Justly proclaimed by "insiders" as one of the funniest men in the world (on par with such giants as Larry Gelbart and Buck Henry), the El Centro, California-born TV comedy writer Jerry Belson hotfooted it to Tinseltown immediately after high-school graduation, where he briefly supported himself with stints as a comic-book writer, magician, and drummer. Not long after, at the tender age of 22, Belson sold his first script for an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (in 1960), then on CBS. He quickly met and teamed up with Northwestern grad Garry Marshall, four years his senior; the two pooled their abilities and jointly scripted some of the most enduring small-screen series comedies of the 1960s and '70s, including The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS, for which Belson won an Emmy), The Joey Bishop Show (1961-1965, NBC, CBS), The Lucy Show (1962-1974, CBS), Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. (1964-1970, CBS), Hey, Landlord (1966-1967, NBC), and The Odd Couple (1970-1975, ABC), on which Belson also served as producer and director. Needless to say, the towering, uniform success of these programs (many of which ran concurrently) turned both men into wealthy sitcom veterans and revered show-business legends, whose style of writing spurred countless others on to great heights. During this period, Belson and Marshall also created specials for Bob Hope, Danny Thomas (a project that won the WGA award), Fred Astaire, and Bing Crosby.
As The Odd Couple wrapped in the mid-'70s, Belson segued into big-screen work, with varying degrees of success. He began brilliantly, scripting one of the funniest American comedies of the postwar era, Michael Ritchie's Smile (1975) -- a heartfelt satire about a California beauty pageant. Uncredited collaborations with Steven Spielberg (on 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Ritchie (Semi-Tough, 1977) followed. Belson authored an original script for the hilarious Burt Reynolds-directed black comedy The End (1978), with Reynolds as a terminally ill man whose attempts to off himself are abetted by a nutty-as-a-fruitcake, schizoid mental patient (Dom DeLuise). It opened to solid reviews and box office, but everyone except for a (very) few die-hard Burt fans dismissed Belson's silver-screen reunion with Reynolds, Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), which Belson co-scripted with Brock Yates and Michael Caine.
The same applied to Belson's cinematic directorial debut, the insane comedy Jekyll & Hyde... Together Again (1982, produced, coincidentally, at the same time as Garry Marshall's freshman directorial outing). The director actually spun the material off of a sketch on ABC's late-night sketch comedy series Fridays (the network's answer to Saturday Night Live), in which comedian Mark Blankfield played a recurrent cocaine-snorting pharmacist. Belson turned the material into a feature, a loony Airplane!-style parody of Robert Louis Stevenson's seminal novel, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. The pedigree could hardly have been better, with Belson at the helm, and four of the most talented comic scripters in the business sharing authorship (the director's sister Monica Johnson, Michael Leeson, Belson, and Harvey Miller). Variety proclaimed it "irresistible," but the public most certainly did resist, and the picture bombed unceremoniously. So did Belson's sophomore directorial outing, for Cannon, 1987's Surrender. That film stars Michael Caine as a rich, misogynistic divorcée whose hatred of women springs from his being wrung dry in an alimony suit. Life takes a turn for the better when he is robbed, stripped, and tied to a chair opposite Sally Field -- and they fall in love. Roger Ebert best summed up the problem with that film when he surmised, "Instead of continuing to develop their relationship, Belson starts throwing unnecessary plot developments at his story....The movie loses track of its simple human feelings, and gets bogged down in plot gimmicks. The fragile relationship between Caine and Field is one of the casualties."
Belson achieved greater success when he returned to the small screen in the late '80s and '90s, scripting innumerable episodes of Tracey Takes On... and The Tracey Ullman Show, for which he won a string of Emmys. Additional big-screen credits throughout the '80s and '90s include Fletch (1985) and The Couch Trip (1988) -- both with Michael Ritchie helming -- as well as Steven Spielberg's Always (1989). After a period of inactivity, Belson died of cancer in Los Angeles on October 10, 2006.
Belson also occasionally appeared in bit parts in movies, including that of the coke-snorting partygoer Jerry, who is "slowly getting into film," in Albert Brooks's Modern Romance, and the TV director in Semi-Tough. In a particularly memorable bit, he made a guest appearance on Marshall's hit series Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983), in which he performed an outrageous stunt, "playing his eyeballs" to the tune of "If You Knew Susie" -- a gag that brought the house down. Longtime best friend Marshall best captured the core of Belson's talent in a Variety obit, surmising, "Belson's fast-paced, savage and smart comedy somehow managed to celebrate the human condition while mocking the futility of life. He was always on the lookout for pretension, once commenting upon observing an insecure Hollywood hotshot, 'He's the only man I know who swaggers into a room on his knees.'" ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi
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