Born February 20, 1925, New York City.
Died June 13, 2011, Tarzana, California.
As writer (with Albert E. Lewin)
Life With Luigi (multiple episodes, 1952-1953)
Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre: “How Much For Van Such?” (syndicated, 1955)
The Ray Milland Show: “Jury Duty” (3/3/55)
Dr. Christian (first episode, co-teleplay) (October 1956)
The Brothers: “Renting the Attic” (10/2/56)
Life of Riley: “Riley Hires a Nurse” (11/23/56)
Life of Riley: “The World’s Greatest Grandson” (12/21/56)
Life of Riley: “Babs’s Dream House” (3/15/57)
West Point: “Country Boy” (1957)
Disneyland: Texas John Slaughter: “Texas John Slaughter” (10/31/58)
Disneyland: Texas John Slaughter: “Ambush at Laredo” (co-teleplay) (11/14/58)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Cheap Is Cheap” (4/5/59)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Craig’s Will” (3/6/60)
Margie: “The Matchmaker” (9/22/61)
Margie: “County Fair” (10/15/61)
Margie: “The Big Move” (11/11/61)
Margie: “By the Sea” (11/18/61)
Margie: “Margie, the Jinx” (2/12/62)
McKeever and the Colonel: “Love Comes to Westfield” (2/10/63)
Chrysler Theatre: “The House Next Door” (11/15/63)
Grindl: “Grindl, the Meddler” (12/8/63)
Ma and Pa Kettle (unsold Universal pilot) (1964)
McHale’s Navy: “A Da-Da For Christy” (5/19/64) [DVD]
Gilligan’s Island: “Goodbye Island” (11/21/64) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “Has Anybody Seen My Electromagnetic Neutron Converting Gravitator?” (11/29/64) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “The Night Life of Uncle Martin” (12/13/64) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “How’re Things in Glocca, Martin?” (1/10/65) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “A Martian Fiddles Around” (2/14/65) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “Stop or I’ll Steam” (3/14/65) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “Uncle Martin’s Bedtime Story” (4/25/65) [DVD]
My Favorite Martian: “Martin of the Movies” (9/26/65)
My Favorite Martian: “Tim, the Mastermind” (10/17/65)
My Favorite Martian: “Martin Goldfinger” (10/24/65)
My Favorite Martian: “Bottled Martin” (10/31/65)
Chrysler Theatre: “Russian Roulette” (teleplay only) (11/17/65)
My Favorite Martian: “The O’Hara Caper” (12/19/65)
My Favorite Martian: “Doggone Martin” (3/6/66)
As writer (alone)
My Favorite Martian: “Pay the Man the $24” (5/1/66)
Chrysler Theatre: “Holloway’s Daughters” (co-teleplay) (5/11/66)
It’s About Time: “The Stowaway” (4/2/67)
It Takes a Thief: “The Thingamabob Heist” (10/15/68)
Mayberry R.F.D.: “The Copy Machine” (10/21/68)
Family Affair: “The Matter of Privacy” (2/3/69) [DVD]
Mayberry R.F.D.: “Millie the Model” (10/20/69)
The Flying Nun: “The New Habit” (11/19/69)
The Brady Bunch: “54-40 and Fight” (1/9/70) [DVD]
Family Affair: “There Goes New York” (2/12/70)
The Flying Nun: “When Generations Gap” (3/20/70)
The Brady Bunch: “The Impractical Joker” (1/1/71) [DVD]
Family Affair: “Buffy’s Fair Lady” (2/25/71)
All in the Family: “Judging Books by Covers” (co-teleplay) (2/9/71) [DVD]
All in the Family: “Success Story” (3/30/71) [DVD]
All in the Family: “The Saga of Cousin Oscar” (story and co-teleplay) (9/18/71) [Emmy nomination] [DVD]
The Partners: “Waterloo at Napoleon” (10/2/71)
Love, American Style: “Love and the Lovesick Sailor” (10/29/71)
All in the Family: “Edith’s Problem” (co-story and teleplay) (1/8/72) [Emmy Award] [DVD]
M*A*S*H: “To Market, to Market” (9/24/72) [DVD]
All in the Family: “Mike Comes Into Money” (story and co-teleplay) (11/4/72) [DVD]
M*A*S*H: “Bananas, Crackers, and Nuts” (11/5/72) [DVD]
As writer (with Adele Styler)
The Brady Bunch: “Career Fever” (11/17/72) [DVD]
Day by Day (1973; unsold Warner Bros. pilot for a family comedy starring Murray Hamilton and Pippa Scott)
Needles and Pins (multiple episodes, September-December 1973)
Chico and the Man: “Second Thoughts” (9/20/74)
Joe and Sons (at least one episode, 1975-1976)
Doc (at least one episode, 1975-1976)
Popi (at least one episode, spring 1976)
The Carol Burnett Show (1977-1978) [Emmy nominations, 1977, 1978]
Chico and the Man: “Ed’s Team” (12/30/77)
Pat Boone and Family (special) (November 1978)
Joe’s World: “Steve’s Drinking Problem” (February 1980)
Joe’s World: “If Something Should Happen” (story only) (March 1980)
Too Close For Comfort: “Up Your Easter Bonnet” (3/24/81) [DVD]
Too Close For Comfort: “The Return of Rafkin” (5/12/81) [DVD]
As producer, with Adele Styler
Needles and Pins (creators; 14 episodes, September-December 1973)
Harper Valley P.T.A. (executive consultants, 1981-1982)
Feature Films (as writer, with Albert E. Lewin): Call Me Mister (1951); Down Among the Sheltering Palms (1953); Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966); Eight on the Lam (1967); The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz (1968).
