Friday, September 11, 2009
Upon hearing that I wanted to write (I was 12 at the time)... Larry Gelbart walked the eleven blocks from his house to my house and left my mother with four or five scripts and a year's worth of outlines of "M*A*S*H" (he wrote the first three years... EVERY SHOW... 26 episodes a year) for me to check out so I could see how he did it.
34 years later I still have no idea how he did it.
I am proud of the way the last sentence is the blow for the above paragraph because... I THINK Larry would have liked it. I KNOW he would have told me he liked it... and am left to wonder how he would have improved upon it (because he would have).
Growing up in Beverly Hills in the early 1970's and going to the "Alpine Open" (a tennis tournament held at the Gelbart house) was, even when I was still in single digits, impressionable.
Mel Brooks and later Carl Reiner playing doubles versus the championship team of my Mother and Hank Greenberg (my father, I believe, lost early with, I believe Anne Bancroft... my family knows how to pick partners)... the day would wind into dinner where I sat opposite Milton Berle and Sid Caeser to discuss (again, I was all of 9) our mutual love of baseball (I remember Uncle Miltie's love of Stan Musial) and in between near the dessert table was Red Buttons and Ian La Frenais... this was truly a hothouse of comedy/show business and every one of the titans was comfortable and vital as they were in the house of the guy who was, hands down, the KING (Larry was in the middle of his marathon M*A*S*H run).
The magic for me is that Larry didn't just bring the funny (that was easy for him- it just was)... but he also brought this unfliching humanity.
Larry was so... LARRY... and Larry being Larry... these giants could relax and not be "on" because (as I witnessed once with Mel Brooks), if the guys wanted to try to turn it "on"... they weren't going to go at it with Larry- he was way too... Larry.
I am glad my friend Larry lived in such a great age of show business- for him... and for me! because through his remarkable interactions... I thought/hoped that maybe some of that fairy dust would rub off... and if it didn't, well... I still wanted the stories.
There was nary a show business titan from the '40s to the present (SIX DECADES) that Larry did not know and which he didn't have a personal and revealing story about... Bob Hope, USO trips... check... end of the Golden Age of radio... check... Hollywood blacklists... check... moving to London in the sixties... check... Italy in the late 60s... check... Sammy Davis, Jr./Will Maston trio at Ciro's...check... the Beatles in swinging London and hanging out in discos with Paul McCartney (in Macca's autobigraphy he refers to Larry as "Larry Geldof"- Larry liked that)... oh, yes, and check... um, "Your Show of Shows"/Sid/Woody/Mel/Mel/Carl et al... check... Stanley Kubrick... yessir... Robert Bolt... check... Hal Prince/Sondheim... check and mate (Larry would have liked THAT!)... Oscar... check... Tony... check... I got to hear Larry do his vicious impression of Dustin Hoffman (Rebecca does it better than Larry... and Larry would have LOVED that)... Johnny Mandel... check... Zero Mostel... check... and PAT MARSHALL folks... vavavaCHECK... and mate!
Larry lived in a magical time where talent had weight and value... it could be measured and treasured and rewarded for the content of character and it's ability to express and reveal and probe and be poetic and blah blah blah BUT...
it's true! And our loving Larry LIVED a life inside these metrics to the veryvery end, never having to ever "reinvent" Larry Gelbart.
And this was all done in a very... unassuming, assuming way that knew but didn't brag, and even when his sentence would dissect (or sometimes vivisect)... he left something to the imagination.
When Larry spoke... we all listened. We didn't want to miss anything.
Years later (five after my last personal time reference), when I needed a recommendation to get into college... Larry wrote that letter.
29 years later... I am angry I didn't apply to Harvard (no doubt Larry's letter would have gotten me in).
Larry and Pat vavavaCHECKPLEASE's daughter Becky and I migrated to Northwestern together and Larry and Pat became my alternate parents (living eleven blocks away, it turns out, didn't offer the intimacy that trips to Willmette's Walker Bros. Pancake House would). And lucky me... really, really lucky... my new letter writing confidante became Larry.
We wrote often and regularly and in those days before email and ichat, the letters from Larry were some of the happiest and funniest and most loving I have ever gotten from anyone not in a skirt (Larry.... LINE?!... it's the best I can do as I write through tears.)
Years later (insert: calendar flipping... clock winding forward maniacally), when my Pop passed, Larry wrote another in a series of his brilliant eulogies (seriously, we should put together a book of his eulogies...)... it made us feel lucky to have known my Pop... it lifted us up... it made us laugh... it reminded us of the life and experiences we were lucky to have.
Years after that, more calendar dates flipped... I called Larry after Rebecca and I got engaged... and asked, knowing he might want to branch out from the eulogy circuit, if he had ever... hint... hint... performed a wedding?
Rabbi Larry was up to the job.
Trust me. He was the best Rebbe you ever saw.
Other than all of the above, Larry Gelbart had no affect on my life.
A friend sent me an email today expressing his condolences... I wrote back:
not much to say that he couldn't have said better..."
We love you Larry.