On the front lines with Larry Gelbart
What would he write about himself if he just found out he’d died? I wonder. I know it wouldn’t be something soft and sentimental.
Larry Gelbart could take an event where sentimentality was allowed, even expected, and turn it on its ear. My friend Allan Katz, who also wrote for “MASH,” was with him once at a friend’s funeral. When Larry realized he had to leave early, he leaned over to Allan and said simply, “I’m sorry to grieve and run.”
I’m sure he meant no disrespect, or maybe just the right dose of it, depending on the life and times of the recently departed. Mostly, though, I think he was showing disrespect for death itself.
Larry didn’t like death. It was an inexcusable interruption in an otherwise pleasant conversation. In one of our early “MASH” shows, the script had me shouting at a patient who I was feverishly trying to resuscitate, “Don’t let the bastard win!” The “bastard” was death.
He never took lightly the deaths of the people in the real MASH units he wrote about. He knew we could never adequately tell their story or do justice to the sacrifice of their lives. What we were doing was make-believe; what they had given was real. He told me once about his dream for a final episode of the series: At the very end, the camera would pull back and reveal the fake set with its lights and crew, even the snack stand with its coffee pot and peanut butter jar -- as if to say, we know this was just a show; the real people in this story really hurt and died.
Even so, he worked hard to tell their story as truly as he could. With producers Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe, he flew to Korea to visit MASH units still in operation. During that visit and in many phone calls, they interviewed hundreds of doctors and nurses who had lived through those harrowing years. The reams of testimony they produced were picked over for years by all of us who wrote for the show.
For all his hatred of death and his disgust with those who casually brought it about, Larry was a gracious and encouraging presence. It seemed that there were few awkward moments that couldn’t be turned aside with a wit-charged observation. He was genial from his toenails to his scalp. He never laughed so hard as he did at himself when -- while directing his first episode -- instead of saying “Action!” he accidentally started a scene by authoritatively calling out, “Cut!”
The geniality, though, could never dull his razor-sharp mind. There was no pause button on his brain. His sense of humor never slept. I studied him -- I think we all did -- to figure out where that Niagara of funny had its headwaters. He didn’t work at wit the way other people did. You didn’t see him concocting and sharpening “funny sayings,” as he called them. They arose spontaneously, like geysers from the depths of his psyche.
And the more I watched him, the more convinced I became that the only effort he put into it was in not saying most of the funny things that occurred to him. He would only let one get his lips moving if it was really worth hearing. And he would often enjoy it as much as you did, as if he had never heard it before. Because he hadn’t.
But he’s gone now. The bastard seems to have won this round. We have the words and images our friend left behind, but we don’t have that easy smile, full of generosity, or the sound of that silky voice and lovingly articulated words. They really were pearls that came out of his mouth, and he never gave the impression he was laying them before swine. All of us who worked with him were awed by him, and we revered him, but we always, always were comfortable in his presence because above all we loved him. And we could see that he loved us back.
I could tell you more about my friend Larry, but there isn’t enough space. Unfortunately, I have to go.
Sorry to grieve and run.
Alan Alda played Hawkeye Pierce on the television series “MASH” for its entire 11- season run. He is also the author of “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself” and “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned.” He has won six Emmys and was nominated for his 33rd this year for his guest appearances on “30 Rock.”