Burt Styler looks like a comedy writer. Or, at least, he looks like what I always thought a comedy writer would look like: diminutive, mostly bald, with a crooked, infectious grin and a quick, raspy voice. He’d probably be less than flattered by this comparison, but I’ll make it anyway: Burt looks a bit like the small-part actor Percy Helton, who played train conductors and undertakers and hotel clerks on dozens of sixties sitcoms.
Styler is the author of many of those sitcoms, from A-list pop culture touchstones like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch to forgotten misfires like McKeever and the Colonel (life in a military academy) and Grindl (Imogene Coca as an office temp). Television’s escapist comedies of the 1960s are nothing if not the apex of soothing pop culture banality, and Styler’s path toward that dubious nirvana was a typical one for a writer of humorous inclination. Teaming, as was customary, with a partner (it helps to have an instant audience for each joke), Styler endured a brief apprenticeship in radio and an even briefer one writing second-tier musicals for Twentieth Century-Fox. Scarcely five years into his professional career, his contract was canceled and, like many other writers cast adrift during the waning days of the giant movie studios, Styler found his way into television. He stayed.
Styler’s first forays into television were cut-rate star vehicles (for Ray Milland and Eddie Cantor, among others) and ethnic farces (Life With Luigi, The Life of Riley) that today would seem, to put it mildly, a bit indelicate in their characterizations. But a randomly selected episode of The Life of Riley, “Riley Hires a Nurse,” shows a lightning verbal wit and a knack for topping gags that seem like they’ve been played to the max. The eponymous Riley (William Bendix), one of TV’s then-ubiquitous father-as-oaf figures, involves himself in child care planning for his infant grandchild. A nurse who will be attending to his daughter’s delivery is overheard to say, “I’ve been dropping everything lately.” Later Riley attends a “baby nursing course,” expecting to see R.N.s but finding expectant mothers instead. Lewin and Styler expand a one-liner (“She looks like a left tackle for the Los Angeles Rams”) into a long dream sequence in which a battle-axe nurse pulls a football out of a baby’s blankets and hurls it through a goalpost. These sight gags, the first of which acknowledges (however obliquely) the reality of lactation, reveal a more irreverent attitude toward the sanctity of motherhood and family than one expects in the context of a fifties sitcom.
Working at the apex of television’s insular post-Camelot fantasy, Styler spun confections for The Flying Nun, My Favorite Martian, and that avatar of delirious unreality, The Brady Bunch. They were assignments that Styler himself found largely forgettable, but it is the very irrelevance of his 1960s output that has ensured its durability. Gilligan’s Island – if not always beloved, at least ineradicable – will long outlive its makers.
Perhaps, in a far-removed, Hollywood sort of way, Styler felt a touch of the social unrest of the late sixties. Amid restless (and largely unsuccessful) forays into writing for the stage and the big screen again, he separated uncomfortably from his longtime collaborator Albert E. Lewin and began writing on his own.
It turned out to be the most fulfilling stretch of his career. During the early seventies Styler transitioned successfully into the new world of “adult” television comedy, contributed scripts to the first seasons of M*A*S*H and All in the Family, and won the Emmy for his work on Norman Lear’s revolutionary sendup of middle-class bigotry. Alongside a new partner, his wife Adele, Styler wrote for many of the shows that followed in Archie Bunker’s wake, notably Chico and the Man (repudiating, perhaps, the sins of Luigi in this more hip ethnic sitcom), and accrued a final important credit on The Carol Burnett Show. Fittingly, on that throwback to fifties-style sketch comedy, the Stylers served as a mentor figures for the staff’s younger writers – and midwifed perhaps the most famous single comedy skit in the history of television.
Like any veteran gagman should, Burt Styler speaks with a manic energy, bouncing between decades as he tosses out finely polished anecdotes and the occasional one-liner in need of a good rimshot. (Another sitcom analogue: Think Buddy Sorrell, Morey Amsterdam’s character on The Dick Van Dyke Show.) After I got Burt started I rarely had to consult my notes – except for when he would take a breath and, with impeccable timing, deadpan politely: “I need another question.”
Were you always a comedy writer?
I started out as a dramatic short story writer and a gag writer at the same time. I was writing short stories, and in fact I sold one to a thing called Dime Detective. I sold a melodrama which I wrote in one sitting and never edited. [Laughs.] It just came out right. I was around twenty-two.
How did you get into gag writing?
I just started writing jokes. When I was a kid growing up, my big love was dialogue. In fact, I had a great deal of trouble reading prose because it was so boring to me, and dialogue moved. So I read every play in the New York Public Library from A to Z. I went through every one of them, and it was heaven, reading all that stuff. I worked in the New York Public Library at one point when I was about seventeen, and they had the original play of The Front Page, by Hecht and MacArthur. I was hysterical with joy to see that. And I found a format for playwriting, which I eventually used.
Were you born in New York?
I was born in New York, then we moved to New Jersey until I was about thirteen, then we moved back to New York. My mother was an opera singer, and I said, “Teach me how to play the piano.” So we sat down [and she tried]. As she told it later on, “All he wanted to know was, where do the black keys go when they go down?”
