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Michael Ross dies at 89; TV writer-producer endowed Jewish studies programs
Michael "Mickey" Ross, a writer-producer who reveled in speaking Yiddish and pushing society's buttons on the popular television sitcoms " All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Three's Company," has died. He was 89.
Ross, who lived in West Hollywood, died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from a stroke and heart attack, said Carol Summers, a friend and former colleague.
Born Isidore Rovinsky in 1919 in New York City, he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household that he once said was permeated by "the essence of Yiddishkeit," or Jewish way of life.
After his wife died in 2000, he had no heirs and decided to give most of his fortune to Jewish causes.
Last year, Ross donated $4 million to UCLA to endow an academic chair in Yiddish language and culture. He gave an additional $10 million to his alma mater, the City College of New York, to create Jewish studies programs and establish another Yiddish chair.
David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, called the gift "nothing short of transformative," one that "allows us to do a number of really extraordinary things, beginning with the development of a first-rate program in Yiddish studies."
When Ross read in 1992 that Cal State Northridge's Jewish studies program was to be drastically cut, he donated $35,000 to it and gave $10,000 a year for many years. He was instrumental to its survival and success, said Jody Myers, the program's coordinator.
In explaining his interest in the study of Jewish culture, Ross told The Times in 1992, "I was born of immigrant parents. I loved their attitude, their ways, their morals. I don't want to see that lost."
While working on "The Martha Raye Show" in the 1950s, Ross connected with Norman Lear, who would go on to create "All in the Family" and hire Ross as a lieutenant.
With his writing partner, Bernie West, Ross wrote more than 30 episodes between 1971 and 1975 for the groundbreaking "All in the Family," which revolutionized TV by realistically exploring the prejudices and social mores of the day.
Ross received an Emmy Award in 1973 for co-writing the episode in which the Bunkers get invited to a wife-swapping party.
As story editors for "All in the Family," Ross and West were seen as "chief architects for the plotlines, jokes and jabs that engage and often enrage millions of viewers," the New York Times reported in 1974.
After five seasons, Ross left "All in the Family" to launch "The Jeffersons," a spinoff that starred the Bunkers' black neighbor, George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley.
When ABC wanted to do an American version of the British sitcom "Man About the House," Ross and his producing partners -- West and Don Nicholl -- helped create "Three's Company," which debuted in 1977.
"All in the Family" was a cinch to write compared to "Three's Company," Ross said in "Come and Knock on Our Door," a 1998 book about the show that starred John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt as roommates.
The show, which brimmed with sexual innuendo, "had nothing to do with . . . what's happening in the news. It's pure farce," Ross said in the book. "Farce is the most difficult form of comedy to write, and . . . least appreciated."
Somers was cast late in the game, and Ross privately worked with her to teach her how to do physical comedy.
"He was a great father/teacher," Somers said in the book. "I presumed that all producers took that kind of interest. . . . I have since learned . . . you're pretty much set adrift."
After producing another series spinoff, "Three's a Crowd," which aired on ABC in the mid-1980s, Ross retired.
The son of Harry and Bessie Rovinsky, he started out performing comedy with West, a classmate at the City College of New York. Ross graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1939.
During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces as a bomber pilot in the European theater. In 1944, he was shot down over France and escaped to England.
He married Irene Saslaw in 1950. They had no children.
In the 1950s, he directed shows at a resort in the Adirondack Mountains and debuted as a TV director on "The Garry Moore Show."
Friends described Ross as humble, opera-loving and a voracious reader who loved both Yiddish and English.
While producing "Three's Company," he would pass out copies of the Sunday newspaper crossword every Monday, then roam the office offering to help with clues.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.