Mel Tolkin, 94, a pioneering comedy writer for American television, died Nov. 26, 2007, at his home in Century City, California.
Tolkin was lead writer for Sid Caesar’s classic TV show, “Your Show of Shows” and its successor, “Caesar’s Hour.” His writers included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen.
Tolkin later went on to write for “All in the Family,” another groundbreaking U.S. TV show. In 1967, he and colleagues won an Emmy Award for a reunion of the Caesar show.
Tolkin, along with virtually all of the other writers and even some of the performers in the early days of American TV, was Jewish, a fact he said in interviews played a significant role in the creative work they did.
According to the New York Times, Tolkin would yell to his writer when their creative juices dried up: “Gentlemen, we’ve got to get something done!” he cried. “Jews all over America will be watching Saturday night!”
Tolkin, born Shmuel Tolchinsky in Ukraine Aug. 3, 1913, told the Los Angeles Times in 1992 he lived through pogroms there.
“The pressures made heroes of some, and poets and violinists of some,” he said. “But it made for a lot of broken human beings too. I’m not happy to have to say this: It created the condition where humor becomes anger made acceptable with a joke.”
The Tolchinsky family moved to Montreal in 1926. Tolkin played the glockenspiel in the Canadian Army, the New York Times reported.
He began working at Camp Tamiment, a Poconos resort affiliated with the Socialist movement frequented by Jews who didn’t go to the Catskills. Also at the Tamiment over the years were Danny Kaye, Jerome Robbins and many others.
Tolkin stayed in New York by finding a position with the Sid Caesar show. According to the Times:
“In the heady atmosphere of cigar smoke, pooled coffee and cures for a thousand diseases growing on long-forgotten sandwiches, Mr. Tolkin and his colleagues paced, muttered, swore, occasionally typed and more than occasionally threw things: crumpled paper cups, cigars (lighted) and much else. The acoustical-tile ceiling was fringed with pencils, which had been flung aloft in a rage and stuck fast; Mr. Tolkin once counted 39 of them suspended there.”
Tolkin is survived by his wife of 61 years, the former Edith Leibovitch, a brother, Sol Tolchinsky of Montreal, sons Michael, and Stephen, both Los Angeles screenwriters, and four grandchildren.