim had worked in a newsroom in New York and said, ‘I always thought it was a great place for comedy.'” They also made Mary a jilted woman who moves to Minneapolis after a broken engagement.
As a single, independent female in the workplace, the character became an icon for the feminist movement.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven seasons, from September 1970 until March 1977, and collected a then-record 29 Emmys. Burns and Brooks won five trophies for their efforts on the show; the last two were for outstanding comedy series and for writing (with four others) the admired series finale.
Not admired but certainly derided, My Mother the Car starred Jerry Van Dyke as an attorney who buys a 1928 Porter Stanhope off a used-car lot and discovers that the antique vehicle is the reincarnation of his mom. Created by Burns and Chris Hayward, the comedy lasted just 30 episodes in 1965-66 before being axed.
“It’s nice to know that some people think The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the better shows of all time and that I also did one show that everyone is sure of is the worst,” he said in a 2004 chat for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television.
Allan Burns was born on May 18, 1935, in Baltimore. His father died when he was 9, and three years later he and his mom moved to Honolulu, where his older brother had been stationed at Pearl Harbor.
He attended the private Punahou School (Barack Obama would go there later) and designed a cartoon that ran a couple times a week in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper.
Burns received a partial scholarship to study architecture at the University of Oregon but left school in 1955 and moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a job as an NBC page. He asked what he had said in the interview that convinced his new employer to hire him.
“You said you were a 42 long, right? Well, that’s the only uniform we have available right now. Somebody just quit,” he recalled. “The reason that I am in show business is because I’m a 42 long, that’s the truth.”
Burns submitted jokes to The Tonight Show and to comedians George Gobel and Jonathan Winters without getting a bite and read scripts as part of a new NBC comedy writing development program. He got laid off, then lasted about a month as a writer for the game show Truth or Consequences.
After spending the next couple of years writing gags and drawing cartoons for greeting card companies, Burns put together a portfolio of his work and headed without an appointment to Ward’s offices on Sunset Boulevard.
As Burns was trying to talk his way into a meeting with Ward, the producer happened to walk by. “He looks at all my stuff, starts chuckling and says, ‘When do you want to start?’ ” Burns recalled. He began by working on promotional flyers for Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show, later graduating to “Fractured Fairy Tales” and other bits for $215 a week.
When Ward was off on vacation, Burns met with execs from the Quaker Oats Co. and designed the mascot, an 18th century naval captain, for Cap’n Crunch. They wanted the cartoonist to know that the new cereal “stays crunchy even in milk.”
“Stays crunchy even in milk? Stays crunchy even in acid,” Burns quipped.
He and Chris Hayward had co-created the Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right for Ward’s company, and in 1965 they wrote the pilot for CBS’ My Brother the Angel, a sitcom starring the Tommy and Dick Smothers, before embarking on My Mother the Car.
“It sold, somebody bought it, somebody must have thought it was funny, but the critics sure didn’t,” he said in his Oral History interview. “I probably have spent the rest of my life living that show down. We really — I promise you — meant for it to be a satire, and it came out to be the worst of all the shows we thought we were satirizing.”
The naive Burns and Hayward had pitched their idea for The Munsters to an unscrupulous agent, who then fed that idea to writers Norm Liebmann and Ed Haas at Universal. When they learned the comedy about a family of monsters was in production at CBS, they petitioned the WGA and received their rightful credit.
Burns and Hayward then wrote for the 1967-68 CBS sitcom He and She, starring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, and Burns won his first career Emmy (shared with Hayward) for that. When it was canceled after a season, He and She creator Leonard Stern brought them aboard another show he was producing, Get Smart.
It was the spy spoof’s fourth season, the one in which Agents 86 (Don Adams) and 99 (Barbara Feldon) got married. “I don’t recall that being a particularly good idea,” he said. Burns was reminded of that after Rhoda Morgenstern’s wedding in 1974, when ratings on the Valerie Harper sitcom plunged.)
He and Hayward split after about four years together when Burns wanted to work on a movie screenplay and Hayward didn’t. (The film wound up not getting made.)
Burns and Brooks (along with Gene Reynolds) also created the thought-provoking MTM-CBS hourlong drama Lou Grant, which marked an unprecedented change of genres for a spinoff. The show got off to a slow start, perhaps because viewers were expecting to see the sitcom version of Ed Asner’s Mary Tyler Moore character.
“The guy at CBS at the time said to us, ‘Fellas, what you appear to be doing is The New York Times. People don’t read The New York Times, they read the Daily News,” Burns recalled. “I remember Grant just exploding, ‘You don’t want The New York Times on your network?!'”
Grant told the network execs, “‘Well, guys, hang in there, the show is good, it’s going to make it.’ And he said to us, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.'”
Burns saw Carrey performing stand-up at a comedy club in West Hollywood and hired him to star as a cartoonist in a 1984 sitcom he had created, The Duck Factory. Burns based the show on his experiences working for Ward.
Other shows he created for MTM included Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers; Eisenhower & Lutz, starring Scott Bakula; and FM, set at a public radio station. He received 16 Emmy nominations in all, and he and Brooks were honored in 1988 with the WGA’s prestigious Laurel Award.
For the big screen, Burns also wrote Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) and the Kristy McNichol romantic comedy Just the Way You Are (1984) and wrote and directed Just Between Friends (1986), starring his old friend Moore.
Survivors include his wife, Joan; sons Eric and Matt; daughters-in-law Ana and Lee; and five grandchildren.
Duane Byrge contrbuted to this report.
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