I had a teacher in high school, who’s so vivid in my memory – she may have contributed a lot to my becoming a writer. I was a lazy prose reader, and we had to read Ethan Frome for a book report. I never read it. What happened was, we had to turn them in at a certain time, and the teacher made it very clear if you didn’t hand in a book report you were in deep shit. So I went to a girl I knew in the class who was a very fast reader and a very reliable individual, and I said, “Give me the plot – fast!” And she did. I had a copy of the book, obviously, because we were supposed to read it, which I hadn’t. I read the first chapter. And she’d told me where the whole thing goes. I sat down that night, to [write] it, amd the first line of the book report was in dialect: “If’n you knew Ethan like I knowed him. . . .” And it was all bullshit. But it was the story, because the girl had told me the story, and I reflected it [in a comedic way].
Well, I got back a triple-A [grade] from the teacher, Miss O’Brien. She just thought it was the most outstanding piece of originality, and I had no idea it was going to happen. I think she sort of put the notion in my head that maybe I had some feel for writing. It was a fluke. I later learned to read prose much more proficiently.
It seems that almost every successful television comedy writer started as a gagman for one of the big radio comedians - Jack Benny or Red Skelton or Al Jolson - and I understand that you began your career with Bob Hope.
I was in the army, in the infantry [during World War II]. I was transferred to Division Headquarters when the war was over. An item appeared in Stars and Stripes: “Are you a writer? Would you like to work for the American Forces Network in Paris?” And I gave ’em the biggest line of crap I could think of and sent it to them. About a month later my major, who was an idiot, called me in and said, “Styler, you know anything about this?” I said, “What is it, sir?” He said, “Somebody in the American Forces Network is interested in you coming in there. You wanna do that?” I said, “Well, maybe it’s somebody I know that wants to get me. It’s possible.” I knew all along, of course, what had happened. Anyway, they said, “Come on in, come to Paris.”
I found my way from Czechoslovakia to Paris, joined a young fellow who was already there who had been in the infantry, named Al Lewin, who became my partner in the future.1 And we wrote a show that night, while Bob Hope was coming to town. We wrote an hour show in one night, including the [custom] lyrics for “Thanks For the Memories.” That’s how I got to meet Hope for the first time. It went over very well. Hope left. The next day, I was walking across the street and I got run over by a French GI. Put me in the hospital for nine months. Fractured my femur. Dragged me under the wheels. He had the only car on the street, and I was the only civilian on the street. It’s a broad boulevard. He was coming at me. He wanted to hit me. Maybe somebody screwed his sister; I don’t know what happened.
They finally flew me home [to New York], and out of the Army. Hope was coming to town. I called him up and said, “Do you remember me?” He really didn’t. I said, “I’m interested in working for you if I can, Bob.” He said, “Well, why don’t you write me a monologue, Burt.” I did. Went down to the Waldorf Towers, slipped it under the door.
Next day I called him back: “How was it?” He says, “I’m almost over it now.” My heart sank. He says, “I’m just kidding. Would you like to come to California?” I said yes. His agent called the next day. I made a deal, and came out with a thirteen-week guarantee. Stayed for two and a half years, closer to three.
Were you writing for radio, TV, or Hope’s films?
It was all mixed up. It was just radio at that point. Later on Al and I wrote many of his movies. Not necessarily great movies, but we were script doctors more than anything.2
[We toured using] Hope’s plane, coast to coast on his private plane. I think we hit 37 cities in 26 days. And I’m scared to fly! Otherwise, we were in California, and we did our remotes [for Hope’s radio show] from high schools around here. They played high school gymnasiums, auditoriums, things like that. They filled them easily, no sweat. The TV show had to be done from [the] network, because of the facilities. In some ways radio was more fun.
Did you do anything in radio other than for Hope?
Yeah, I worked for Kate Smith in New York.
What was she like?
I don’t know, I never met her. I worked on a comedy spot. Oh, yeah, that was my first job. There was a comedian who never made it to anywhere, never got out of his mother’s bathroom, named Harvey Stone. But he did a monologue every week on the Kate Smith Show -- somebody believed in him! There were three writers on the show, and we stayed up all night, working on the monologue, and it was a horrible experience, what can I say? [Laughs.] That was writing jokes and, boy, really pulling teeth.
Tell me about writing for Hope’s radio program.
Norman Sullivan was the head writer on the Hope show at that time, and Bob would get together and Norman would suggest certain topics. Half a dozen topics, let’s say. Norman would get on the phone and call every writer: “Get your pencil ready, these are the topics for the week.” Then we would each write four or five or six jokes about each topic. Usually the scripts came in with about thirty-two jokes just for the monologue. Now, Hope would get everybody’s monologue. He knew everybody. He knew everybody’s phone number, how do you like that? And he had twelve writers. Everybody’s phone number by heart. “Get me so and so,” and he’d give his number.
Hope would read all these twelve monologues that came in from all the writers. He would check [off] each one, the jokes that hit him well the first time he read them. Miss Hughes, Hope’s secretary, would now type up what was called the point sheet. This consisted of all the jokes that were checked. In the beginning, the writer’s name was on top. After the first go-through, no writers’ names appear. Just jokes that Hope liked and wanted the first time. Now Hope would go through, maybe three times, each time [crossing out] more and more, narrowing it down each time. And he ended up with, from twelve writers, about twenty-two jokes. In the original he got twelve times thirty, let’s say, he got 360 jokes and ended up with twenty-two. [That’s] what kind of filtering down process it was. And those were the ones that went on the air.
