Remembering the late, great Gelbart

It’s remarkable that a 32-year-old crime committed by a 76-year-old man who has not been in the U.S. since 1978 can stir such intense controversy in the community.

The debate resonated with me because Roman Polanski has been a presence in my life for some 40 years and I have occasionally argued with myself about his conduct.

Polanski is indeed a living cauldron — a man whose moods can signal both great warmth and also peril.

Cultured and well-read, Polanski can be the ideal dinner companion. As a filmmaker he becomes obsessive and stubbornly self-destructive. In the Hollywood of the ’70s, he was the ultimate sybarite who was not content unless he was poised at a precipice. The Polanski of Paris became the devoted artist and family man — a man of maturity and perspective.

I’ve always felt a measure of guilt for the role I played in luring him to Hollywood. In the Paramount days I found the perfect Polanski property, a hit novel called “Rosemary’s Baby,” but I was unable to persuade Polanski to venture into the arms of a Hollywood studio. Robert Evans was brilliantly persuasive and he became Roman’s friend and mentor.

“Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” established Polanski’s reputation as a superstar filmmaker. The Manson murders, however, dredged up the dark years Polanski had tried to repress — his escape from the Nazis, then the Russians, the deaths of his loved ones.

I had never known anyone who, as a young man, had survived such searing tragedies.

But even during his “hot” Hollywood years, danger seemed to hover nearby. Before Sharon Tate was murdered, several of his friends and working colleagues had met with bizarre accidents. I once said to Evans, “I love Roman, but he’s a dangerous person to have as a friend.”

It seemed as though Polanski courted danger, even after his incident in the hot tub and his resulting exile from the U.S. He was always photographed at the wrong time with the wrong companions. Even as I knew he was working hard in film or theater, the “noise” around him suggested scandal and peril.

Two years ago, I spent time with him at the Cannes Film Festival, and he seemed to be in a buoyant mood. But when I asked him whether he’d ever like to live in Hollywood again, he was nervous and indecisive. It seemed as though he wanted the right to return and deal with the problems of the past. At the same time his life in Hollywood had, in some ways, been a re-run of the nightmares of his past.

Under the present circumstances, I hope he will never return whether by choice or by mandate of the court. Though I acknowledge that his crime was a hideous one, Roman Polanski is an artist who has suffered greatly, who has caused and survived great danger and who, after all, deserves to live his life.

* * *

The great Larry Gelbart died Sept. 11 at age 81, and, typically he left behind a stack of amazing projects that were not quite ready for primetime. I’ve been told that Gelbart’s will mandated the following inscription on his grave: “At last … a plot.”

A profile of Gelbart appeared in the latest edition of Written By, Richard Stayton’s excellent Writers Guild magazine, and it contained several Gelbartisms. Among them:

“The question you’re asked most on the senior circuit is ‘How do you start?’ My question is, ‘How do you finish?'”

“I just turned 81 and I’m not going to be Judd Apatow. I was Judd Apatow.”

“There’s nothing new. What we keep getting are new people who insist on saying the old things over and over again. Life is on a loop.”

Gelbart, who gave us “Oh, God” and “Tootsie” and “MASH” and “Sly Fox” and myriad other treasures, had been working on an autobiographical play, a musical version of “Tootsie,” a sequel to “Oh, God” and many other scripts as well. “I need to write,” he explained. “I need to know what I think about things.”

Gelbart appreciated the attention he got late in life, but it also worried him. “I’m like some kind of Hollywood monument. They circle me at meetings and say, ‘My god, he’s alive. He wears shoes.’ ”

Upon being told that his photo would be the cover of Written By, he said, “The magazine waits until you look like something off Galapagos Islands, then they put you on the cover.”

There will never be another Larry Gelbart.

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