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Irma Kalish, the pioneering sitcom writer and producer who teamed with her late husband, Austin “Rocky” Kalish, on hundreds of television episodes, including emotional installments of All in the Family and Maude, has died. She was 96.
Kalish died Friday at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, her family announced.
The couple had written for such shows as My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun and F Troop but achieved a breakthrough in 1965 when they were hired by producer Ed Hartmann to write for My Three Sons and then for another CBS comedy, Family Affair, for which they also served as story editors.
They went on to produce and write for other series including CBS’ Good Times, ABC’s Too Close for Comfort and NBC’s The Facts of Life and 227 and co-wrote and produced the 1975 film Keep Off My Grass, directed by Shelley Berman and starring Micky Dolenz.
“I could soften things and he could make them heavy if necessary,” Irma said of their writing partnership in a 2012 interview for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “But basically, above all and always, we both thought the same things were funny.”
However, Irma was not allowed in writers rooms until the mid-1960s, and when she did get in, she often was the only woman there. “One producer actually thought I must not be writing, I must just be doing the typing,” she said in 2010.
She and her husband were once hired for a Jackie Gleason show, but when Gleason discovered that Irma was involved, “He said, ‘It’s off,'” Rocky recalled.
“That was the prevalent attitude in television,” Irma said. “They didn’t believe that women were funny. They said, ‘Women can make you cry — they can write a soap opera or a drama — but they can’t make you laugh.'”
A WGA West member since 1964, Kalish received the guild’s Morgan Cox service award in 1993 and its Valentine Davies award in 2004. She ran to become the first female president of the WGA in 1979 but lost to Mel Shavelson by, she said, four votes.
“Irma was the ultimate professional and a true believer in the importance of her union to the lives of her fellow writers,” WGA West president David Goodman said in a statement.
She also was president of Women in Film — and given its Founders Award in 1997 — and served as a board member of the Motion Picture & Television Fund for 27 years.
For CBS’ All in the Family and frequent collaborator Norman Lear, the couple wrote the episode “Gloria the Victim” — in which Sally Struthers’ character survives a rape attempt and wrestles with whether to testify against her attacker — and received story credit on “Edith’s Christmas Story,” where Jean Stapleton’s character finds a lump in her breast. Both episodes first aired in 1973.
The couple also pitched the story for 1972’s “Maude’s Dilemma,” the polarizing two-part episode of another CBS sitcom in which Bea Arthur’s title character discovers that she’s pregnant at age 47 and decides to have an abortion.
“There were some comedy writers who did comedy shows, that’s all they did,” Rocky said. “We were able to move from a musical, a variety show, a soft show or a broad comedy show like F Troop to something as heavy as a cancer show.”
The older of two sisters, Irma May Ginsberg was born in the Bronx on Oct. 6, 1924. Her mother, Lillian, was a housewife and her father, Nathan, worked in the garment industry. “I had a handicap in the beginning of becoming a writer because [she had] a very functional family,” she said.
At age 11 or 12, she edited her own newspaper, which she called The Ginsberg Gazette. “Whereas The New York Times had the motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” my motto was, ‘All the News That I Can Spell.'”
One day at the Manhattan all-girls Julia Richman High School, where she wrote for the school magazine, her class was paid a visit by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the married couple who had penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Thin Man (1934).
“I didn’t know what screenwriting was, but it’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t know I was going to do it with a husband the way those two people were doing it, but I was impressed by them.”
At Syracuse University, the dean of the school of journalism who taught short story writing told her and her fellow classmates: “‘I wash my hands of all of you. None of you will ever become a writer.’ Well, that inspired me,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to show him!'”
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, she got a job back in New York at Popular Publications, starting out as an editor’s assistant for $30 a week and eventually getting to do some writing under the pen name Diane Austin. (The surname was a nod to her boyfriend and future husband.)
Irma was 10 and the best friend of Rocky’s younger sister, Joyce, when they first met. They reconnected while she was attending Syracuse and he was on furlough from the U.S. Army, and they dated on and off for years.
After he proposed, they moved to Los Angeles in 1950, got married and put out a pulp magazine, Romance Westerns, for about a year.
With Irma concentrating on raising their kids, Nancy and Bruce, Rocky sold jokes to comics and wrote bits for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ radio program and then for the duo’s TV show, NBC‘s Colgate Comedy Hour. (Lear worked on the latter as well.)
One of the first TV scripts the couple received credit for became a 1955 episode of CBS’ The Millionaire. A decade later, they were hired as a team for My Three Sons after they arrived for their interview with more than 50 story ideas for the show.
The Kalishes would draw on their experience as parents for their early comedies. Irma would welcome the kids home from school standing at the doorway with a notebook and pencil, and their stories often wound up on TV.
They could “would conceive of an idea together and talk it out together,” she said. “The best part, and probably the only good part, of being married and writing together was you could go away on vacation and write, you could drive to work together and write.”
She would handle the first draft, he would do a rewrite, and then they would work on that version together. “When people were getting scripts from us, what they were getting was a third draft,” Rocky said. “It was well-conceived, and often we didn’t have to write another draft.”
They also wrote and/or produced for The Brian Keith Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Good Heavens, Anna and the King and Carter Country, and she produced the sitcoms Oh Madeline and Valerie on her own. (She was the rare woman producing a TV comedy in her heyday.)
In 2007 and ’08, Irma and onetime WGA executive director Naomi Gurian published two novels under the pseudonym Cady Kalian; As Dead as It Gets and A Few Good Murders both revolved around screenwriter turned crime solver Maggie Mars.
Rocky died in October 2016 at the Motion Picture and Television retirement home in Woodland Hills at 95.
He had written the 1963 pilot for Gilligan’s Island with Elroy Schwartz (show creator Sherwood Schwartz’s brother) and invented all the characters, including giving each of them (and the boat, the S.S. Minnow) his and her name.
Years after the CBS comedy ended, Rocky said documents were uncovered that indicated he and Elroy Schwartz should have been entitled to one-quarter ownership of the series — a share worth about $10 million, he said — but too much time had expired for them to collect.
Survivors include their son, Bruce Kalish, a TV writer-producer, and his wife Leah; grandchildren Matthew Biederman, an executive at RED Cinema, and his wife, Cassie, and Mackenzie Kalish, a writer-producer; great-grandchildren Nicholas and Caden; and her sister, Harriett.
Her and Rocky’s daughter, Nancy, who helped lead a campaign to preserve long-term care at the MPTF campus, died in December 2016 of leukemia, two months after her father passed.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Motion Picture & Television Fund. A memorial will to be announced.
Irma had a personal adage, one that was apropos for a writer: “Sure, God made man before woman, but then you always do a first draft before you make a final masterpiece,” she said.
And there was this: “It was always my contention that in order for a woman to write, she had to be twice as good as a man, which fortunately was not difficult.”
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