And that’s just for the monologue. You were also writing comedy sketches for him.
Yeah, everything. That’s a different deal. I didn’t do sketches as much as I did the column. He had a newspaper column in the Hearst papers every day called “It Says Here.” And I wrote a lot of them.
How open was Hope about the fact that much of his output was ghost-written?
Nobody admitted it as much as he did. I don’t think he wanted it advertised about the column. He said that after the column had been dropped by the paper. It was on for about five or six years, a big hit.
So Hope had a large pool of writers that did everything for him.
Oh, yeah, including punching up every one of his movies. I had a lot of jokes in Sorrowful Jones , and a couple of others. Every writer wrote on them, and Hope would read every joke. Didn’t miss one. Might be a gem here, you know. Very appreciative.
Tell me how you broke into movies.
I was on tour with Hope somewhere, and I got word that Universal wanted to buy my story. Now I had never done any movie work or anything like that; I was, like, twenty-three or twenty-four. It was called “The Merry Outlaws” and it was about Robin Hood. Robin Hood was Charles Coburn – he had arthritis and he was too old to shoot an arrow. The hero was an arrow salesman in Nottingham, and that [part] was for Donald O’Connor. So Donald O’Connor and Charles Coburn were [to be] the stars of the picture.
It was all set to go, and all of a sudden – this was my bad-luck period – the deal’s off. Why? Harry Cohn [the head of Columbia Pictures] found out that Universal was going to make this picture. He was doing a movie with Richard Greene playing Robin Hood. He felt that if my movie was made, nobody would take seriously his Robin Hood, who was a straight-arrow kind of guy, and [Cohn] said to Universal with whatever threat he had, “Do not make that picture.” They wanted to keep Harry Cohn as a friend rather than me as an employee.
So that didn’t work out, but shortly thereafter you got an offer from Fox.
Zanuck wanted to sign us to a seven-year contract. I went to Hope and said, “Bob, I won’t be able to work for you any more.” He stares at me. He didn’t say anything. I had to go on, I had to explain: “I did a movie [script] for Zanuck, and he wants to sign me to a seven-year contract, so I’m sorry, Bob, but I won’t be able to continue with you.” There was a long pause and he finally says, “Good luck, Burt.” And I really felt terrible. But I didn’t know he was putting me on! I really felt lousy, you know, I let him down, and he needed me, and all this stuff that I was imagining.
A year and a half later, I was at Fox. The phone rings; it’s Miss Hughes: “Mr. Hope would like you to come to the dressing room at Paramount.” So Al and I drove over to Paramount at lunchtime. There was a watch waiting for me, and on the back it said: “To Burt, my favorite ghost. Bob Hope.”
Did you actually spend seven years at Fox?
About four. And then the shit hit the fan. The studio was not doing well, and all these contract people were let go. There were several times like that. We were at Universal and did a movie which has never been shot, which every director on the lot broached us and said, “I’d like to talk to you about directing your picture.” But they closed the studio for a year. When the studio opened again, it was a dead script. It was called “The Stotnicky Story,” a true story about a Texas GI who met his wife, a Russian girl repatriated from a Russian prison camp. He fell in love with her and took her across Europe, hiding her from the military brass, ending up in Czechoslovakia, where the Army was going to break them up and send her to the East and he was going to go back to the United States. They finally got together.
It was a good script. I’m not usually one to say my stuff is good, but it really works very well. We even got the Texas flavor into his speech. We went down to Dallas to interview him, and we taped the hell out of him because we wanted to get that. And we did get a very successful script. Unfortunately, wrong time. That was a dramatic comedy, with a lot of drama in it. We liked to mix the two as much as we could.
What was working on the studio lots like? Did you have an office on the Fox lot?
Oh, yeah. We shared a bungalow with a guy named John Collier! It was fantastic. You couldn’t wait to get in in the morning and talk [to him]. Just listening to the pearls drop! Oh, boy, what a writer.3
Did you get to know Collier well?
As well as you can a very proper Englishman. A very outspoken guy on certain issues. He was extremely liberal, which was not popular at that time in the studio system. John was a funny guy. He was small. He had a beat-up old car. He had more money than anybody in the world, I think, and a little dinky car! There was a right-wing fascist commentator on radio, Fulton Lewis, Jr., and every day at a certain hour John would go out and sit in his car and close the windows and turn on the radio and listen to this guy and scream and yell and rant and rave. Why he listened to the guy, I don’t know -- he just punished himself.
Tell me about the two films you received credit on at Fox.
We were put on Down Among the Sheltering Palms  to do a fast rewrite. They had to go in three weeks, and it was pretty much a total rewrite. The original writer was Claude Binyon, and there were a lot of things we disagreed with [in the script]. He got first credit anyway, because he was the first writer. And we had an old director, actually a great director, named Edmund Goulding, who was doing the wrong movie. We had that experience a couple of times.
Call Me Mister  was the first script we did for Fox, and a writer, a very successful and experienced screenwriter, had got hold of our script and he said, “I read your script last night. Very good script. Who’s directing it?” And I said to him, “Another old, good pro, Lloyd Bacon.” He says “Uh-oh. Lotsa luck.” And he walked away.
