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Charles Isaacs, 88; Radio, TV Writer Crafted Lines for Famed Comedians

December 19, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Charles Isaacs, a comedy writer whose career spanned work with Bing Crosby and Milton Berle on radio and Red Skelton and Bob Hope on television, has died. He was 88.

Isaacs died of cancer Friday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica.

Among his numerous television credits are stints as head writer of the Skelton and Dinah Shore shows and "The Real McCoys," as well as creating, writing and producing the sitcoms "Hey Jeannie" and "The Tycoon." Early on, he created visual gags for Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons.

"I'd say Charlie was an iron man, a real workhorse," said Jordan Young, who interviewed Isaacs for his 1999 book, "The Laugh Crafters."

"He epitomized the comedy writer for the golden age of radio and television, the anonymous galley slave toiling day and night to put words in the mouths of famous comedians," said Young.

Comedy writer Hal Kanter, who knew Isaacs for more than 50 years, said Isaacs "was one of the most enchanting comedy writers that we've ever had."

"He was also a very fiercely independent gentleman," added Kanter. "He was an ardent letter writer to the editors of The Times and other publications. I think those of us who miss his comedy are also going to miss his editorial comments."

Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Isaacs grew up in Minneapolis, where his father opened a branch of the family's grain supply business.

Displaying a flair for humor, Isaacs wrote one-liners and humorous vignettes for local newspaper columnists, which were often picked up and repeated by radio personalities.

After the Depression interrupted his study of journalism at the University of Minnesota, Isaacs wrote scenarios for humorous commercials shown in local movie houses and served as the Minneapolis correspondent for Radio Guide magazine before taking off for Hollywood in 1937.

An unsolicited comedy sketch he wrote for Jack Benny landed him a stint as a writer on the "The Jack Haley Show."

Isaacs went on to write monologues for a show called "Al Pearce and His Gang" and sketches for Charlie Ruggles, Adolphe Menjou, John Barrymore and other stars on "The Texaco Star Theater."

Then came "The Chase and Sanborn Hour," starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden partner Charlie McCarthy. Isaacs wrote material for Bergen as well as routines and sketches for the show's guest stars such as W.C. Fields, who used one of Isaac's radio lines in his 1939 comedy "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man," with Bergen and McCarthy.

At one point in the movie, Fields says, "As I look back on my life, I get a lump in my throat."

To which Charlie McCarthy says, "It's probably a cork."

"The Kraft Music Hall," starring Crosby, "The Rudy Vallee Show" and "The Milton Berle Show" followed -- as did Isaacs' marriage to actress Doris Singleton, who later played Lucille Ball's friend Carolyn Appleby on "I Love Lucy."

During World War II, Isaacs enlisted in the Coast Guard. In addition to writing for the Coast Guard Band shows, he wrote recruiting pitches, interviews and public relations speeches before asking for sea duty. Trained as a gunner, he was stationed on a Navy ship manned by Coast Guard personnel in the southwest Pacific. He finished out the war in Hollywood writing for "Command Performance" and other Armed Forces Radio shows.

After the war, Isaacs continued to amass a string of credits, including writing for Fanny Brice's "The Baby Snooks Show" and "Amos and Andy," as well as writing for Al Jolson and Oscar Levant on "The Kraft Music Hall."

Isaacs was fresh off Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis' radio show when he went into television in 1950 as head writer for Jimmy Durante on the "All Star Revue," a comedy-variety show. He was later head writer for Durante on "The Colgate Comedy Hour."

Despite all the contributions, Isaacs, like many comedy writers, did not receive public recognition for writing the funny lines for the shows' stars, particularly when the stars were interviewed.

Isaacs told Young about complaining to Durante about the lack of recognition.

"I thought it was terribly unfair," Isaacs said. "Everybody, besides the money, wants a little pat on the back."

Isaacs said he and co-writer Jackie Elinson were in Durante's room at the Astor Hotel in New York when Durante remembered that Isaacs had yelled that "nobody seems to know Jackie and I write the show."

As Isaacs and Elinson sat talking with Durante, a hotel maid came in with a vacuum cleaner and Durante said, "Hilda, this is Charlie and that's Jackie. These are the boys that write my material."

As the maid finished vacuuming and headed out the door, Durante said to his two writers, "See, I give you credit."

In addition to his wife of 61 years, Isaacs is survived by a brother, Ken, of Chicago.

The date for a memorial service at the Writers Guild is pending.

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