Obituary: Irving Pearlberg (1925-2008)

July 2, 2008

Irving Pearlberg, a television writer and producer active from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, died on June 29. 

Pearlberg’s first TV script, as far as I can determine, was a good Kraft Suspense Theatre from 1964 entitled “Charlie, He Couldn’t Kill a Fly.”  It was about a town loudmouth (Keenan Wynn as Charlie), all bluster and no bite, who finds that after he’s accused of murder he wins the attention and respect of neighbors who didn’t take him seriously before.  Charlie offers a false confession and undergoes a crisis of identity as the authorities come closer to discovering who did the killing. 

It was a familiar story that’s been done by many a crime show.  In fact, one could say that Pearlberg was paid the ultimate compliment when The Defenders telecast a blatant lift of his Kraft script only five months later.  That episode, “Hero of the People” (written by Rod Sylvester and William Woolfolk), featured Gerald O’Loughlin as the milquetoast who gains sudden celebrity after killing someone.  In both shows, so as not to muddy the ethical issues at hand, the dead man was a drug peddler, the scourge of the community.  Also in both, there was the hint that the protagonist’s trampy wife/girlfriend (Beverly Garland on Kraft, a young Ann Wedgeworth in The Defenders) was turned on by his act of vigilantism.  Pearlberg (or the producers of Kraft Suspense) could have sued – assuming the premise of “Charlie, He Couldn’t Kill a Fly” had not itself been borrowed from someplace.

After Kraft Suspense Theatre, Pearlberg quickly moved into staff jobs, working as the associate producer (really a story editor) on the final, serialized season of Dr. Kildare (1965-66) and then moving over to do the same task for The Man From UNCLE (1966-68).  Both were MGM shows produced by that studio’s main TV guru, Norman Felton.  Following the stint for Felton, Pearlberg went freelance, but gravitated toward series in production at Universal’s busy TV factory: Ironside, The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones (two episodes of the “Doctors” cycle), Alias Smith and Jones, Columbo.  On an unusual number of these segments Pearlberg’s name appears atop a group of complex split credits, which suggests to me that he may have enjoyed a reputation as a reliable script doctor.

The family’s obit for Pearlberg condenses his resume to “a wide variety of police dramas,” which is true – he wrote for The Rookies, Police Woman, Baretta, Eischeid, Paris, Hawaii Five-O, and Quincy – but I would venture this was less a personal specialty than an index of what the market was buying during the seventies.  Pearlberg also branched out into comedy (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and did scripts for two fish-out-of-water shows about transplanted city professionals starting over in the sticks (Apple’s Way and The Mississippi).  His last credits were on The Paper Chase and Falcon Crest.  Pearlberg was a classic example of the all-purpose TV writer.


5 Responses to “Obituary: Irving Pearlberg (1925-2008)”

  1. Craig Henderson Says:

    Yesterday I was told that you had an obit up for Irv Pearlberg. Thank goodness someone does. Once again, a key industry figure doesn’t even get an obit in the Times or the trades (often the family’s fault, but still!). As you noted, Pearlberg was story editor on the last two seasons of The Man From UNCLE so I was familiar with his career (I wrote the first season liner notes in Time Life’s UNCLE DVD set). I had just talked to him in April because I’m writing a series of stories for CINEMA RETRO about the UNCLE movies made from TV two-parters. Irv wrote the extra feature scenes for the fourth film (with no screen credit) as soon as he came over to UNCLE from DR. KILDARE so I was hoping to get some inside dope or at least one good quote about that. Unfortunately, he really didn’t remember any particulars about that script or much of anything about UNCLE.

    He was very nice and wanted to be helpful, and we had a pleasant chat about his work and the industry in those days. He did tell me he broke into writing with two spec scripts for KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE, so you are correct about his first writing credit.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Thanks for the info, Craig. Pearlberg was on my list of TV writers to interview, but too far down, alas, because of his relatively late start date.

    (That other Kraft script, incidentally, was rewritten by others and Pearlberg ended up with only a story credit.)

    Did he mention what he’d been doing prior to 1963-64? I was surprised to find that Pearlberg was as old as he was; that means he was nearing 40 when he entered the TV industry, and must have had a whole other career in another field.

  3. Craig Henderson Says:

    I was also surprised that he broke into writing so late. He said he was a reader but never mentioned for which studioo. I’d have to guess either Revue/Universal since he decided to write a spec script for KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE, or MGM since he landed the story editor gig on KILDARE and then U.N.C.L.E. so quickly. But unfortunately he didn’t say.

  4. […] Jun 10: Eliot Asinof, novelist, front for blacklist victims, sometime TV writer (Channing). Jun 29: Irving Pearlberg, action/drama writer/ producer (Dr. Kildare, Man From UNCLE). Jul 29: Luther Davis, talented […]

  5. Angry Dad Says:

    I took a class from Irv Pearlberg when he was a screenwriting teacher at California State University, Northridge. Irv (and he insisted that the students call him by his first name and not “Professor” or “Mister”) was what I imagined a professional TV writer was. He got down to the nuts and bolts and did not act as if the craft of writing was some magical process that only a chosen few could do. I imagine that TV studios used to be filled with men like him who created hours of entertainment with very little credit for the creative output.

    He also seemed like a genuinely nice man who was interested in helping out students. I sure his family does not need to be reminded of what kind of person he was, but as a former student from over 20 years ago, I still remember him fondly for his teaching and stories about the industry.

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