So you spent three years at Fox and only had two screenplays produced, which I gather is pretty typical.
We did a number of treatments for various things which didn’t go forward for one reason or another. In one case, Zanuck put us on the life story of Eva Tanguay and we came up with an approach. We sent it to Mr. Zanuck. He came back with a memo that was beautiful. He said, “For the first time I understand the character of Eva Tanguay.” Unfortunately, our producer was named Georgie Jessel, and Georgie Jessel was a good showman, great at the Palace, but he wasn’t good behind a producer’s desk. We had a big argument and we resigned from the project. Sent an apologetic note to Zanuck, saying we could not go forward on this because Mr. Jessel and we don’t agree on our approach. And he got somebody else to do it. [Laughs.] A couple of times we were full of righteous [zeal]: do it right, don’t give in to the pressures!4
Where there other films you worked on without credit?
I think so. It’s funny, but they fade into your life over time. And I think to myself, looking at my credits, “These are not Dudley Nichols’ credits!” There are very few scripts I’m proud of. Call Me Mister was a script I was proud of, but it didn’t come out as a movie I was proud of. It happens.
Like many contract writers let go by the movie studios as they downsized during the 1950s, you and Al turned to television. Do you remember your first experience writing for that medium?
You mean the first credit I ever had in television? It was called Life With Luigi. And it was a real grind. We did a number of scripts for it, but it was like pulling teeth. There was nothing stimulating about the basic premise of the thing, or the people in it, the actors. Nothing there. And when you have nothing to work with, the writer breaks his back trying to make something happen.
It was a horrible experience, because we were used to movies, and to go from movies into television, the pacing was murder. We finally got used to it, but at first it was very tough.
Life With Luigi is remembered now for its really broad ethnic (Italian) stereotypes, which people tend to cringe at today. Were you conscious of that at the time?
No, we just did what they asked. We were complete sellouts! [The star,] J. Carroll Naish, I always thought was a very good heavy but not a particularly funny person.
Another comedy you and Albert Lewin wrote for was The Life of Riley, a popular radio spinoff starring William Bendix as a much put-upon blue-collar everyman.
Yeah, we did a lot of those. We worked for Tom McKnight, who was a sweet man. Tom had been around for quite a few years. He used to refer to Safety Last and silent pictures when he wanted to tell you how to do something physical. We worked for him for about a year and a half. I think we were practically the only writers on the show. Maybe there was somebody else who sneaked in a script once in a while, but we were grinding him out. And we were comfortable with the show. It was a chore after a certain point, because you’d used up all the stuff in the well and you had to go to another well or something.
In those days, writers were not prone to spend extra money. Which means, we didn’t hire a secretary. And we didn’t have a secretary, because in TV you were on your own – you worked at home, and then you handed the script in. Al and I would hand in some of the nastiest-looking scripts you ever saw – with arrows, “See page two, back from page six.” At a certain point Ben Brady, a producer who was kind of a phony as far as we were concerned – we had met him before – was put on the show along with Tom McKnight to co-produce with him. And we handed in our scripts, this time a copy for each of them. Came back for a story meeting, and Brady said, “How dare you?” Al and I looked at each other and said, “How dare we what?” He says, “Look at the condition of this script! Arrows and crossing out. This is disgusting! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, handing anything like this in.”
We were kind of taken aback by it. And Tom stood by and he said, “Well, you see, with these guys, you get the first draft and the rewrite at the same time.” Which was the sweetest thing he could have said. It also put Brady down a little bit.5
You also wrote for something called the Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre.
Yeah, we did about fifty of those, one after another. It was wide open, because we could do a musical, we could do a drama, comedy, any damn thing we felt like. We kept bringing ’em in, and they kept shooting them. But that was like hack work.
You also wrote for a few non-comedies during the 1950s. What was West Point?
A series about West Point! Myasthenia gravis, you ever hear of it? It’s a disease, and we gave it to a West Pointer. We based a whole story on this kid having it and not knowing what it was, and them not being able to diagnose it. We did a couple [of scripts]. Ivan Tors was involved in it. We did a couple of things for him.
And there was Texas John Slaughter with Tom Tryon, one of the recurring western serials that ran on the Walt Disney series after Davy Crockett had become enormously popular.
I don’t know why we got the job. Frank Gilroy was writing one while we were writing that one. We spent a lot of time together. I think Dave Harmon was also involved on the show at that time. A very good social life we had there. There were only three writers on the whole [Disney] lot. Four – Al and I were one writer!6 It was a western; it was fun.
So it wasn’t difficult for you to move from comedies to dramas.
You see, we always plotted our comedies on a three-act basis, like a drama. So it was not a great stretch for us to go from comedy to drama. A teacher, who was even referred to, I believe, in Adaptation, Lajos Egri – Al and I were both disciples of Egri’s book. Carl Foreman7 was a friend of mine. Carl put me onto Egri. When you construct a comedy, even a sketch, based on Egri, it’s just a matter of interpretation what makes it funny or what makes it serious. How do you conceive the character, to turn a comedy into a drama or vice versa? . . . . What makes comedy and drama different? How do you take a drama, and make it into a comedy? Like Born Yesterday. That’s a completely dramatic premise. Just think of the plot. Completely straight, violent. It’s like the Kitty Packard story in Dinner at Eight. That’s almost the same story as Born Yesterday, in [its] relationships, but it’s not a comedy. And yet Born Yesterday’s a hysterically funny comedy.
