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Jerry Belson, 68; Comedy Writer Set the Standard for TV Shows of `60s, `70s

October 13, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When writer-director Garry Marshall was serving as an Army private in South Korea in the late 1950s, fellow soldier Gordon Belson would tell him, "You've got to meet my brother; he's a funny guy."

Marshall finally met Jerry Belson in 1962, teaming up with him a year later to become what many peers consider to be the preeminent television comedy-writing team of the 1960s and early '70s.

Belson, a three-time Emmy Award-winning writer, died of prostate cancer Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, said his daughter, Kristine Belson. He was 68.

"He was truly one of the funniest persons I ever met," Marshall said Thursday.

During his four-decade career, Belson received 12 Emmy nominations, winning awards for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "Tracey Takes On."

Belson was partnered with Marshall full time from 1963 to 1973, and the duo wrote for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Lucy Show," "The Danny Thomas Show," "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," "The Joey Bishop Show" and "Hey Landlord," which they created.

In one year in the '60s, Marshall recalled, they freelanced 32 half-hour scripts for different shows.

"He was a brave and risky writer; he tried everything," Marshall said. "I remember he'd write some far-out stuff and I'd say, 'Jerry, four people are going to get this joke.' He'd always say, 'More than enough.' And that was my mantra; he taught me how to do that."

The Belson-Marshall team also created TV specials for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and "The Danny Thomas Special: It's Greek To Me," which earned them the Writers Guild Award.

But they may have been best-known for developing "The Odd Couple" for television, serving as executive producers for the 1970-75 sitcom, which starred Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

"They were the dazzling team, the ones you wanted to emulate," said writer-director-producer James L. Brooks, who worked with Belson on "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "Tracey Takes On."

"Jerry was a very important figure in the way comedy evolved here" in Hollywood, Brooks said. "He was a mentor to a lot of people, myself among them."

Among Belson's film credits as a writer are "The Grasshopper," "Smile," "The End," "Fun with Dick and Jane" and "Always." He also wrote and directed "Surrender," co-wrote and directed the cult classic "Jekyll and Hyde ... Together Again" and did uncredited writing on films including "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Belson's comedy-writer friends say he was known for his dark and cynical writing style.

"Almost every time he was in a room pitching something, people would be on the floor laughing and saying, 'I wish we could use that,' it was so dark," Brooks said. "Well, they could have; people do it now."

Brooks said Belson's script for "The End," the 1978 film starring Burt Reynolds as a terminally ill man who repeatedly tries to commit suicide, was "one of the great black comedies ever written. We passed it around like religious papers. It was so funny and hard-hitting."

Belson's dark comedy came naturally.

Marshall recalled that when comedian-actor Wally Cox, a permanent fixture on "The Hollywood Squares," died, someone asked, "How?"

"He fell out of his box," Belson replied.

Brooks recalled that Belson "would go to a party for 10 minutes -- he could rarely take it more than that, but in those 10 minutes, he'd say a couple of lines that would circulate for two weeks."

"Jerry was the most observant person I ever met. He'd catch the essence of somebody at a glance and tend to make a funny observation about it."

Born on July 8, 1938, Belson grew up in El Centro, Calif., which he left for Hollywood immediately after graduating from high school.

At 22 -- after working as a magician, drummer and comic book writer -- he sold his first script, to the Danny Thomas show.

"He was a most unusual man," said TV veteran Carl Reiner. "He was an original, as most people are, but he was original in the sense that I never ran into anybody like that. He sort of whined funny lines -- major laughs."

In his later years, Reiner said, Belson had "his imprimatur on a lot of things people don't know about. He was so good in creating a very quick laugh that he was put on a lot of shows just to listen to the first reading and make notes.

"They paid him a lot of money because he had this rare and original sense of humor and could call upon it so easily."

In addition to his brother, Gordon, and daughter Kristine, Belson is survived by his wife, Jo Ann; another daughter, Julie; his sister, Monica Johnson; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

*

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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