Sam Denoff dies at 83; Emmy-winning writer

Sam Denoff, an Emmy-winning writer on the classic sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show” who helped create the Marlo Thomas comedy “That Girl,” has died. He was 83.

Denoff, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died Friday at his home in Brentwood, said his son, Douglas.

Denoff and his longtime writing partner, Bill Persky, had written for Steve Allen and Andy Williams television shows and such series as “McHale’s Navy” when in 1963 they sold a script for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which ran on CBS from 1961 to 1966.

Persky and Denoff went on to share two Emmys for the series (one with series creator Carl Reiner) and work not only as writers but as story editors and producers. “When they came upon the scene, they saved my life,” Reiner told The Times on Sunday. “These two guys made my life possible after that.”


In a telephone interview Sunday, Van Dyke remembered Denoff as “a real bon vivant. Sam knew all the best restaurants.... They don’t make guys like that anymore.”

Van Dyke said Persky and Denoff were well-suited to write for the series, which starred Van Dyke as comedy writer Rob Petrie, Mary Tyler Moore as his wife Laura, Reiner as TV star Alan Brady,and Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie as Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers, writers on Brady’s show.

“Bill kind of understood the love story between Mary and my character,” Van Dyke said. “Sam wrote more for the office. He liked the one-line jokes, loved to write the insults.”

Persky said Denoff “had a skewed way of looking at things. Most of his humor was kind of cutting.... He always knew where the punch line was going to be. Sammy always knew where he was heading and backed up to get there.


“We haven’t been partners for 35 years, but we are linked forever,” Persky said. “Somewhere in the world in a mud hut the credits Persky and Denoff are running on somebody’s television set.”

Samuel Denoff was born July 1, 1928, in Brooklyn, the second of two sons of Esther and Harry Denoff. He started studying piano at 5 or 6 and “got to like it,” Denoff told the Archive of American Television. He left Adelphi College in New York before graduating and tried to become a songwriter.

In 1954, after working as a page at NBC, he was hired at radio station WNEW, where he met Persky. They wrote jingles and other material for disc jockey William B. Williams.

Persky and Denoff moved to California in 1961 to start working in television.


Reiner said their first script for “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was “all wrong,” but they came back with another idea and he hired them. Persky described those years as “a free pass to Disneyland for the rest of your life.”

Marlo Thomas wanted Persky and Denoff to write a series for her. “That Girl,” which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, starred Thomas as Ann Marie, an aspiring actress in New York. Persky and Denoff wrote the pilot and were executive producers. Denoff even wrote the lyrics to the show’s opening theme.

“Sam was my greatest convert to feminism as part of our great adventure bringing the first single girl to television,” Thomas said in a statement Sunday. “He liked to think of himself as the unsentimental guy on the staff, but the lyrics he wrote for our theme song belied his self-description:

“Diamonds, daisies, snowflakes, that girl


… She’s tinsel on a tree

She’s everything that every girl should be!

“Pretty romantic and sentimental, you have to agree,” Thomas said.

Persky said Denoff made the show “more balanced.... I would have tended to be too soft and he too rigid, but together we found a middle ground.”


They shared an Emmy in 1967 with Reiner, Mel Brooks and Mel Tolkin for writing a special starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Reiner and Howard Morris, and another as producers with Bill Hobin of a 1968 Bill Cosby special.

Persky and Denoff stopped working together in the 1970s because Persky wanted to direct, he said. Denoff’s later credits include shows with Don Rickles, Lucie Arnaz and Garry Shandling. For several years, Denoff was a creative consultant on Jerry Lewis’ annual muscular dystrophy telethon.

Denoff is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their two children, daughter Melissa of Laguna Beach and son Matthew of Brentwood; and, from his first marriage to Bernice Levey, which ended in divorce, daughter Leslie of England and son Douglas, a Broadway producer who lives in Manhattan.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Monday at the Groman mortuary at Eden Memorial Park Mortuary in Mission Hills.