Writer Mel Tolkin Dies at 94

Mel Tolkin, the head writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," which defined the art of sketch comedy during television's Golden Age, has died. He was 94.

Tolkin died of heart failure on Monday at his Century City home, said his son, writer-director Michael Tolkin.

Tolkin spent nearly a half-century in show business, beginning in the 1930s when he wrote revues and played piano in Montreal jazz clubs. He wrote comedy for Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Danny Thomas and in the 1970s was a writer and story editor for "All in the Family."

For Caesar, he contributed to the 1949 TV variety show "The Admiral Broadway Revue," and wrote for "Your Show of Shows" from 1950-54 — including its theme song — and for "Caesar's Hour," which ran from 1954-57.

Sketches from the shows, many pairing Caesar and Imogene Coca, became classics. Caesar and company captured new generations of fans with the 1973 theatrical compilation film "10 From Your Show of Shows" and more recent DVD releases.

"I guess he was most proud of his professionalism," his son said Tuesday. "Of course, he was very proud of his association with Caesar and his association with the birth of the Golden Age of television."

Tolkin "was a tremendous asset," Caesar, 85, told the Los Angeles Times. "He was a very talented man, and he worked really hard."

As head writer on "Your Show of Shows," Tolkin worked with the likes of Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart, whose later credits include "M-A-S-H" and "Tootsie."'

Caesar's team worked in a pressure cooker atmosphere, creating material for the live, 90-minute show and trying to satisfy the notoriously difficult star. The experience inspired Simon's play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," and was fictionalized in the 1982 movie "My Favorite Year."

There was "a creative anger in the room," Tolkin told the Times in 1995. "We had an acoustic ceiling. People would throw their pencils at it in frustration. One time I counted 39 pencils hanging from the ceiling."

Tolkin "absolutely had a brushstroke of genius," Brooks told the paper. "He was never Bob Hope contemporary. ... It was always the human condition, what happened in the human heart, and he taught me that."

Tolkin received several Emmy nominations and shared an Emmy with several colleagues in 1967 for "The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special."

He was born Samuel Tolchinsky in the Ukraine in 1913; the family moved to Montreal when he was in his teens. He studied accounting after high school but also wrote musical revues, using the name Mel Tolkin so his parents wouldn't know.

Tolkin's other son, Stephen, also is a TV writer and director. In addition to his sons, Tolkin is survived by his wife, Edith; a brother, Sol Tolchinsky; and four grandchildren.