Leonard Stern dies at 88; TV writer, producer also co-created Mad Libs
Leonard Stern, an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director whose career in television spanned “The Honeymooners,” “Get Smart” and “McMillan & Wife” and whose additional career in publishing included co-creating the classic Mad Libs word game books, has died. He was 88.
Stern, a founding partner of the Price Stern Sloan publishing company, died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a 15-month illness, said his daughter-in-law, Laura Stern.
Stern had written for radio and films before he moved into television and became a writer for the Honeymooners sketches on “The Jackie Gleason Show” in 1953. He continued as a writer on the classic 1955-56 series “The Honeymooners,” including co-writing one of the series’ most popular episodes, “The $99,000 Answer.”
Stern won an Emmy in 1957 as part of the writing team of “The Phil Silvers Show.” A second Emmy for writing came in 1967 when he and Buck Henry won for an episode of “Get Smart,” on which Stern also was the original executive producer.
Henry, who created “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks, told The Times on Wednesday that Stern “had a great deal to do with the making of the pilot, and he invented what I have always thought and said was the best opening and closing pieces that define the show and that people always remember.”
In the show’s opening, Don Adams’ secret agent, Maxwell Smart, is seen driving up to a building that houses the intelligence agency C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Walking down a long corridor, he passes through a series of automatically opening and closing doors. He then enters a phone booth, dials a number and drops out of sight.
“Whenever I got stuck in the ridiculous plots and the foolish antics of the characters, I’d walk down the hall of our office and say to him, ‘I’m stuck,’” said Henry. “He’d think of something that I thought was really silly but it always worked. I was always glad he was there.”
Stern, who worked on 23 TV series, created “I’m Dickens … He’s Fenster,” “Run Buddy Run,” “He & She” and “McMillan & Wife,” and he co-created “The Governor & J.J.” and “Partners in Crime.”
Stern launched his publishing career with Mad Libs, books whose pages offer brief stories with key words left blank. One player asks the other players to provide nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. After doing so, as it says in the instructions: “Read the complete silly story back and roar with laughter.”
The idea for Mad Libs came to Stern and co-creator Roger Price in 1953. Stern was working on a “Honeymooners” script and was stumped for a word to describe Ralph Kramden’s new boss’ nose when Price dropped by.
As Stern recalled in a 2008 interview with Publishers Weekly, “I asked Roger for an idea for an adjective, and before I could tell him what it was describing, he threw out ‘clumsy’ and ‘naked.’
“We both started laughing. We sat down and wrote a bunch of stories with blanks in them. That night we took them to a cocktail party and they were a great success.”
But publishers, Stern later recalled,rejected Mad Libs, some saying it was a game, not a book. But the game people claimed it was a book, not a game. Fi?nally, Stern and Price decided to self-?publish a modest print run in 1958.
Stern at the time was head writer for “The Steve Allen Show,” and Mad Libs received a major boost when Stern suggested that they use the Mad Libs format to introduce guest stars. With Allen asking the audience for a noun and adjective, it led to this memorable introduction: “And here’s the scintillating Bob Hope, whose theme song is ‘Thanks for the Communist.’”
A publishing sensation popular with children and adults, Mad Libs’ success was not short-lived: More than 70 volumes had been created — and more than 110 million copies reportedly had been sold — when the 50th anniversary of the word game was celebrated in 2008.
The original success of Mad Libs led Stern and Price to partner with former journalist Larry Sloan to create their own publishing company in Los Angeles in 1963.
Price Stern Sloan became the largest trade publisher on the West Coast and was best known for its humor and children’s lines. Among its titles: Dan Greenburg’s “How to Be a Jewish Mother” and “The World’s Worst Jokes” series.
In 1994, Stern tapped his years of dealing with television network executives and censors for “A Martian Wouldn’t Say That,” a collection of memos and remarks culled from his and other writers’ files that he compiled with Diane L. Robison.
The title comes from one executive’s script note for a line of dialogue in an episode of the 1960s sitcom “My Favorite Martian.”
Born Dec. 23, 1922, in New York City, Stern began writing jokes for Milton Berle at 16. He majored in journalism at New York University and was a Women’s Army Corps recruiter while serving in the Army during World War II.
After launching his career in radio, he began writing films in the early ‘50s, including “Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town” and “Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion.” He later co-wrote and directed the 1979 film “Just You and Me, Kid,” starring George Burns and Brooke Shields.
Stern is survived by his wife, actress Gloria Stroock; son Michael; daughter Kate; two grandsons and a great-granddaughter.
A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.