Did you perceive a big difference when you moved from writing gags for comedians into writing plotted situation comedies?
Sure, it’s a different ballgame. Telling stories is much easier. And even writing jokes when you have a storyline is much easier than just writing stand-up stuff.
How did you and Al Lewin function as a team?
Mechanically? Well, in the beginning I would do the typing. Al said he was a lousy typist, and I typed with two fingers. When we first went to work, we did every line together. We threw out a line, we corrected it, we edited it, and down it goes. And so on. Years later, we began to split the script up. He would do half, I would do half, then we’d exchange halves and edit each other. That’s the mechanics of how we worked.
We were very close friends. Al’s wife introduced me to the woman who became my wife. We were together many years. It was my fault when we finally ended our work relationship, although we went together again later. But we did break up for a while, because I had a frustration. I had to write something of my own. That was many years after we were already pretty successful as a team.
Lewin was a few years older – was that a factor in your partnership?
He was about seven or eight years older than I. He was like an older brother to me. Very much so. We felt that way about each other. There were times when we would spend more time together than with our wives. Obviously; any [writing] team has that situation. We had a very good personal and writing relationship. We liked each other, we enjoyed the same kind of things. Things that made me laugh made him laugh, and vice versa.
And you could make each other laugh?
Yeah. One of the funniest jokes I remember Al writing, he wrote in Paris while we were working on the Hope show. His line was, “The Eiffel Tower – that’s the erector set that made good.”
You wrote for Sherwood Schwartz’s now-ubiquitious Gilligan’s Island.
Sherwood Schwartz is the sweetest man that ever lived and deserves every million dollars he earns. He is the loveliest guy. I not only did Gilligan, but my wife and I wrote The Brady Bunch. To show you what kind of a man Sherwood is, Adele and I were working on a script – we’d done a number of them for Brady – and we wrote one and we couldn’t lick the second act. And Sherwood tried with us. None of us could get the answer. So he said, “The hell with it, we’ll pay you and forget it.” We went on and did another script for him. A year later, the phone rings. It’s Sherwood: “I think I licked your second act. Would you like to come in and talk about it?” And he had. And we went home and wrote that, and gave him the script. That’s the kind of a person he is. He didn’t bring in some guy to rewrite it.
You only wrote one Gilligan’s Island, though.
Most of the time when I was on a successful show and I did that, it’s because I got better offers of better things to do, or pilots, which paid a lot more and were much more potentially enriching.
How many unproduced pilots did you write?
Which is pretty typical, I think.
I imagine, yeah. And some of them were excellent. Sometimes when you’re dealing with a pilot, so much depends on the producer. I usually don’t give any producers credit for contributing much, but in a pilot they’re very valuable and can be very helpful to you. We did this one show, a military show about the airlift over Berlin. It was hysterically funny, I thought, and everybody loved it. It never got made.
How many of your pilot scripts were actually shot?
I’d say out of thirty, ten were made.
You wrote quite a few My Favorite Martian scripts. There’s a famous story about writers that came out of that show: according to the legend, Ray Walston was reading the script for an upcoming episode and complained of one of his lines, “A Martian wouldn’t say that!”
I heard the story, that’s all I can tell you. It didn’t happen in my presence!
You also wrote for McHale’s Navy.
Well, that was a chore. It was one of those things, get the script in. It was not memorable for anything. Just make a buck. Some shows were like that. You just did’em because there was nothing else available at the moment and your agent wanted to keep you busy, so he got you an assignment.
Also, appropriately, you wrote some funny scripts for the prestigious anthology Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. For the most part Hope just introduced dramatic plays, but he starred in a few comedy specials on the series as well.
Al and I did a treatment, a very long treatment, about 60 pages, about a house that becomes available [cheaply] because the people who live there want to get out, because the guy moved in next door is a gangster. It’s been stolen since, not from us, but the whole idea’s become prevalent. They’re doing that movie today!8 Ours was called “The House Next Door,” and Hope is the guy who gets a real steal on a house and doesn’t know who’s living next door. He’s married, he has a wife and kids, and he gets involved with the hood’s moll. It was a funny script. We tried to sell it to Hope as a movie, [but he] wouldn’t buy it. We got a call that he wants to buy it but he wants to do a television hour out of it. So Al and I thought, we didn’t sell it, we gotta get some money out of it. So we took the script that we had and we broke it up and found a way to use all the stuff that was there and cut out all the things that we didn’t need for this particular hour. It was a mechanical job of cutting.
Okay: He shot the first hour. Jill St. John was the leading lady. It got such [great] reviews, now he comes back to us and he says, “I’d like to buy the other half now.” We said, “You had a chance to buy the whole movie! Why didn’t you make it as a movie?” Well, we wrote it. We took the other pieces that we took out and made them into another hour! And it worked. But Jill St. John wouldn’t make it because she had gotten older and chubbier, and didn’t look as good as she did in the first hour. So it never got shot.
“The House Next Door”: As former Bob Hope gag writers, Styler and Lewin were naturals to contribute comedy scripts to the NBC anthology hosted by Hope.
Around this time, you and Lewin wrote a play, Gift Horse, that almost made it to Broadway.
