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OBITUARIES : Mel Tolkin, 1913 - 2007

Television comedy writer for Sid Caesar and others

November 27, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mel Tolkin, an award-winning television comedy writer who served as head writer for Sid Caesar's legendary "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" in the 1950s, died Monday. He was 94.

Tolkin died of natural causes at his home in Century City, said his son, writer Michael Tolkin.

In a nearly 50-year show-business career that began in Montreal in the 1930s when he wrote revues and played piano in jazz clubs, Tolkin wrote comedy for Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis and was a story editor for Norman Lear's landmark program "All in the Family."

But Tolkin was best known for his many years writing sketches for Caesar and his co-stars -- for "Admiral Broadway Revue" (1949), "Your Show of Shows" (1950-54) and "Caesar's Hour" (1954-57).

As head writer on the live, 90-minute "Your Show of Shows," Tolkin led a pack of writers that included Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Tony Webster and Neil and Danny Simon, among others. The show's famous cast included Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris.

Caesar said Monday that Tolkin "was a tremendous asset" to his TV shows and various specials.

"He was a very talented man, and he worked really hard," Caesar told The Times.

As head writer, Tolkin "had to keep them in line," Caesar said. "Of course, it got kind of crazy in the Writers' Room."

Indeed, Tolkin once described the writing process on "Your Show of Shows" as occurring "in a room full of raving madmen. And there I was at the center of it all, a Ukrainian Jew with a death wish."

There was, he said in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview, "a creative anger in the room. We had an acoustic ceiling. People would throw their pencils at it in frustration. One time I counted 39 pencils hanging from the ceiling."

Neil Simon re-created the charged atmosphere of the show's Writers' Room in his play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

Reiner, a "writer without portfolio" in the Writers' Room, said Tolkin knew what producer Max Liebman "required of a show, and he was sort of his right-hand man."

Reiner said that because Tolkin was an immigrant -- he spoke with a thick Russian accent -- "he had a different kind of sense of humor. We all appreciated it; he made us laugh."

Reiner said Tolkin, who wrote the "Your Show of Shows" theme song, also "was very funny at the piano." That included writing the music for a song Caesar sang on one show in which he simply repeated the words "Going crazy" several dozen times, followed by the last line: "Over you."

Larry Gelbart, who worked as a writer with Tolkin on "Caesar's Hour," said Monday that Tolkin "was a very unique, very gifted writer [and] mind. He had an Old-World sensibility and a New-World hipness."

Brooks said Monday that Tolkin deserved the "appellation" of head writer -- "maybe because he was a head taller than everybody, I don't know."

As a comedy writer, Tolkin "often fooled with American cliches such as, 'She married a station beneath her: She got off at 125th Street, and he got off at 116th,' " Brooks said.

He said Tolkin "absolutely had a brush-stroke of genius."

"Mel taught me that the best comedy had to come from the human condition," Brooks said. "He was never Bob Hope contemporary -- he never mentioned the president or what was happening in the country at the time. It was always the human condition, what happened in the human heart, and he taught me that. I was very fortunate to be a student in the Mel Tolkin class."

Tolkin, who was born Samuel Tolchinsky in Odessa, Ukraine, on Aug. 3, 1913, was a man who could claim, as he did in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview, that "I've lived under the czar, Lenin, Stalin and Ronald Reagan."

After the Russian Revolution, his family moved to Gaisin, a small city in Ukraine, before moving to Montreal in 1926.

After high school, he studied accounting in Montreal and wrote left-wing musical revues, taking the name Mel Tolkin to hide his writing activities from his parents.

Tolkin served in the Canadian Army Band during World War II -- he played the glockenspiel -- and moved to New York City after the war.

He was working summers at Camp Tamiment in Pennsylvania's Poconos when a revue he and Kallen wrote caught the attention of Liebman.

Being an "outsider," Tolkin said in a 1996 interview with a Jewish newspaper, "is part of what made me look at the world in the way I did." And when you're able to see society with fresh eyes, he added, "it looks funnier."

"If you like what's going on with the world, if you're part of it, you'll find little comedy in life," he told the Jewish Exponent. "Happy people are idiots."

Tolkin won four Writers Guild Awards. He also shared an Emmy Award for 1967's "The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special" and shared a Humanitas Prize for an episode of "All in the Family."

In addition to his son Michael, Tolkin is survived by his wife of 63 years, Edith; his son Stephen, a television writer and director; and four grandchildren.

Services will be held 10 a.m. Thursday at Hillside Memorial Park, 6001 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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