Howard Zieff dies at 81; directed ‘Private Benjamin’ and other comedies

Director Howard Zieff looks over a script in 1983. Before his Hollywood career, he directed TV commercials, including the Alka-Seltzer "Mamma mia/spicy meatball" spots.
(Penni Gladstone / Los Angeles Times)
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Howard Zieff, a top advertising print photographer and TV commercial director in the 1960s and early ‘70s before tapping his flair for comedy as the director of movies including “Private Benjamin,” “Hearts of the West” and “My Girl,” has died. He was 81.

Howard Zieff obituary: The obituary of director Howard Zieff in Tuesday’s California section incorrectly said he died Saturday. He died Sunday. —

Zieff died Saturday of complications of Parkinson’s disease at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his wife, Ronda Gomez-Quinones.

Beginning with “Slither,” a 1973 comedy with James Caan and Peter Boyle, Zieff directed eight other comedies, including “House Calls,” “Unfaithfully Yours” and “The Dream Team.”


The effects of Parkinson’s disease forced Zieff to retire shortly after the release of “My Girl 2” in 1994.

“I loved Howard and his zest for life,” Goldie Hawn, who received an Oscar nomination for best actress in a leading role for “Private Benjamin,” said in a statement to The Times on Monday.

“What I remember and cherish most was his humor and love of laughter,” she said. “He had a special talent for directing comedies, always a rare gift. We laughed and cried together while making ‘Private Benjamin,’ and I will miss him so much.”

Richard Benjamin, one of the stars of the 1978 movie “House Calls,” told The Times on Monday that Zieff “had a wonderful wit and was very, very smart.”

“The main thing that you wanted to do was get him laughing,” said Benjamin. “If I got a laugh from him, I knew we were doing it right. And it was a wonderful set, where you just wanted comedy to flourish. It was relaxed and fun and easy, and he kept it like that.”

Before Benjamin met Zieff or even knew who he was, he was a fan of Zieff’s work in print ads and TV commercials.


As a TV commercial director in the the ‘60s, Zieff was known for what Time magazine called his “zany sense of humor and an apparently limitless imagination.”

He was, the magazine said, “the leading practitioner of what the trade calls the indirect sell: The product is visible and so is the pitch, but the commercial zings across chiefly because it is entertaining and refuses to take itself seriously.”

One of Zieff’s best-known commercials was the Alka-Seltzer “Mamma Mia. That’s a spicy meatball” spot in which a TV commercial crew is shown filming a middle-aged man seated at a kitchen table where his wife has placed a plate of meatballs in front of him.

“Mamma mia. That’s a spicy meatball,” he says after taking a bite.

“Cut,” the off-screen director says.

“What was the matter with that?” asks the meatball-eating actor.

“The accent.”

And so it goes -- take after failed take. By the 59th take, the effects of sampling those meatballs has taken a heavy toll.

“Sometimes you eat more than you should,” intones an off-camera announcer. “And when it’s spicy besides -- mama mia, do you need Alka-Seltzer . . . “

When Time magazine dubbed Zieff the “Master of the Mini-Ha-Ha” in 1967, he had made 200 commercials over the previous six years.


But he also was known for his magazine advertisements, including a memorable series of ads for Levy’s Real Jewish Rye Bread that featured an American Indian, a Chinese man and a black child.

The tag line was “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”

Charlie Moss, former creative director of Wells, Rich and Greene, a now-defunct New York advertising agency launched in 1966, said one of Zieff’s “great contributions to the business was his use of actors who represented real people, rather than models.”

Among the unknown young actors whom Zieff cast in commercials were Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Richard Dreyfuss.

“He was the king of advertising for a period of time, and then he left New York for Hollywood,” said Moss. “I recall that during those years, you took it as a kind of mark of your credentials in the business if Howard even considered your commercial as something he wanted to do.”

Zieff was born in Chicago on Oct. 21, 1927, and later moved with his family to the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles.

He studied art for a year at Los Angeles City College. He dropped out in 1946 to join the Navy and studied photography at the naval photography school.


Returning to Los Angeles after his discharge, he enrolled in the Art Center College of Design. He worked briefly as a cameraman for a Los Angeles TV station before moving to New York, where he began working as a still photographer in advertising.

In addition to his wife, Zieff is survived by his sister, Margie Finn.

A funeral will be held Sunday for family and close friends. A memorial tribute will be held at a later date.