Irma Kalish, TV Writer Who Tackled Social Issues, Dies at 96
Irma Kalish, a television writer who tackled abortion, rape and other provocative issues in many of the biggest comedy hits of the 1960s and …
Irma Kalish, a television writer who tackled abortion, rape and other provocative issues in many of the biggest comedy hits of the 1960s and beyond as she helped usher women into the writer’s room, died on Sept. 3 in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 96.
Her death, at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home, was attributed to complications of pneumonia, her son, Bruce Kalish, a television producer, said.
Ms. Kalish’s work in television comedy broke the mold for female writers. What women there were in the industry around midcentury had mostly been expected to write tear-jerking dramas, but beginning in the early 1960s Ms. Kalish made her mark in comedy, notably writing for Norman Lear’s caustic, socially conscious sitcoms “All in the Family” and its spinoff “Maude” in the ’70s.
She did much of her writing in partnership with her husband, Austin Kalish. They shared offices at studios around Los Angeles, usually working at facing desks producing alternating drafts of scripts.
“When I became a writer, I was one of the very first woman 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 his nickname, “One producer actually thought that I must not be writing — I must be just doing the typing, and Rocky was doing 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 contentious two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972), in which the title character, a strong-minded suburban wife and grandmother in her late 40s (played by Bea Arthur), had an abortion. When it was broadcast, Roe v. Wade had just been argued in the United States Supreme Court and would be decided within months, making abortion legal nationwide. Controversy over the episode rose swiftly; dozens of CBS affiliates declined to show it.
Mr. and Ms. Kalish earned a “story by” credit, and Susan Harris was credited as the script writer; Mr. Kalish said in an interview in 2012 that he and Ms. Kalish had come up with the idea for the episode.
Lynne Joyrich, a professor in the modern culture and media department at Brown University, called the episode a watershed moment for women’s issues onscreen. “Maude’s Dilemma” and episodes like it, she said, demonstrated “the way in which the everyday is also political.”
The Kalish’s takes on social issues also found their way into “All in the Family.” One episode centered on Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton), the wife of the bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), weathering a breast cancer scare. Another focused on the couple’s daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), as the victim of a rape attempt.
The topical scripts “elevated us in the eyes of the business,” Mr. Kalish said in a joint interview with Ms. Kalish for the Archive of American Television conducted in 2012.
Mr. and Ms. Kalish were executive producers of another 1970s hit sitcom, “Good Times,” about a Black family in a Chicago housing project, and continued to write for that program and numerous others.
Ms. Kalish’s career spanned decades, beginning in the mid-1950s, and included writing credits for more than three dozen shows, many that would make up a pantheon of baby boomers’ favorite sitcoms, among them “The Patty Duke Show,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “My Favorite Martian,” “F Troop,” “My Three Sons” and “Family Affair.” She also had producing credits on some 16 shows, including “The Facts of Life” and “Valerie.”
Ms. Kalish’s work laid a track for other female sitcom writers to follow. As she said to the comedian Amy Poehler in an interview in 2013 for Ms. Poehler’s Web series, “Smart Girls at the Party,” “You are a descendant of mine, so to speak.”
Ms. Poehler, beaming, agreed.
Irma May Ginsberg was born on Oct. 6, 1924, in Manhattan. Her mother, Lillian (Cutler) Ginsberg, was a homemaker. Her father, Nathan Ginsberg, was a business investor.
Irma attended Julia Richman High School on the Upper East Side and went on to Syracuse University, where she studied journalism and graduated in 1945. She married Mr. Kalish, the brother of a childhood friend, in 1948 after corresponding with him while he was stationed 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 dramatic series “The Millionaire,” came in 1955.
She joined the Writers Guild in 1964 and began writing with her husband more consistently. The Writer’s Guild Foundation, in their “The Writer Speaks” video series, called them “one of the more successful sitcom-writer-couples of the 20th century.”
Ms. Kalish was active in the Writers Guild of America West chapter and in Women in Film, an advocacy group, serving as its president.
The couple’s last television credit was in 1998, for the comedy series “The Famous Jett Jackson,” which was produced by their son, Bruce. They wrote a script dealing with ageism.
Along with her son, she is survived by her sister and only sibling, Harriet Alef; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Nancy Biederman, died in 2016.
In the interview with the Archive of American Television, Ms. Kalish expressed her desire to be known as her own person, not just Austin Kalish’s wife and writing partner.
“Sure, God made man before woman,” she said, “but then you always do a first draft before you make a final masterpiece.”