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Hal Kanter dies at 92; Emmy-winning comedy writer, director

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Hal Kanter, an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer, and a director and producer whose career included writing for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, directing Elvis Presley and creating a landmark 1960s TV series starring Diahann Carroll, has died. He was 92.

Kanter, who for decades was a writer for the annual Oscar telecast, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia at Encino Hospital, said his daughter, Donna Kanter.

"What a dear man," longtime friend Carl Reiner said Monday after learning of Kanter's death.

"He was considered one of the wits of the industry; there's no question about it," said Reiner, noting that Kanter was master of ceremonies for the Directors Guild of America's awards dinner for many years. "Any time he was called upon, he always could make the audience laugh.

"He was a funny elder statesman, and there's nothing better than having a witty elder statesman."

After launching his comedy writing career in radio in the late 1930s, Kanter moved into television in 1949 as head writer for "The Ed Wynn Show," a live comedy-variety show.

He went on to create, produce and head the writing team on "The George Gobel Show," another live comedy-variety program for which he shared an Emmy Award in 1955 for best written comedy material.

In the 1960s, Kanter made TV history when he created and produced "Julia," the 1968-71 NBC sitcom starring Carroll as Julia Baker, a young widowed nurse and the mother of a young son, Corey (played by Marc Copage), whose best friend is white.

Eighteen years after Ethel Waters debuted as the star of the TV version of "The Beulah Show," an ABC situation comedy about a stereotypical black maid, Carroll became the first black actress to star in her own TV sitcom playing a character who was a professional woman rather than a domestic worker.

Although "Julia" was not carried on some TV stations in the South the first couple of weeks, "eventually, the show became such a hit, they were forced to carry it," Kanter recalled in a 1997 interview with the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television.

Carroll's Julia "opened a door," Kanter said in a 1969 Times interview. "Bill Cosby in 'I Spy' first opened it [in 1965], but Julia opened it wider."

Kanter said "Julia" had been criticized for not dealing in depth with any social issues. "But that was not our purpose," he said. "We wanted to create an entertaining comedy, nothing more.

"You see, I feel that if we had starred [white actress] Hope Lange in 'Julia' and Diahann Carroll in 'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,' the results would have been about the same. I also feel that if we made social comment within our context, our show would have been a failure."

On the other hand, he said, "there is a fallout of social comment. Every week we see a black child playing with a white child with complete acceptance and without incident. One of the recurring themes in the thousands of letters we get is from people who thank us for showing them what a black child is like — he's like any other child."

Kanter, who also created the TV series "Valentine's Day" and "The Jimmy Stewart Show," was a writer and producer on "Chico and the Man" and had a brief 1975 stint as executive producer of "All in the Family."

Among his movie credits as a writer are Hope and Crosby's "Road to Bali," Hope's "Bachelor in Paradise" and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis' "Money from Home" and "Artists and Models" — as well as the movies "Pocket Full of Miracles" and "Move Over, Darling"

He also directed Presley in the 1957 movie "Loving You," which Kanter co-wrote; and he wrote the screenplay for Presley's 1961 film "Blue Hawaii." And in a change of pace from comedy, he collaborated with Tennessee Williams on the 1955 screen adaptation of Williams' drama "The Rose Tattoo."

Kanter's longest-running writing job was the annual Academy Awards ceremony. Beginning in 1952, a year before the broadcast moved from radio to television, he wrote for the Oscar show at least 33 years.

In 1991 and 1992, Kanter was among the Oscar show writers who shared Emmys for outstanding writing in a variety or music program.

"Giving some actors a joke is like handing a straight razor to a baby," Kanter, who was a member of the Academy's Board of Governors, told Newsday in 1994. "You can never give an actor a blank piece of paper. You have to give him something with words on it before he can destroy it."

Many presenters and hosts, however, had a way with Kanter's words.

When the Associated Press asked him in 2001 for his favorite line from past Oscar telecasts, Kanter recalled: "On one of the shows, Walter Matthau announced that the broadcast was being seen simultaneously in 300 countries. I had him say, 'If my tailor in Hong Kong is watching, it still doesn't fit.' "

For decades, Kanter was the go-to wit to act as master of ceremonies or speak at Hollywood functions and other events.

At a testimonial dinner, he introduced comedy writer Sherwood Schwartz by saying: "Sherwood Schwartz. He sounds like Robin Hood's rabbi."

He even enlivened memorial services, including one for playwright Robert E. Lee, at which Kanter introduced himself by saying, "I'm the internationally famous writer-director who's known to his barber as 'Next!' "

Kanter was born Dec. 18, 1918, in Savannah, Ga., and moved to Long Beach, N.Y. when he was about 16. Or as he liked to say, he moved "from the deep South to the shallow North."

His Russian-born father, Albert, who exposed his children to great literature and was a humorous storyteller, later created and published "Classic Comics," a popular comic-book series featuring adaptations of famous literary works that became known as "Classics Illustrated."

At age 11, while living in Florida, Kanter began writing Boy Scout news for the Miami Herald. At 14, he was freelancing as a cartoonist and selling cartoon gags. And he was not quite 18 in 1936 when a job for a comic strip ghost writer took him to Hollywood, where he got his start in radio.

Kanter, who also contributed topical jokes to Olsen and Johnson's long-running hit Broadway revue "Hellzapoppin," served in the Army during World War II. As part of Armed Forces Radio Service in the South Pacific, he helped build an AFRS station on Guam and hosted his own shows.

After the war, he resumed his career in radio, including several years writing for Bing Crosby's show.

Kanter, who titled his 1999 memoir "So Far, So Funny: My Life in Show Business," received the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television from the Writers Guild of America in 1989.

In addition to his daughter Donna, he is survived by his wife of 70 years, writer Doris Kanter; his other daughters, Lisa Kanter Shafer and Abigail Kanter Jaye; his sister, Saralea Emerson; and a granddaughter.

No funeral service will be held.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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