Irving Brecher, Radio, Stage, Screen Comedy Writer, 94
Irving Brecher, a comedy writer whose career in radio, television and film included writing two Marx Brothers comedies and co-writing the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” has died. He was 94.
Brecher died of age-related causes on Nov. 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his wife, Norma.
Born Jan. 17, 1914, in Bronx, N.Y., Brecher was 19 years old when he sold his first joke to Milton Berle. Brecher is the only writer to have gotten solo credit on two Marx Brothers movies, “At the Circus” and “Go West.”
In a 2005 interview with Hank Rosenfeld for The Journal, Brecher talked about how he first saw Groucho Marx — on screen and then later in person:
“I had been a passionate Groucho Marx worshipper since I was a kid,” he recalled. “When I was a teenager [in 1930], the night editor of the Yonkers Herald-Statesman, where I worked, gave me a movie pass — worth 25 cents! — to see ‘Animal Crackers,’ and I was on the floor. I stayed in the theater and watched it a second time. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started doing my own version of Groucho Marx.”
In 1937, Brecher was working at MGM, he recalled, “helping spike, or punch-up, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The great Oz producer, Mervyn Leroy, told me I was going to write a Marx Brothers picture. I couldn’t believe it. I was excited, but scared, and when he introduced me to Groucho, I’m sure that my knees were shaking and my voice, too. ‘Hello Mister Marx,’ I said, extending my hand. Groucho says, ‘Hello?’ This is the writer you’re gonna put on the picture, a guy who ad-libs hello? That’s some ad-lib.’ Groucho took me to lunch, and from then on, we became friends.”
After his two features for the Marx Brothers, Brecher co-wrote “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He wrote seven other musicals at MGM, including the 1963 hit, “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Brecher wrote and produced the long-running radio show, “The Life of Riley.” He wrote the film of the same name, which starred William Bendix and was released in 1949 — the same year “Riley” debuted as what is widely considered to have been the first sitcom on American television.
In addition to his screen and TV work, Brecher wrote vaudeville and radio shows for Milton Berle. He also wrote for and forged friendships with Hollywood funnymen Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and George Burns.
Groucho Marx dubbed Brecher “The Wicked Wit of the West,” a moniker Brecher later used as the title of his autobiography, due to be published in February by Ben Yehuda Press.
Brecher is survived by his wife of 25 years, Norma; stepson, Michael Waxenberg; and stepdaughters, Jane Ulman and Ellen Zoschak. Services were held Nov. 20 at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
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