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Irving Brecher dies at 94; Comedy writer got an Oscar nod for 'Meet Me in St. Louis'

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Irving Brecher, a comedy writer whose career in radio, television and the movies included writing two Marx Brothers comedies, co-writing the Judy Garland musical "Meet Me in St. Louis" and creating the radio and TV series "The Life of Riley," has died. He was 94.

Brecher died of age-related causes Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his wife, Norma.

Comedy writer Larry Gelbart, a longtime friend, remembered Brecher for his great wit.

"He was always a treat whenever he spoke," Gelbart told The Times on Tuesday. "I, for one, am sorry he didn't do more [writing]. He had had such success so early."

Born in the Bronx on Jan. 17, 1914, Brecher was a teenage usher at a movie theater on 57th Street in Manhattan when he began sending one-liners on penny postcards to columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan.

Occasionally, some of his funny lines showed up in print with his name included.

When he found he could make money selling lines to vaudeville comedians, he and a friend -- fledgling comedy writer Al Schwartz -- ran a small ad in Variety offering their gag-writing services.

Brecher said in an interview for Jordan Young's 1999 book "The Laugh Crafters" that at the time, a brash young comedian named Milton Berle had a self-promoted reputation for stealing other people's material.

Brecher and Schwartz's ad offered "positively Berle-proof gags, so bad not even Milton will steal them."

Their first customer: Milton Berle, who paid them $50 for a page of one-liners.

Brecher, then 19, continued to write gags for Berle and other acts before he turned to radio.

When Berle was signed by CBS in 1936 to do a radio program, "The Gillette Original Community Sing," Brecher became the program's only writer.

And when Berle went to Hollywood to costar in the movie "New Faces of 1937," the radio show went west with him. So did Brecher, who continued to write the program as well as the final script for the movie.

Brecher was soon under personal contract to producer-director Mervyn LeRoy, who took him to MGM, where he wrote the screenplays for the Marx Brothers' "At the Circus" (1939) and "Go West" (1940) and shared an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944).

Among his other screenwriting credits are "Shadow of the Thin Man," "Du Barry Was a Lady," "Yolanda and the Thief," "Cry for Happy" and "Bye Bye Birdie."

In the early '40s, Brecher also created, wrote and produced the radio series "The Life of Riley," starring William Bendix.

Brecher wrote and directed a 1949 feature film version of "The Life of Riley," and the show became an Emmy Award-winning TV series with Jackie Gleason as bumbling working-class everyman Chester A. Riley before Bendix took over the role he played on radio.

Brecher's directing credits include the 1952 Betty Hutton musical "Somebody Loves Me" and the 1961 Robert Wagner comedy "Sail a Crooked Ship," which was Ernie Kovacs' last picture.

He also created and co-produced (with George Burns) "The People's Choice," a 1955-58 sitcom starring Jackie Cooper, which featured a pet basset hound named Cleo whose voice only the audience could hear.

Brecher recently wrote a book about the Hollywood figures he knew and wrote for -- "The Wicked Wit of the West," as told to Hank Rosenfeld -- to be published in January by Ben Yehuda Press.

It is subtitled "The Last Great Golden-Age Screenwriter Shares the Hilarity and Heartaches of Working with Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns, Berle, Benny & Many More."

Brecher met Groucho Marx in 1938 after LeRoy hired Brecher to punch up the comedy scenes in "The Wizard of Oz." As Brecher recalled in a 2001 interview with The Times: "The straw man, the tin man, the lion -- Mervyn LeRoy said, 'They're not funny enough.' "

When LeRoy took Brecher into his office, Marx was sitting at LeRoy's desk, Brecher recalled in 2001 in the Newark Star-Ledger.

"I said, 'Hello, Mr. Marx.' He said, 'Hello? That's supposed to be a funny line? Is this the guy who's supposed to write our movie?' I probably turned white.

"Then I said, 'Well, I saw you say hello in one of your movies, and I thought it was so funny I'd steal it and use it now.' Grouch smiled, then he bought me lunch," Brecher said.

In the 2001 interview with The Times, Brecher said he found it easiest to write for Groucho.

"I'm a complainer, a dissenter and a put-downer," he said. "He was my alter ego. I liked the anarchism."

Brecher was preceded in death by his first wife, Eve Bennett; and his two children, Joanna Giallelis and Keon Brecher.

In addition to Norma, his wife of 25 years, he is survived by his stepchildren Jane Ulman, Ellen Zoschak and Michael Waxenberg; and eight grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Hillside Memorial Park.

McLellan is a Times staff writer.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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