Irma Kalish, TV writer who tackled social issues, dies at 96

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Irma Kalish, a TV screenwriter who addressed abortion, rape and other provocative issues in many of the biggest comedy hits of the 1960s and beyond as she helped women get into the bedroom. writer, died September 3 in Woodland Hills, California. 96.

His death, at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home, was attributed to complications from pneumonia, said his son, Bruce Kalish, a television producer.

Ms. Kalish’s work in television comedy broke the mold for female writers. Women in the mid-century industry were mostly expected to write heart-wrenching dramas, but from the early 1960s on Ms. Kalish made her mark in comedy, including writing for caustic sitcoms. and socially aware of Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and his spin-off “Maude” in the 1970s.

She wrote much of her writing in partnership with her husband, Austin Kalish. They shared offices in studios around Los Angeles, typically working at opposite desks alternating in draft scripts.

“When I first became a writer, I was one of the very first female comedy writers and later producers,” Ms. Kalish said in an oral history for the Writers Guild Foundation in 2010. She added, referring to her husband by nickname, “A producer actually thought I shouldn’t write – I just had to do the typing, and Rocky did the writing.

To combat sexism in the industry, she said, “I just became one of the guys.”

Writing for “Maude,” Ms. Kalish and her husband, who died in 2016, worked on the controversial two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972), in which the main character, a woman and suburban grandmother in the strong spirit in the late 1940s (played by Bea Arthur), had an abortion. When it aired, Roe v. Wade had just been argued in the United States Supreme Court and would be decided in a few months, making abortion legal across the country. Controversy over the episode grew rapidly; dozens of CBS affiliates refused to show it.

Mr. and Mrs. Kalish received “Story by” credit and Susan Harris was credited as a screenwriter; Mr Kalish said in an interview in 2012 that he and Ms Kalish came up with the idea for the episode.

Lynne Joyrich, professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, called the episode a watershed moment for women’s issues on screen. “Maude’s Dilemma” and episodes like it, she said, demonstrated “how everyday life is so political.”

Kalish views on social issues also found their way into “All in the Family”. An episode centered on Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton), the wife of fanatic Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), overcoming a fear of breast cancer. Another focused on the couple’s daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), the victim of an attempted rape.

News scripts “lifted us up in the eyes of the company,” Mr. Kalish said in a joint interview with Ms. Kalish for U.S. Television Archives in 2012.

Mr. and Mrs. Kalish were executive producers of another hit 1970s sitcom, “Good Times,” about a black family in a housing project in Chicago, and have continued to write for this program and many others.

Ms. Kalish’s career spanned decades, beginning in the mid-1950s, and included writing credits for more than three dozen shows, many of which would constitute a pantheon of baby boomer favorite sitcoms, including “The Patty Duke Show, ”“ I Dream of Jeannie, ”“ My Favorite Martian, ”“ F Troop, ”“ My Three Sons, ”and“ Family Affair. ”She has also had production credits on some 16 shows, including“ The Facts of Life “and” Valerie “.

Ms. Kalish’s work paved the way for other female sitcom writers. As she said to comedian Amy Poehler in a 2013 interview for Ms. Poehler’s web series, “Smart Girls at the Party,” “You are a descendant of mine, so to speak.”

Radiant Mrs. Poehler agreed.

Irma May Ginsberg was born on October 6, 1924 in Manhattan. Her mother, Lillian (Cutler) Ginsberg, was a housewife. His father, Nathan Ginsberg, was a business investor.

Irma attended Julia Richman High School on the Upper East Side and went to Syracuse University, where she studied journalism and graduated in 1945. She married Mr. Kalish, the brother of a childhood friend, in 1948 after having corresponded with him while he was in office. in Bangor, Maine, during World War II.

After the couple moved to Los Angeles, Mr. Kalish became a comedy writer for radio and television. Ms. Kalish worked as an editor for a pulp magazine called “Western Romance” before leaving to stay home with their two children. Her first writing credit, on the drama series “The Millionaire”, came in 1955.

She joined the Writers Guild in 1964 and began to write with her husband more consistently. The Writer’s Guild Foundation, in their video series “The Writer Speaks”, called them “one of the most successful sitcom-writer pairs of the 20th century.”

Ms. Kalish was active in the Writers Guild of America West and Women in Film, an advocacy group, of which she was the chair.

The couple’s last television credit dates back to 1998, for the comedy series “The Famous Jett Jackson”, produced by their son Bruce. They wrote a screenplay dealing with ageism.

With her son, she is survived by her sister and her only brother, Harriet Alef; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter, Nancy Biederman, died in 2016.

In the interview with US Television Archives, Ms. Kalish expressed her desire to be known as her own person, and not just as Austin Kalish’s wife and writing partner.

“Of course, God made man before woman,” she said, “but you always do a first draft before you make a final masterpiece.”

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