The Archive of American Television is sad to report that writer/producer Hal Kanter passed away on Sunday, November 6th of complications from pneumonia. He was 92 years old. Kanter started in radio as a comedy writer and transitioned to television writing for The Ed Wynn Show. He wrote for The George Gobel Show and created 1968’s groundbreaking show Julia, the first sitcom to star an African-American actress in a professional role. Here are some selections from Kanter’s three-hour interview:
On his first job in the new medium of television, writing for The Ed Wynn Show
My attitude was, I’d like to get into it and find out what it’s about, because my kids seemed to be fascinated by it. My kids, they were tiny little infants at the time, but they were fascinated by these pictures. What convinced me to go into television was when I was asked by Harry Ackerman, at CBS, if I would like to write a television show for Ed Wynn. Ed Wynn was my idol and I thought I’ll do anything to work with him. I had never met the man, but I remember as a young boy in Long Beach hitchhiking into the city to see a matinee of Hooray for What in which Ed Wynn was the star. I’ll never forget seeing him in-person for the first time after listening to him on the radio, I was so excited, I almost fell off the balcony laughing at some of the things he was doing and saying on the stage. So I said, “by all means I’ll accept that job.” As a matter of fact, at the time, I was writing not only the Bing Crosby radio show, but also a radio show called Beulah, 15 minutes, five times a week. I gave up the Beulah show which was paying me a great deal more money than television was going to pay me. I was told later, that I was the highest priced comedy writer in television at that time. I was getting $750 a week.
On creating Julia (video excerpt)
On the legacy of Julia
I think that the Julia show, the impact of that, is obvious any time you turn on television and you see black faces because she opened the door for all the black shows that are now current. We couldn’t get black people on the air until Julia came along to prove that white people will watch black people on television. So,I feel some gratification when I see that.
On creating The Jimmy Stewart Show
Working with Jimmy, well first of all, I had worked with Jimmy in radio – he had been a guest star with Crosby several times. That’s where I met most of these people. And we always got along very well. Then when I did the Gobel show, again he was a guest on that. He was hysterical. He did a wonderful show. But when they decided that he would go into television, they gave him a list of people he would work with and he said “him,” pointing to my name. It was between me and a drama. Did he want either my comedy or a drama at Universal? And one day, Herb Schlosser, who was then the head of television at NBC, and Jerry Lieder, I believe who was, who was running TV for Warner Brothers at that time, and I went over the hill to see Jimmy Stewart at his agent’s office. Herman Citron, those people, and we talked about the my show, some ideas I had and threw out several of them. And he was very frank and said that it’s either this or doing a drama. I said I understand, you’d be wonderful in a drama. He said “but anybody can play a drama.” I said, “very few people can play comedy the way you do. You are probably one of the best comedy actors that ever stood in front of a camera.” And I wasn’t just bullshitting him, I really believe that. He’s absolutely brilliant as a comedy actor. Anyway, we chatted for awhile and he got rather enthused about the idea and he said, “we’ll let you know.” So Herb, Jerry and I left and we’re waiting in, in the elevator and Herb was very excited having met his fellow Princetonian and he said to me, “he’s kind of old though, isn’t he?” I said, “I don’t know what you call old.” He said, “how old is he?” I said, “I think he’s about 63.” He said, “how old will he photograph?” I said, ” about 73.” He said, “my God!” I said, “Herb, no matter how old he is, just remember, he is the only old-looking Jimmy Stewart there is.”
On writing for the Academy Awards
The first time was when I was at Paramount and Dick Breen, good friend of mine, who was then writing the show with Sylvia Fine because Danny [Kaye] was gonna be the emcee that year. And Dick who was a very good writer said to me, “I really don’t quite understand these people.” He said, “could you come in and give me a hand with some jokes for Danny?” Which I did. I was a ghostwriter, but in those days, nobody got paid for doing the Academy Awards, no writers … it was all volunteered. It was supposed to be an honor to be asked to do it. So the following year, they asked me to work on the show. I think it was George Seton who asked me to work on the show and also would I do the audience warmup. It was at the Pantages Theater in those days. So I did that, and as a result of that, I sort of became the official writer for the Academy.
On how he would like to be remembered
I’d like to be remembered as a nice fella who made people smile, if not laugh, now and then.
Watch Kanter’s full interview at: http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/hal-kanter
Full interview description:
Hal Kanter (1918-2011) was interviewed for three hours in Encino, CA. Kanter talked extensively about his first television work as a writer for famed comedian, Ed Wynn, on The Ed Wynn Show. He talked about how he ultimately wrote and directed The George Gobel Show, and recalled his pioneering sitcom, Julia, which starred Diahann Carroll, and featured the first black, female lead on television. Kanter also mentioned his writing for the “Academy Awards” shows and dozens of feature films. The interview was conducted by Sam Denoff on May 22, 1997.