Norman Steinberg, Screenwriter on ‘Blazing Saddles,’ ‘My Favorite Year’ and ‘Johnny Dangerously,’ Dies at 83
Norman Steinberg, the Emmy-winning screenwriter who teamed with Mel Brooks on Blazing Saddles and My Favorite Year and wrote for the Michael Keaton-starring Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously, has died. He was 83.
Steinberg died March 15, his family announced.
Steinberg also wrote Yes, Giorgio (1982), starring Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti in his feature acting debut, and co-wrote Funny About Love (1990), directed by Leonard Nimoy and starring Gene Wilder and Christine Lahti.
The Brooklyn native and former lawyer won his Emmy very early in his career, for his work on a Flip Wilson variety show.
His TV résumé also included developing Marlo Thomas’ 1974 landmark kids special, Free to Be… You & Me (he brought Brooks in on that); serving as a writer and executive producer on the first two seasons of CBS’ Cosby; and creating the short-lived CBS sitcoms Doctor, Doctor and Teach.
While working as a writer on a 1972 CBS special, Aquacade in AcapulcoSteinberg got to spend 10 days in Mexico with Brooks, who appeared as an ex-Nazi pretending to be an Argentinian archaeologist in a bit with Ed McMahon.
Brooks sought Steinberg’s opinion about a screenplay he was given to direct; it was Tex Xwritten by Andrew Bergman, a student at the University of Wisconsin.
“I thought it was funny as hell, but it needed work, like anything needs work,” Steinberg recalled in a 2017 podcast interview with screenwriter Steve Cuden. Brooks asked him, “You want to do this? Warner Bros. wants to do a movie. I said OK. That movie, of course, was Blazing Saddles (1974).
On My Favorite Year (1982), produced by Brooks’ production company, Brooksfilms, Steinberg rewrote Dennis Palumbo’s original script about famed Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp, who comes to New York to publish a book. But he’s “a drunk and he has a gun, so the book publisher sends a young man to babysit him,” Steinberg noted in 2018.
“The producers said it’s period, expensive — we’ll never get it made — how about the same kind of relationship, but between Errol Flynn and Mel Brooks? Mel … hated the script and gave Dennis notes. He refused the notes, so Mel called me [and said] he was looking for someone to rewrite it. I said I’d do it. Mel said, ‘I can’t pay you enough.’ I said, ‘Can’t or won’t?’ Ten drafts and four years later, we got it made.”
Directed by first-timer Richard Benjamin, My Favorite Year wound up starring Peter O’Toole as a flamboyant, past-his-prime actor set to guest star on a Show of Shows-like variety program in the early 1950s.
Steinberg also did an uncredited rewrite on Mr. Mom (1983), starring Keaton in his breakout role as a stay-at-home dad, and came up with the idea for the 1930s gangster comedy. Johnny Dangerously (1984), directed by Amy Heckerling. He put together a writers room on that, hoping to duplicate the success he enjoyed with Blazing Saddles.
Steinberg was born in Brooklyn on June 6, 1939, and raised in Pittsburgh — where his father, Morris, worked in a department store — and Baltimore. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1961 and from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in ’64.
After serving in the US Army Reserve, Steinberg practiced copyright law in Manhattan for $100 per week and worked on music publication deals involving “She Loves You,” one of the first Beatles songs released in the US.
Steinberg met Brooks at a Chock Full O’ Nuts café across the street from his law office, and the comedy legend gave him a chance to write a script for Get Smart. The spy spoof wound up getting cancelled, but that didn’t dissuade Steinberg, who gave up his legal career to try his hand at show business.
Gary Belkin, who had worked alongside Brooks on NBC’s Caesar’s Hourgot Steinberg a gig writing for a 1969 comedy album from impressionist David Frye called I Am the Presidentwhich won a Grammy.
Belkin then hired him for Comedy Tonight, a 1970 CBS summer replacement show starring Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle. Klein then pointed him to NBC’s Flipwhere Steinberg would write gags with George Carlin.
For his work on the Wilson show, Steinberg shared an Emmy (with, among others, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf of I Love Lucy and All in the Family fame) in 1971, but he quit after one season, longing to return to New York.
That didn’t seem to be the smartest of career moves — until Belkin hired him for Aquacade in Acapulco.
Steinberg and his writing partner, onetime dentist Alan Uger, began working on Blazing Saddles with Bergman and Brooks in an office at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York.
As Steinberg remembers it, “Brooks said, ‘I’m looking at four white Jews and we’re writing a film about a Black sheriff. [to be played by Cleavon Little] in the Old West. We need a gentleman of color.’ I said I think the funniest guy anywhere is Richard Pryor, and I worked with him on Flip Wilson. I’ll call him.”
Pryor snorted cocaine in full view of his fellow writers and lasted just three weeks, Steinberg remembered, “but it was a golden three weeks. To have Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor in the same room, that was incredible. What an experience.” (Uger, meanwhile, departed after about a week but still received a credit. The remaining trio worked on the script for more than a year.)
The triumph of Blazing Saddles got Steinberg a job as head of comedy development at Paramount Television, but he exited after a year to work with Brooks as a producer and script consultant on the 1975 ABC comedy When Things Were Rottena spoof of Robin Hood that starred Dick Gautier.
Doctor Doctorstarring Matt Frewer as one of four partners in a medical practice in Rhode Island, ran for 40 episodes from 1989-91, and Teachwith Phill Lewis playing a Black music instructor at a predominantly white prep school, lasted 13 episodes in 1991.
Steinberg also wrote for The Ellen Burstyn Show, The Six O’Clock Follies, In the Beginning, Raising Dad and Chemistry and did a rewrite on Brian De Palma’s Wise Guys (1986), starring Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo.
More recently, he tried to get a musical version of Johnny Dangerously on Broadway.
Survivors include his wife, Serine; son Nik and daughter Daphne; daughter-in-law Lilly and son-in-law Andreas; grandchildren Oona, June and Gus; sister Joan; stepchildren Freja and Alex and their partners, Danny and Caroline, and their children, Llewyn and Arthur; and his former wife and mother of his children, Bonnie.
Memorial gifts in his name may be made to: The Norman Steinberg Scholarship Fund, c/o Kmur Hardeman, Long Island University, TV Writers Studio, Media Arts Department, 1 University Plaza, HC 212, Brooklyn, NY 11201.
Steinberg taught screenwriting at Johns Hopkins University, the American Film Institute and Long Island University in Brooklyn, where he founded a master’s program known as the TV Writers Studio. He had the LIU job for a decade.
“What TV writers need to do is learn how to take a punch, a mandatory eight count and then get up and go back at it,” he said in 2011. “They also have to know how to throw a punch.
“In television, the criticism usually comes quickly, unexpectedly and in front of the rest of the staff. Depending on the person running the table, it can sometimes be very harsh. It takes a while to develop a thickness of skin needed to survive.”
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