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Sy Gomberg; Screenwriter, Activist Decried Screen Violence

February 14, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sy Gomberg, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, producer and civil rights activist who in recent years spoke out forcefully against "gratuitous and unpunished violence" in motion pictures and television entertainment, has died. He was 82.

Gomberg, who for many years headed the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences committee on documentaries, which governed Oscar nominations for that category, died Sunday at his home in Brentwood. He died of a massive heart attack, said his friend, actor James Whitmore.

The writer's own Academy Award nomination came early in his career--in 1951 for best story for the previous year's "When Willie Comes Marching Home," directed by John Ford and starring Dan Dailey and Corinne Calvert. The film was based on a story Gomberg originally wrote for Collier's magazine--a story that won him a screenwriting contract at Fox and became his entree to Hollywood.

The same year, Gomberg garnered a nomination for best screenplay from the Writers Guild of America for the film "Summer Stock," starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Last September, Gomberg adapted that script into a stage musical that was performed at the Western Stage in Salinas.

In the early 1960s, Gomberg as creator, producer and writer, teamed with his friend Whitmore for the television series "The Law and Mr. Jones," starring Whitmore as the honest and caring civil lawyer Abraham Lincoln Jones.

"Sy was the engine that made that go," said Whitmore, adding that the show represented some of the best of Gomberg's writing. When the series was canceled after a year, ABC was bombarded with thousands of protest letters from fans, making it one of the first shows to be revived by popular demand.

Despite its popularity, the show did not last more than a couple years. But it had a lifelong influence on Gomberg, prompting him to become a major supporter and fund-raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gomberg deepened his civil rights activism in the 1960s, when he organized Hollywood actors, writers and executives to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala.

In recent years, after several fatal shootings at high schools across the country, Gomberg turned his attention to the issue of violence in entertainment and its influence on youth.

He helped organize Hollywood's Committee to End Violence and to produce a 1998 advertisement that ran in three trade publications--Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the Writers Guild publication Written By--headlined "How Responsible Are We?" It pictured a child in a coffin and stated: "We who create entertainment must honestly acknowledge and urgently address the responsibility we all have to eliminate excessive or gratuitous or unpunished violence in films and television." It was signed by 180 writers, actors, producers and directors.

Gomberg spoke at several conferences that brought writers and would-be political censors together. He particularly criticized colleagues for portraying coldblooded killers as heroes and depicting "violence where there is no remorse . . . violence that is made to look like fun, filmed in slow motion, lighted beautifully and adorned with glib lines and uncaring heroes."

Other Gomberg films have included "Joe Butterfly," "The Wild and the Innocent" and "Three Warriors," a 1977 motion picture that led him to work for Native American causes. He served on the steering committee for the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian.

Born in New York, Gomberg came to Southern California to attend USC. Over most of his career he returned to the campus regularly and visited other universities in the U.S. and abroad to teach screenwriting. He spent World War II in the Air Force Motion Picture Unit, and afterward contributed articles and short stories to Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post until he began writing for film and television.

Gomberg is survived by his wife of 44 years, Maxine; his son, Chris; two daughters, Marsha Fineberg and Katherine Blake; a sister, Phyllis Spear; and five grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. today at Groman Eden Mortuary, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League or Handgun Control.

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