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November 08, 2011

Hal Kanter, Emmy-Winning Writer-Director-Producer for More than 50 Years

Known for dozens of enduring comedy films and television series and Oscar telecasts, Kanter was also a pioneer for diversity, exemplified by Julia, the first television series centered on a professional African-American.

Hal Kanter, a Primetime Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer whose career spanned more than half a century and included dozens of enduring comedy films and television series, including the groundbreaking 1960s series Julia, starring Diahann Carroll, died November 6, 2011, at Encino Hospital in southern California. He was 92.

 According to news reports, the cause was complications from pneumonia. Regarded as one of the most fertile comedy minds in the business, Kanter began his writing career in radio in the late 1930s and moved into television in 1949 as head writer for The Ed Wynn Show, a live comedy-variety show.

 In the early 1950s he worked extensively in the movie business. Most notably, he wrote the screenplay for the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy Road to Bali. Scripts for other Hope films included Here Come the Girls and Casanova’s Big Night, and he contributed additional dialogue to the Hope comedy My Favorite Spy. In addition, he wrote two films for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models and Money from Home. Another high-profile credit included a film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo, starring Burt Lancaster and Anna Magnani — the latter of whom won a best actress Oscar for her performance. He also wrote for such renowned film directors as George Cukor — Let’s Make Love, with Marilyn Monroe —and Frank Capra — Pocketful of Miracles, starring Bette Davis and Glenn Ford. Kanter himself directed Elvis Presley in the 1957 movie Loving You, which he co-wrote. Also for Presley, he wrote the screenplay for the1961 film Blue Hawaii. In 1955 Kanter created, produced and oversaw the writing team for another live comedy-variety program, The George Gobel Show, for which he shared an Emmy Award in 1955 for best written comedy material.

 With Julia, which aired from 1968-1971, Kanter made television history. The show starred Carroll as a widowed nurse raising her young son as a single mother. Julia was significant for its depiction of a black woman as a professional rather than as a domestic worker, as had been the case 18 years earlier with The Beulah Show, which starred Ethel Waters as a maid. When it first went on the air, Julia was not carried on some television stations in the South. But after a few weeks, its success caused the stations change to course and put it on the air. Carroll spoke at length about the series and her collaboration with Kanter when she was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame earlier this year.

Kanter, who also created the comedy series Valentine’s Day and The Jimmy Stewart Show, was a writer and producer on Chico and the Man and in 1975 was an executive producer of All in the Family, for which he earned an Emmy nomination Beginning in the early 1950s Kanter began writing for the annual Academy Awards telecast, often hosted by his friend Bob Hope. He continued to contribute to the telecasts long after Hope had ceded hosting duties to others, and in all wrote for more than 30 Oscars ceremonies. He won Emmys for his work on the shows in 1991 and 1992.

 Born in Savaannah, Georgia, on December 18, 1918. His father, a Russian immigrant, exposed his children to great literature and later created and published Classic Comics, a popular comic-book series featuring adaptations of famous literary works that became known as Classics Illustrated. At 11, when his family was living in Florida, Kanter began writing Boy Scout news for the Miami Herald. At 14, he was freelancing as a cartoonist and selling cartoon gags. He moved to Long Beach, New York, at 16, and moved to Los Angeles in 1936, before turning 18, to take a job for a comic strip ghost writer. In California, he got his start in radio.

 Kanter served in the Army during World War II. As part of Armed Forces Radio Service in the South Pacific, he helped build an AFRS station on Guam and hosted his own shows.

 After the war, he resumed his career in radio, including several years writing for Bing Crosby’s show.

 he also provided jokes for Hellzapoppin, the long-running Broadway revue starring the comedy team Olsen and Johnson. For his contribution to the industry, he received the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television from the Writers Guild of America in 1989, and in 1999 he published a memoir, So Far, So Funny: My Life in Show Business. Survivors include daughter a Donna, a longtime member of the Television Academy who served several times as a governor of the writers peer group, as well as a term as treasurer. He is also survived by his wife of 70 years, writer Doris Kanter; his other daughters, Lisa Kanter Shafer and Abigail Kanter Jaye; his sister, Saralea Emerson; and a granddaughter. Hal Kanter had the distinction of being interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. During the three-hour interview, conducted on May 22, 1997, in Encino, California, by Sam Denoff, Kanter talked extensively about his first television work as a writer for famed comedian Ed Wynn on The Ed Wynn Show. He went on to discuss how he ultimately wrote and directed The George Gobel Show. He also recalled his pioneering sitcom, Julia, which starred Diahann Carroll. In addition, Kanter mentioned his writing for numerous Academy Awards shows and dozens of feature films. The full interview is available here.

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