Nonstop Laughs

At 75, Larry Gelbart could rest easy. Instead he's still churning out screenplays and lots of yuks

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Larry Gelbart is a Hollywood rarity. In a youth-obsessed town, Gelbart, an accomplished screenwriter and playwright, is busier than ever at 75. There's the film about Pancho Villa for HBO. A jazz song cycle at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. The sequel to The Candidate for Robert Redford. A new musical about Napoleon. A Las Vegas spectacular about Busby Berkeley.

Hectic, yes. And that's just how he likes it. Gelbart knows that in his business, too much work beats no work at all. "Experience has taught me that they [his projects] are not all going to happen," he says. "Each one is sort of a fire escape to the next."

In an industry in which few make it--and even fewer make it big--Gelbart has been richly rewarded. His successes include the hit television show M*A*S*H (1972 to 1983), the Oscar-nominated Tootsie (1982) and the Tony Award--winning City of Angels (1989). By now Gelbart would be forgiven if he gracefully bowed out of show business and spent the rest of his days lying by the pool in Palm Desert, Calif., where he has a second home. But that's not in the script. For Gelbart, the show goes on--and on and on and on.

Gelbart started early in show biz when his father, barber to the stars, persuaded client Danny Thomas to give Larry, then 16, a shot writing comedy. Gelbart, who has called writing "the perfect medium for shy extroverts," was soon a scribe for Jack Paar, Red Buttons and Bob Hope. As a writer on the legendary Caesar's Hour, Gelbart "popped jokes like popcorn," recalls colleague Carl Reiner. "Once Sid [Caesar] got a call from Bob Hope, offering an oil well to get Larry back."

Gelbart soon branched out from radio and television to theater and movies. He won his first Tony in 1963 for co-authoring A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and was nominated for an Oscar in 1978 for Oh, God! In 1974 he took home an Emmy for M*A*S*H.

These days Gelbart works in an office suite adjacent to his Beverly Hills house. To talk with him is to watch the writing process in action. He continually tosses out clever phrases only to edit himself aloud until he strikes upon even more clever phrases. He seems almost ageless with his ready laugh and animated, unlined face. As for his good health, he credits genetics--his dad lived to 90--but quips that his only diet and exercise regimen is "to keep working and try not to get too hungry or sedentary."

Gelbart usually rises early and heads straight for his keyboard. But every Tuesday afternoon at 2, he has a standing date with his grandson Adam, 6. Occasionally he will meet a friend for lunch--usually at a sushi bar where, he says, "a waiter can't come up and spoil a punch line"--but concedes, "I don't have much of a social life. As you get older, God takes away your peers and gives you playmates."

Although Gelbart and his wife Pat, whom he married in 1956, usually spend half the week at their Palm Desert retreat, they rarely miss Monday-night dinner with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. Gelbart bobs up and down at the table, changing seats to talk with as many family members as possible. The conversation stays light, centered on family events and happenings.

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