It was a very funny, sometimes touching, but mostly uproarious tribute Sunday afternoon at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. The WGA West and the Writers Guild Foundation along with the Kanter family held a well produced and attended memorial for one of their most illustrious members, Hal Kanter, who passed away in November at age 92. The three-time Emmy winner (and seven time nominee) was also believed to be the only person ever to win all three of the Guild’s prestigious special honors – the Morgan Cox award for service to the WGA, the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, the Valentine Davies Award.
And why not? As was very evident from this memorial, Kanter was one of the most versatile and productive comedy writers ever. He belonged to a golden era when that was possible. It’s hard to imagine a young writer today forging the same kind of long-lasting career Kanter, and others in his generation, were able to have over the course of seven decades in the business. Writing is tough and unforgiving – and most of its practitioners, particularly in television, are used up and tossed out after several years. It was clear from all the clips and personal anecdotes that the show business Kanter loved and lived in doesn’t exist anymore. Writers who want that kind of longevity in a career probably will have to try another profession. But keeping relevant was never a problem for Hal Kanter who it was noted was still preparing to write another screenplay, even in his 90s. He was also a producer, director, raconteur, master of ceremonies, playwright, author and all around wit. As Kanter said in a clip from one of his many appearances at a WGA awards show banquet, “I was born with a compulsion to amuse. And if my work has inspired anyone to become a comedy writer, I apologize.”
Sunday’s tribute, hosted by former WGAw President Daniel Petrie Jr., brought out many colleagues including comedian Shelley Berman, Laugh In producer George Schlatter and co-star Gary Owens, writers Howard Rodman, Jack Epps Jr., Irma Kalish, Bruce Kerner, Paul Pumpian, John Rappaport, director Arthur Hiller and from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Arthur Hamilton and former Executive Director Bruce Davis. After the Academy staged their first-ever televised Oscars in 1953, the organization felt they could do a lot better. The next year they brought in Kanter as sole writer and, as Davis said, he made all the difference. He holds the record for writing a remarkable 35 Oscar telecasts, “more than any living person – or dead one can claim”, as he said in an interview shown in one of the memorial’s many expertly packages montage clip segments. No one can come close to touching that record, and he won two Emmys for his Oscar shows. Hal also served on the Academy’s Board Of Governors and the Nicholl Fellowship Committee. At one Nicholl’s dinner, Kanter handed out this advice to the aspiring screenwriters: “The toes you step on tonight may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow”.
Schlatter said Kanter was a “joke junkie if ever there was one. He could make anyone funny. He could have written for Hitler. If I could think of a one-liner I would deliver it. Please come down Hal and help me”. Schlatter also asked, What you can say about Hal Kanter that he couldn’t say better himself?” (It was a good question. I was thinking this memorial would be perfect if only Kanter were emceeing it). As it was, even in death, Kanter’s lines from the film clips and remembered by his colleagues got all the laughs Sunday. At one of the many USC Scripter dinners he hosted, Kanter pointedly said, “All films must be written by writers before they become films by directors.” Epps announced that USC School of Cinema has established a scholarship in Kanter’s name for comedy writing.
Veteran writer Irma Kalish recalled many hilarious moments with Hal but especially noted his strongsupport for women. They served in the WGA Boardroom together. “When I ran for President in 1985 and lost by the now fabled four fucking votes I am sure Hal was not one of them!” she noted.
Emmy winning M*A*S*H comedy writer-producer John Rappaport recalled feeling extremely successful in his career when he moved into a nice new home on Woodvale Road in Encino. “Then I found out Hal lived across the street. And I realized I was only the second funniest person on my block!” he lamented.
Kanter’s accomplishments included over 25 movies, several for Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis, and Elvis Presley. There also was a shared credit with Tennessee Williams for his adaptation of the 1955 drama, The Rose Tattoo which won Anna Magnani the Best Actress Oscar. Kanter’s innumerable TV credits included The George Gobel Show, where as the sole writer his weekly credit read: “Written by Hal Kanter (who is quite tall)”. There were also stints with Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Ed Wynn, Chico And The Man, All In The Family. Plus several series he produced and created and directed including The Jimmy Stewart Show, Valentine’s Day, and the landmark Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia which helped turn the racial tide when it debuted on NBC in the 1960’s. In addition to becoming the most in-demand host for nearly every showbiz tribute, luncheon, and dinner,