Irma Kalish, a prolific comedy writer who blazed trails for women in television with a career that stretched from radio to 1980s sitcoms, died Monday in Woodland Hills due to complications from pneumonia. She was 96.
Kalish worked on a wide range of series, from “My Favorite Martian” and “Gilligan’s Island” to “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” She was also an active member of the Writers Guild of America West and had a long tenure as a board member and as vice president. She spent 20 years on the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund and she was an early president of Women in Film.
“Irma was not only a force to be reckoned with in comedy writing, she remained a Guild activist throughout her career,” said WGA West president David A. Goodman. “Irma was the ultimate professional and a true believer in the importance of her union to the lives of her fellow writers.”
Kalish was a partner in life and work with her husband, Austin “Rocky” Kalish, for seven decades until his death in 2016 at age 95. The two got their start together in radio as writers for “The Martin & Lewis Show” starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They followed Martin and Lewis into TV after the radio show ended in 1953, writing for live shows such as “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” The pair worked steadily thereafter.
“I had a personal adage that, sure, God made man before women but you always do a first draft before you make a final masterpiece,” Irma Kalish told the Archive of American Television in 2012. “So I was known as a proponent of women. But to his credit Rocky was also. He pushed me to get forward and not just be known as ‘Rocky’s wife’ but to be known as Irma Kalish.”
Among the couple’s many credits were “My Three Sons,” “Family Affair,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Too Close for Comfort.” In the 1970s, Irma Kalish was one of the few women to serve as top producer of a TV series when she and Austin Kalish were named executive producers of “Good Times.” Irma and Austin Kalish together penned the landmark 1972 “Maude’s Dilemma” two-part episode of “Maude,” in which Bea Arthur’s character wrestles with having an abortion.
Solo, Irma Kalish wrote for Valerie Harper on sitcoms “Valerie” and “The Hogan Family” and Madeline Kahn on the short-lived “Oh Madeline.” Her other solo credits included “227,” “The Facts of Life” and the 1985 telefilm “I Dream of Jeannie … Fifteen Years Later.”
Irma May Ginsberg was born Oct. 6, 1924, in New York City. After graduating from Syracuse University, she started out as a magazine writer in New York City but soon veered into comedy writing. She married Austin Kalish in 1948, and the pair relocated to the West Coast and soon thereafter landed the job with “The Martin & Lewis Show.”
Other early TV credits included episodes of “The Patty Duke Show,” “The Millionaire,” “Gidget,” “That Girl,” “The Brian Keith Show” and “Dusty’s Trail.” In 1998, the Kalishes worked on an episode of Disney Channel’s “The Famous Jett Jackson.”
The Kalishes primarily worked in television. But they penned the screenplay for 1976’s “Keep Off My Grass!,” a hippies vs. establishment comedy starring Micky Dolenz of “The Monkees” and directed by Shelley Berman.
Kalish’s many accolades included the WGA’s Valentine Davies Award and Morgan Cox Award as well as Syracuse University’s George Arents Pioneer Award.
Survivors include a sister, Harriet Alef; a son, comedy writer Bruce Kalish, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The family requests that donations be made in Kalish’s name to the Motion Picture and Television Fund home. Plans for a memorial service are in the works.
Here is the lengthy interview conducted by the Archive of American Television with the Kalishes in December 2012: