LOS ANGELES -- Larry Gelbart, the award-winning comedy writer best known for developing the landmark TV series " MASH," co-writing the book for the hit Broadway musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and co-writing the classic movie comedy "Tootsie," died Friday. He was 81.
Gelbart, who was diagnosed with cancer in June, died at his home in Beverly Hills, said his wife, Pat Gelbart.
Comic actor Jack Lemmon once described the genial, quick-witted Gelbart as "one of the greatest writers of comedy to have graced the arts in this century."
Gelbart's more than 60-year career began in radio during World War II when he was a 16-year-old student at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. He wrote for "Duffy's Tavern" and radio shows starring Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis, Jack Paar, Jack Carson and Bob Hope, with whom he traveled overseas when Hope entertained the troops.
He moved into television with Hope in 1950 and spent the next few years writing for the comedian as well as for Red Buttons' comedy-variety series.
In 1955, Gelbart joined the fabled writing staff of "Caesar's Hour," Sid Caesar's post- "Your Show of Shows" TV comedy-variety series. Among his fellow writers were Neil Simon and Mel Brooks.
In the writers' room, as colleague Carl Reiner later told Time magazine, Gelbart "popped jokes like popcorn."
Indeed, after he went to work for "Caesar's Hour," Hope contacted Caesar to say, "I'll trade you two oil wells for one Gelbart."
During his time on Caesar's show, Gelbart shared three Emmy nominations for comedy writing -- in 1956, '57 and '58 -- and earned the admiration of Brooks, who once described him as "the fastest of the fast, the wittiest man in the business."
Moving to Broadway in 1961, Gelbart bombed with the musical "The Conquering Hero," for which he wrote the book. The show closed after eight performances.
But Gelbart returned to Broadway in triumph in 1962 with the hit Stephen Sondheim comedy musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Gelbart and Burt Shevelove wrote the book, which they based on the comedies of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus.
"Forum," whose cast included Zero Mostel, ran on Broadway for more than two years and won a Tony Award for best musical, as well as a Tony Award for Gelbart as coauthor.
Gelbart later wrote the 1976-78 Broadway comedy "Sly Fox," his updated adaptation of Ben Jonson's "Volpone"; the 1989 comedy "Mastergate," and the book for the 1989-92 Broadway comedy musical "City of Angels," the Tony Award best musical winner for which Gelbart won a Tony for best book of a musical.
For films, he wrote the screenplay for "Neighbors" and co-wrote "The Notorious Landlady," "The Wrong Box," "Not With My Wife, You Don't!" "Movie Movie" and "Blame It on Rio."
He also received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for "Oh, God," the 1977 comedy starring George Burns and John Denver. And he shared a screenwriting Oscar nomination with Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire for "Tootsie," the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange.
Among his other credits: screenplays for the HBO movies "Barbarians at the Gate" (1993), "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (1997) and "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" (2003).
But most famously there was "MASH," the long-running series whose blend of laughter and tragedy made TV history.
Set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, TV's "MASH" grew out of director Robert Altman's hit 1970 movie written by Ring Lardner Jr., which was based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker (the pen name of Dr. Richard Hornberger, who had been a military surgeon in Korea).
Gelbart and his family were living in London, and he was producing the British TV show "The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine" in 1971 when producer-director Gene Reynolds called him about writing a pilot script for a TV series based on "MASH."