Obituary: Jack Elinson (1922-2011)

November 23, 2011

Comedy writer Jack Elinson died on November 17 at 89.  Brief obits here and here list some of his many credits.

Elinson was best known as a Golden Age gag writer for radio and early television, but to me he was of most interest as the writer, with then partner Charles Stewart, of a slew of early Andy Griffith Show episodes.  (His much older brother, Irving “Iz” Elinson, was also a prolific comedy writer whose pen passed occasionally through Mayberry).  Elinson and Stewart wrote the first episode following the pilot, “The New Housekeeper,” which introduced mother figure Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier)  and subtly underlined the rarely mentioned tragedy of orphan/widowhood around which the show’s central father-son relationship revolved.

A lot of the Elinson-Stewart collaborations were tentative outings in which Griffith had not yet settled into his pure straight man role, and which focused on failed characters like early love interest Ellie (Elinor Donahue) or the roving musician Jim Lindsey (James Best).  But some of Elinson’s work stands with the series’ best, particularly “Barney and the Choir,” in which Barney Fife remains a member of the town choir, even though he “can’t sing a lick,” just because everyone is too nice to point that sad fact out.  This is the episode in which Barney (Don Knotts) utters the immortal line, “All God’s children got a uvula.”

As a diehard Andy Griffith fan, I very much wanted to get either its creator, Aaron Ruben (who died last year, at 95), or Elinson to talk to me for my long-in-the-works book on early television writers.  But Ruben turned me down, and when I spoke to Elinson on the phone, I detected some issues with memory loss that ultimately led me to back out of doing an interview.

They were both very funny men, but while Ruben’s sardonic wit is on ample display in several long interviews (including this one and Jeff Kisseloff’s book The Box), Elinson remains a neglected figure.  There’s a brief, not very good interview with Elinson in Max Wylie’s Writing for Television – so inconsequential, in fact, that I can’t find a single pull quote worth repeating here – and nothing else that I’ve ever come across.  I would have hoped that an Andy Griffith Show enthusiast might have gotten to Elinson, and some others among the creative staff.  But out of all the volumes published on that series, none of the authors seems to have been particularly curious about the actual circumstances of the show’s production.  Richard Michael Kelly’s 1981 book, simply titled The Andy Griffith Show, has a few good chapters on the subject, and I’ve encountered nothing as good since.  (Along the same lines, the conventions organized by the show’s fans always seemed to invite the actors, all the way down to bit players and favorite guest stars, but never the surviving writers or directors.)  It’s a very regrettable void that can probably never be filled now, unless a trove of the show’s production records exists in the archives somewhere.

Meanwhile, there’s the curious case of Andy Griffith’s autobiography, which was tentatively titled I Appreciate It and announced for publication last year.  Since then, it has disappeared from Amazon and all the other places one goes to find books.  Griffith’s collaborator, Jim Clark, is the great keeper of The Andy Griffith Show flame; his decades-long newsletter about the series has morphed into the online-only eBullet, the latest issue of which contains a nice tribute to Gomer Pyle star Barbara Stuart.  Griffith is notoriously private and Clark’s writings on the show have always hewed toward the fannish, so I took those as cues that Griffith’s book would not be especially penetrating.  But, still: I want to read it.  What happened?!

4 Responses to “Obituary: Jack Elinson (1922-2011)”

  1. John Nelson Says:

    As the Manager of the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Winston-Salem, NC… the closest B&N to “Mayberry” (Mt. Airy), I too was anxious to see the release of Andy’s autobiography. Alas, it appears to have been postponed, or even worse, canceled altogether. Andy’s not been in the best of health the last couple of years, and that might have prevented the book from being finished. His publisher was one of the major houses for religious and christian inspiration works, and that seemed to be a good match… maybe there is still a chance we’ll see it in 2012, but nothing has been announced yet.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Andy has looked so frail for years, but I kept hearing reports of him traveling to L.A. to work, or for Don Knotts’s funeral, so each time I’d figure if he was in good enough shape for that we’d have him a while longer. I’m going to have a rough time when we lose him.

  2. Daddy42 Says:

    I’m always saddened to see that you’ve had to post another obit; you do a good service in reminding us of their accomplishments.
    I’ve got a question for you – the Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer show, recently released on dvd, was one of my surprised discoveries. I know it was panned in various corners, both then and now, but taken with its limitations (both 1/2 hour format, budgetary and the era when it was created) it seemed to be occasionally cracker-jack on and often a slick, entertaining 25 minutes. I’m just wondering if you’ve seen the dvd and have any info on the program, either through your interviews or research; the episodes with John L. Russell behind the lens have really stood out, and as in the last episode – and a couple of them also seem to have unique music (as opposed to the standard reused and recycled tinkling fillers). Where did this series rank among crime potboilers in its time?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      It’s off-topic, but … yes, I saw some Mike Hammer when Encore reran it years ago, and liked it. I keep meaning to ask for a review copy of the recent DVD release, because I wouldn’t mind writing about it. My friend Stuart Galbraith thinks that Darren McGavin, “one of the breeziest, most likeable of character actors ever,” was cast against type as Hammer, but I always saw McGavin as gruff and sort of terrifying, so I always thought most obvious and best actor around to play Spillane’s character in the violent-thug mode established by Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly.

      Peter Gunn is supposed to (finally, after ten years!) continue on DVD soon, but I don’t like it quite as much as either Mike Hammer or Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

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