Comedy writer Ben Starr, whose career stretched from radio through 1980s sitcoms, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 92.
Starr was a co-creator of NBC comedies “The Facts of Life” and “Silver Spoons.” During his long career, he wrote for TV comedies ranging from “All in the Family” to “Diff’rent Strokes” as well as “Mr. Ed,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Chico and the Man.”
Starr inadvertently helped create the famous catchphrase from “Diff’rent Strokes” — “Whatchu talking ’bout Willis?” The line as written in an early script for the show was “What are you talking about, Willis?” but after star Gary Coleman gave it his distinctive delivery, Starr knew it was a keeper.
Starr went on to create the spinoff “Facts of Life” with two other writers he met while working on “Diff’rent Strokes,” Martin Cohan and Howard Leeds. “Facts of Life” ran from 1979 to 1988. “Silver Spoons,” also created with Cohan and Leeds, ran from 1982-1987 and launched the career of Rick Schroder.
In addition to his TV work, Starr penned a number of features including 1966’s “Our Man Flint” and “Texas Across the River” and 1967’s “The Spirit is Willing.” He also wrote plays, including “The Family Way,” which had a brief run on Broadway in 1965.
Raised in Brooklyn by Russian immigrant parents, Starr served in WWII and attended New York’s City College and later graduated from UCLA. He got his showbiz start in radio, writing for such giants as Al Jolson, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and George Burns.
Starr was among the veteran comedy scribes featured in the documentary “Lunch,” about the group’s regular kvetch sessions at Factor’s Deli in Los Angeles.
Starr’s wife of 50 years, Gloria, died in 1999.
Survivors include three children and three grandchildren and nephew Andy Kaplan, who heads international channels for Sony Pictures TV.
Here is a link to an Archive of American of Television interview with Starr from 2009: