The Eulogizer: TV writer Sam Denoff

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Sam Denoff, 83, TV writer and producer

Sam Denoff, who had his greatest success writing and producing the classic sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show" in the 1960s, as well as scores of other TV comedies, died July 8 at home in Brentwood, Calif. He was 83.

Denoff and his writing partner, Bill Persky, whom he had met while working at a New York radio station, sold their first script to the Van Dyke show in 1963 and continued as the show’s principal writers, and later story editors and producers. They won two Emmy Awards during that time, one for the episode in which Laura Petrie, played by Mary Tyler Moore, reveals that the star of the fictitious show for which Van Dyke’s character Rob Petrie works wears a toupee.

"When they came upon the scene, they saved my life," said Carl Reiner, the Van Dyke show’s creator said. "These two guys made my life possible after that."

Van Dyke said Denoff was "a real bon vivant. Sam knew all the best restaurants." He added, "They don’t make guys like that anymore."

In an episode titled “Bupkis,” Rob Petrie tries to earn money off a song he wrote years before for which he ended up earning … bupkis, "nothing at all" in Yiddish. Denoff and Persky, who also worked as songwriters, composed a “pseudo-Latin” song with lyrics that included “Bupkis is a lot of nothing/And that’s what I got from you.’”

Denoff was born in Brooklyn and studied piano as a child, and always wanted to be a songwriter. He left Adelphi College in Garden City, N.Y., before graduation “to hang out in the Brill Building and be discovered by Perry Como or Frank Sinatra, who would record one of his songs and make him a rich and famous songwriter. That didn’t happen.”

He worked as a page at NBC and began his songwriting career by writing jingles for the famous disc jockey William B. Williams at New York radio station WNEW.  One of their first published songs was “Let’s Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.”   

Despite the song, and like the Dodgers, Denoff and his partner sought warmer climes in Southern California, and relocated there in 1961, where they began writing for shows such as “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Andy Williams Show.”

After the Van Dyke show, Denoff co-created and co-produced “That Girl,” starring Marlo Thomas, and worked on shows such as "The Practice," starring Danny Thomas, "The Don Rickles Show," "The Lucie Arnaz Show," "It’s Garry Shandling’s Show" and others.

In an oral history interview in 2000, Denoff said of writing, "Take great joy in, in everything you write. Irving Berlin was interviewed … they said, ‘Mister Berlin, you have more songs than any other writer living or dead … what is your favorite song?’  And he said ‘the last one I wrote,’ which really says it. It says his pride in authorship. …

"After years of doing this, every time I write something, whether it’s a paragraph or something somebody wants something for a benefit or whatever … I hope they like it. We all do that. As long as you keep that attitude I think you’ll be good."

Jewish death customs and rituals in the news

The horrific death of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Chasidic boy in Brooklyn who was kidnapped and killed, has prompted The New York Times to offer a primer on shiva and Jewish mourning rituals. The Times quotes Orthodox and traditional sources.

Meanwhile, artist Sybil Sage offers in the Forward a lighthearted assessment of her plans for her own death — cremation and interment in a brightly colored urn of her own design, and mentions that other Jewish friends of hers also have asked for them. Without citing any sources, she says “some” Conservative and Reform Jews are now choosing to be cremated, but also says that there are no “firm statistics” on Jewish cremation.

Is Sage on to something? Are more and more American Jews seeking cremation? The Eulogizer would be interested in hearing from people, pro and con, as well as from anyone who may have hard data on whether this is a growing trend. Please write to eulogizer@jta.org.

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