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Hal Goldman; Prolific Joke Writer for Some of Comedy's Biggest Names

July 03, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the beginning there were Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny.

And until the end of his career, a mere five years ago, there was George Burns.

Hal Goldman, the Emmy-winning writer who penned gags for all those stellar comedians and a dozen or so others in between, has died at the age of 81.

Goldman, who followed Benny from radio into the Golden Age of that new gadget called television, died Wednesday of cancer at his home in Bel-Air.

Born Harold Goldman in St. Paul, Minn., and educated at the University of Minnesota, Goldman broke into show business the same way as many in his generation--in the Army during World War II. He began writing while in uniform, for actor Robert Young on Armed Forces Radio Service and for USO shows. At the war's end, Goldman moved to Hollywood, where he landed assignments to write radio scripts for Cantor.

Soon partnered with Al Gordon, Goldman was the urbane and well-read half of the team who typed and polished while Gordon paced and shouted out one-liners.

"Al couldn't type. I don't think he could even spell!" Goldman told The Times in 1996. "Al came up with very good jokes, but I had better judgment."

Through friends, they learned that Benny needed new material for Rochester, the black valet on his radio show, portrayed by Eddie Anderson. With lightning speed, Goldman and Gordon handed Benny a written sketch.

They were soon hired, along with George Balzer and Sam Perrin, as the purportedly penurious comedian's four writers, and they remained with him until Benny's TV show was canceled in 1965. Goldman continued writing for Benny's specials until the star died in 1974.

Two of Goldman's Emmys, in 1958 and 1959, were for Benny scripts in the Best Comedy Series category. Nominated for 10 Emmys during his career, Goldman added a third in 1966 for his work on a Carol Channing special, and also earned a Writers Guild Award in 1986.

Goldman adored Benny for respecting writers and treating them as peers, said Goldman's daughter, Barbara Garry.

After the Benny show ended, Goldman and his partner wrote for the comedy-variety television shows of Dick and Tommy Smothers, Carol Burnett, Jim Nabors, Flip Wilson, Dean Martin, Tony Orlando and Billy Crystal.

In 1979, Goldman signed on with another durable--and the writer's final--comedy legend, George Burns. Until the centenarian comedian's death in 1996, Goldman wrote for Burns' television shows, Las Vegas acts, the screenplay for the 1980 "Oh, God, Book II," and several of Burns' books--including "How to Live to Be 100 or More" published in 1983, "Wisdom of the 90s" in 1991 and "100 Years, 100 Stories" in 1996.

Goldman is survived by his wife, Betty; two daughters, Barbara Garry and Louise Ackerman; a brother, Hilton Goldman; and two grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Cedars-Sinai Hospice Fund.

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