When Al and I went to New York with our play, we could have become “star writers,” but an actor screwed us.
Your shot at Broadway turned into a bad experience?
Oh, it was horrible. It would have soared, but it never got a chance. And this idiot, who we [suggested] – we said, “How about Mickey Shaughnessy,” and Cy Feuer said, “Yeah, he’s great.” And then he screwed us. He took another job before he found out that this one was really an active situation.
Cy Feuer was a big deal on Broadway. He had produced Guys and Dolls.
He was going to direct it, in his own theatre. So that was a big ball-breaker. It got produced out of town with an actor I don’t want to mention, and a cast that wasn’t too thrilling. We were there for five months in New York, staying at the Algonquin.
You’ve very judicious about omittting the names of people who are still living.
Well, this guy never was alive anyway!
As you mentioned, you and Al Lewin stopped writing together in 1966. What was writing solo for the first time in nearly two decades like?
At first it was a very traumatic experience, but my wife was extremely helpful. She gave me more confidence in myself. And then gradually it came back, and I was able to do All in the Family and M*A*S*H and things like that.
Strangely enough, the one I’m most proud of is not that great a script, but it’s just the whole idea [that’s appealing]. I was called in by Gene Coon, the producer of It Takes a Thief. He said, “I’d like you to do a script for me.” I said, “I can write it, but you don’t know that. How come you’re hiring me?” Because I’d been doing straight comedy, in television at least. He said, “I know you can write it.” And I went home and I felt so happy that he had that confidence that I sat down and wrote a plot and a character that were so good that they asked me to do a repeat of the same character for a subsequent show. Ricardo Montalban played the part. It was a heavy who was an international something-or-other, a charming son-of-a-bitch who screws all the girls. It was a little bit like James Bond’s heavies.9
How do you go about capturing the tone and the characters of a popular show like My Favorite Martian or Gilligan’s Island, that was created by someone else and has been on the air for a while?
As a professional, if you liked the tone of the show, you enjoy watching it – you don’t want to throw up when you see it – that’s enough to ignite your interest in the whole show and how to approach it. As far as duplicating a characterization, if you run the show a couple of times or read it several times to yourself, you can pretty well get a grasp of the character.
I remember that was particularly true, that problem, with Chico and the Man. With Chico, you had to really know the two people. And we did. I don’t know how we got it, but Adele and I just talked about it a lot and we got to know them quite well. And it was no sweat to write it. Archie [Bunker] was easy, Edith was pretty easy. They were all pretty well defined by Norman Lear. He did a very good job of it in the pilot. I wrote from the pilot, that’s how early on I was involved in the show. I was probably the first writer on the show, after he did the pilot.
Norman Lear used to say about All in the Family, “We live or die from line to line.” Which is not usually true of a show, but in that case it probably was. And that show went for as many laughs as it could get: line, line, line. That certainly isn’t true these days, although you’d think it was from the laugh tracks. Guy walks in and says “Hello,” and it’s a big laugh.
You won an Emmy for one of your scripts for All in the Family.
I also wrote one with Norman Lear that I was nominated for on the same evening, so I got two nominations that night.
Was subject of menopause, which had never been discussed on television before, controversial?
Not as controversial as some others that I wrote. I wrote one on homosexuality, where Archie’s got a friend who’s a heroic kind of guy, a big, muscular guy, and he tells Archie that he’s gay and Archie doesn’t believe him. That was the first thing I did for the show, actually. It was very early on, so it was wide open, anything I wanted to do. And the first thing that occurred to me was, well, he’s a bigot - why not do a show about a homo?
Right after All in the Family, you became involved with the other series that’s been credited for beginning a revolution in sitcoms in the 1970s: M*A*S*H.
M*A*S*H, that was a sweet show. Larry Gelbart was so easy to work with. I’ll sum it up this way: I got a page and a half from Larry apologizing for making a half-page change. That’s the kind of wonderful relationship I had with him.
But you only wrote a couple of early M*A*S*H episodes.
Yeah, then I was on my own, writing pilots and stuff like that. Adele and I created a show called Needles and Pins. It was the worst casting in the history of show business. The only person we had on who we liked was Louis Nye. Norman Fell was on it, too; he was good. But the leading lady of the show, and I wouldn’t say anything insulting an actress – but, wow. She just had nothing. I mean, it was like they put Kirk Douglas in the leading lady role. One of those things where you get the wrong person at the wrong time. We had a guarantee of thirteen and that’s all we did. And if was the sponsor, I wouldn’t have renewed the show with that particular lady in it.10
You’ve mentioned your wife Adele, who became your writing partner after you’d been going it alone for a while. When did you marry her?
Six weeks after I met her. [Laughs.] A long time ago. But she said don’t give her age away.
So you were married for a long time before you started writing with her.
Oh, sure. I was working with Al for many years while I was married to her. She was a playwright. She was an actress first. Adele Dane was her name at that time. I got a chance to see her work in the theatre out here. She was in a play, and it was fun to see her stealing the [scene]. Each day her part would get a little bigger.
I was working on a Brady Bunch, I think, and, I don’t know, she looked kind of sad and blue about something. Maybe her play wasn’t getting off the ground. I think I had been to a meeting with Sherwood, and I said “How’d you like to finish the script with me, and we’ll make sure that you get your name on the script.” She agreed to it, and then we started working together.11
Our agent was at that time, I guess you could say, the hottest agent in town, Mike Ovitz. And Mike got us the Burnett Show.
