Oscar Artists: Brecher, Irving, Oscar-Nominated Scribe of Meet Me in St. Louis

Nov 22, 2008–Irving Brecher, who wrote sketches for Milton Berle, comedies for the Marx Brothers, a TV series for Jackie Gleason and screenplays for movie musicals including “Meet Me in St. Louis,” died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 94. Brecher had had a series of heart attacks last week.

Brecher received sole screenplay credit for two Marx Brothers films. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Vincente Minnelli’s family musical set in the early 1904, which became one of Judy Garland’s biggest hits.

Brecher was the creator of the long-running radio series “The Life of Riley,” about an ordinary working-class schnook who causes trouble for his family; it was played first by Lionel Stander and later, more famously by William Bendix. Brecher turned it into a feature film, with Bendix, in 1949, and a TV series in the fall of the same year. The series lasted only until the following spring. But when it was reprised in 1953, with Bendix back in the title role (frequently uttering his signature line, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”), it stayed on the air until 1958.

Irving Brecher was born in the Bronx on January 17, 1914, and grew up in Yonkers. At 19, after a brief stint covering high school sports for a local newspaper, he took a job as an usher and ticket taker at a Manhattan movie theater, where he learned that he could earn money writing jokes for comedians. Knowing of Milton Berle’s reputation as joke-pilferer, he placed an ad in Variety, reading, in part: “Positively Berle-proof gags. So bad not even Milton will steal them.” Berle himself hired him.

In 1937, he moved to Hollywood and began working on scripts for Mervyn LeRoy, a prominent producer at MGM. He was an uncredited script doctor on “The Wizard of Oz,” leading Groucho Marx to call him “The Wicked Wit of the West.” (He took it as the title of his autobiography, to be published in January by Ben Yehuda Press.)

His film credits include “Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941), with William Powell and Myrna Loy; “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1942), with Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly and Red Skelton; “Yolanda and the Thief” (1945), starring Fred Astaire; and “Bye Bye Birdie” (1963).

Brecher’s first wife, Eve Bennett, died in 1981. He is survived by his wife, Norma, and three stepchildren.

In 1989, at Brecher’s 75th birthday party, Milton Berle expressed his appreciation and extracted some revenge. “As a writer, he really has no equals,” Berle said. “Superiors, yes.”