In 2007, I was directing a play for Garry Marshall at his Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake and the acting artistic director Arnold Margolin casually suggested I be on the lookout for other comedies they could produce, because All Comedy was Garry’s mandate for the upcoming season.
A couple of days later, I was strolling around the Samuel French book shop on Sunset Blvd. when I literally just plucked a random script off the shelf because it had the title Weekend Comedy. The playwright, Sam Bobrick, had a ton of plays on that shelf, and this one boasted an early production directed by the author that had starred George Kennedy. Seemed pretty legit, so I started reading the play where I stood. It was light and fun with a small, multi-generational cast. I thought it might fit perfectly for what the Falcon wanted to do, so I bought it and brought it in to Arnold. I tossed the script on his desk and said, “You should check out this play I found by this guy Sam Bobrick.” Arnold rocked back in his chair and started laughing. I immediately felt like an idiot. Was this Bobrick guy known in the theatre world for being terrible or something? Was I revealing myself to be a rank amateur? Finally, Arnold let me off the hook. He said, “Sam Bobrick is one of my best friends. He and his wife Julie have already been here to see your show, and in fact they wanted me to tell you what a great job they thought you did. We should all have lunch.”
Thus began a decade-plus long friendship with one of my favorite people. Sam pulled me into his inner circle — and there were few places it felt better to be. He was warm, hilarious, nurturing, kind, and supportive. Those qualities don’t exactly scream “TV comedy writer,” but Sam’s career in that medium was nevertheless long and successful.
Sam started his career writing for “Captain Kangaroo.” He later wrote for now-classics like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Gomer Pyle,” “Get Smart,” “Bewitched,” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” He wrote and produced “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour” and “The Paul Lynde Show” and “The Van Dyke Show.” He created pilots for the likes of Dudley Moore. He once wrote some jokes for an aging Groucho Marx. And he created the sitcom that would become NBC’s pop-culture phenomenon “Saved by the Bell.”
Sam wrote songs too. The first one he ever penned, “The Girl of My Best Friend” (written 17 years before The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl”), was recorded by Elvis Presley. Yes, that Elvis Presley.
But playwriting is where Sam really “lived.” He wrote and co-wrote over forty plays, including four co-created with his one-time partner Ron Clark that made it to Broadway: No Hard Feelings, directed by Abe Burrows, opened (and closed) on April 8, 1973. Then came Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, and Wally’s Cafe starring James Coco and Rita Moreno, and Norman is That You?, directed by the legendary George Abbott, which was later turned into a pretty terrible movie with Redd Foxx. Sam even did an uncredited rewrite of The Wiz before its Broadway opening.
With the exception of The Wiz, these Broadway productions weren’t well-liked by critics, nor did they run long, but Sam didn’t care. He always said, “I’m more proud of my worst play than my best TV show.” It wasn’t just a glib comment. In the early 1990s, Sam made the decision to quit TV for good so he could follow his bliss and write solely for the stage, and he rarely looked back. There have since been thousands of productions of Sam’s many plays in theaters large and small around the world. As recently as 2011, at the age of 79, Sam won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his play The Psychic, which made its premiere at The Falcon. Til the day he died, Sam was trying to piece together why he was so popular in Germany.
I was lucky enough to be a part of what we in the group lovingly referred to as the Sam Bobrick Players. As soon as Sam finished a new play (which seemed like it was every other month), he would assign us parts and we would perform them in his living room for friends and family in exchange for Chinese chicken salad with extra mandarin oranges. Gracious as always, Sam would never fail to let his cardiologist open with a couple of dreadful jokes. He would then capture the “staged reading” on his ancient mini-cassette recorder, always having to turn the tape over at intermission, which he would occasionally forget to do. Sometimes we’d all get to go to the Writers Guild and perform the plays for an invited audience of union members whose average age was 93. I once spied Carl Reiner dozing in the front row during one of my speeches.
Sam was, more than anything, a mensch of the highest order. He was a writer who absolutely adored actors (not always a given), and appreciated the contributions they brought to the table. He was never precious or defensive about suggestions or notes; he wanted the work to be the best it could be, and cherished a good idea from no matter where it came. He was a delightful raconteur, a thoughtful and generous host, and never saw milk he couldn’t turn into a shake. He was also wickedly and darkly funny. His humor was sometimes barbed, sometimes silly, sometimes absurdist, often self-deprecating. But this above all — he was never ever not funny.
For me personally, Sam served as part mentor, part cheerleader, part surrogate uncle. He gave me pep talks I didn’t even know I wanted, insisting to me at my lowest that I still had something left in the tank creatively — as an actor, as a writer, as a director. And somehow I believed him, even as I dismissed others who tried to tell me the same thing. To have Sam in your corner didn’t just feel good, it felt like a privilege, and he somehow managed to make you believe you deserved it. I wish I could’ve bottled that feeling so that I could use it in the future to revive myself, like psychological smelling salts. I’ll have to settle for his distinctive midwestern accent in my head.
The last time I hung out with Sam alone was early this year. He took me to an old school industry haunt called The Valley Inn in Sherman Oaks. I’m almost fifty, and I’m certain I was the youngest one there, staff included. We ordered unhealthy sandwiches, and I made Sam re-tell me showbiz anecdotes I had heard many times before so that I could lock in the details. The photo of Sam above is from that lunch, as we lingered over the remnants of our shared cheesecake. The meal was, as always, enlightening, wildly entertaining, and high in cholesterol. My only regret about that afternoon was letting him drive, which was flat-out terrifying. But what a gift to get to spend that time with him, especially since we didn’t die in a fiery crash.
And speaking of gifts, I’ll be forever grateful to Sam’s wonderful wife Julie and the extended Bobrick family for letting me come to the hospital during his final hours to kiss him goodbye and tell him how much I loved him. Despite suffering a massive stroke, Sam still looked better than I did, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew him. I kept expecting him to sit up and offer to make me a milkshake. I would’ve greedily accepted.
Samuel Bobrick (July 24, 1932 — October 11, 2019)