How long you were on the Carol Burnett Show?
A year and a half.
Near the beginning or the end of its long run?
I’d say it was toward the three-quarter mark. Wonderful experience. You had wonderful performers, first of all, doing your material. You couldn’t ask for better readings of the scripts. You had a lot of perks: Sammy Davis came over and gave a concert just for the writers. We went down to the hall he had rented and the orchestra that he brought in, and he did an hour and a half! And we were very happy with Ed Simmons, who was the head writer. Actually Ed was the producer, but he was mostly the head writer and worked with scripts. It was a delightful experience.
Probably the most famous Carol Burnett segment, a Gone With the Wind parody in which Burnett’s Scarlett O’Hara makes a dress out of the curtains with the rod still in them, was done while you were on staff.
There were two kids, Rick Hawkins and Liz Sage, on the Burnett Show, and I think it was their first job. Each of us wrote a given number of sketches, and the ones that Carol or Ed Simmons picked out would be the ones that we shot. Well, these two kids were right across the hall from Adele and I. They’re working on a sketch, and they came over, read us a part of it. And one of the things they had was Scarlett O’Hara with a curtain rod in her back, and they said, “You think that’s too wild?” We said, “No, no – go for it!”
Did you personally like the programs you were writing for in the 1960s and ’70s?
We enjoyed them. You know something, I liked M*A*S*H and I liked All in the Family. It’s hard to go beyond those two. Did I find it enjoyable to work with the people, that’s the second question. Yes, on Gilligan’s and on My Favorite Martian, absolutely, the people were lovely and the performances were fine. As a professional, you have to say that. You can’t say, is this my cup of tea?
Did you ever feel like you were writing down to your audience?
I guess on occasion you do. I really shouldn’t say this, although I don’t suppose it makes any difference: I think writing Gilligan’s was writing down. I think that Sherwood always liked to think higher, he always liked to think of it as a microcosm for the world. And I admire that in him, but, I gotta say: analyze the characters. You’re not talking about three-dimensional, Arthur Miller representations here.
And The Brady Bunch as well?
Same thing, I gotta say.
For me, among 1960s sitcoms, there’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, and then there’s all the rest.
True. Absolutely right. Dick Van Dyke was head and shoulders [above the rest]. Oh, sure, that was a real comedy: you believe these people. Morey Amsterdam [as Buddy Sorrell] was one of my favorite characters in that thing.
You flirted occasionally with drama, but did you ever aspire to writing more serious material than you did?
No, I’m of the school that thinks that Hecht and MacArthur were my kind of writer. They did Twentieth Century. They did The Front Page, which is a hell of a funny melodrama. And my favorite moviemaker has to be Billy Wilder, and anything he does. So that’s what I would love to be, if I had my druthers. Be like Billy Wilder, because he was dramatically perfect and comedically hysterical.
1 Albert E. Lewin (1916-1996), not to be confused with the film director Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), wrote in partnership with Styler from the early fifties until 1965. His later solo credits included episodes of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nanny and the Professor, The Brady Bunch, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life.
2 Styler’s screenplay credits for Hope, both shared with other writers, were the generally reviled Boy Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966) and Eight on the Lam (1967).
3 The celebrated short story writer John Collier (1901-1980) had an intermittent screenwriting career ranging from Sylvia Scarlett (1935) to I Am a Camera (1955), the non-musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s memoir that later became Cabaret.
4 The Eva Tanguay project became The I Don’t Care Girl (1953), with Gaynor as Tanguay. Jessel turned his own equivocation over the script into a rather narcissistic frame story, with various fictitious writers pitching different approaches to a movie producer played by Jessel himself.
5 Tom McKnight (1901-1963) was a playwright whose extensive credits on radio included producing the Sherlock Holmes series. Ben Brady (1909-2003), another radio veteran, later produced Perry Mason and the disastrous second season of The Outer Limits.
6 Playwright Frank D. Gilroy (1925- ) contributed to many live anthologies and created Burke’s Law before his Broadway hit The Subject Was Roses elevated him from the ranks of TV writers. The prolific David P. Harmon (1918-2001) wrote for many TV sitcoms and adventure shows, including The Rifleman, Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, and It Takes a Thief.
7 The blacklisted writer Carl Foreman (1914-1984) wrote Champion, The Men, High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Guns of Navarone. Styler knew both Foreman and his friend Michael Wilson when they were under contract to Fox immediately before their blacklisting. Styler recalled of Wilson, “He was the best poker player. We used to play dollar poker, where you go by the numbers on the bills. He made a fortune on dollar poker around the writers table.”
8 The Whole Nine Yards (2000) used a similar premise; its sequel was in production during this interview.
9 There was a second It Takes a Thief episode featuring Montalban’s Nick Grobo character, but Styler didn’t write it. The teleplay for “The Galloping Skin Game” (12/3/68) was credited to Gene L. Coon, from a story by Coon and Leigh Chapman.
10 Needles and Pins also starred Deirdre Lenihan, Sandra Deel, Larry Gelman, and The Love Boat’s Bernie Kopell.
11 Adele Styler died on August 3, 2002, five months before this interview was conducted.
All Text and Interview Copyright © 2007 Stephen W. Bowie
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