Leonard Stern

Writer/ Producer


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

In his five-hour Archive interview, Leonard Stern (1922-2011) discusses his introduction to show business, writing jokes for Milton Berle.  He describes his work in network radio, notably his work on "The Abbott and Costello Show," which led to writing in feature films for the duo. He describes his first writing work for The Jackie Gleason Show , particularly "The Honeymooners" sketches. He describes his work as a writer with Sydney Zelinka on many of the classic Honeymooners episodes during its one-year run as a series (1955-56), including "The $99,000 Answer," "Alice and the Blonde," and "The Babysitter." Mr. Stern talks about his Emmy-winning work as a writer on The Phil Silvers Show. He talks about his work as a writer on The Steve Allen Show in the 1960s and his later work that decade as a writer-producer on such series as I'm Dickens He's Fenster and Get Smart. As the executive-producer for Get Smart during its full run from 1965-70, Stern gives a full account of the landmark satirical show.  Stern describes his work as creator-writer-producer of such series as The Hero ( 1966-67), He & She (1967-70), and The Governor and J.J. (1969-72). Finally, he talks about his work as writer-producer-director of McMillan and Wife (1971-76) and Lanigan's Rabbi (1967-77) and his later work on Partners in Crime (as creator and director, 1984), and Murphy's Law (as co-executive producer, 1988-89). Mr. Stern also describes his ventures in publishing, including his co-creation with Roger Price of Mad Libs. In Part II of his interview, Stern talks about knowing Academy of Television Arts & Sciences founder Syd Cassyd and comments on the early years of the Academy and the Emmy Awards. He also talks about his participation in the 2008 feature film version of Get Smart, starring Steve Carell. Gary Rutkowski conducted the interview in Los Angeles, CA on July 13, 2000 and Jenni Matz conducted the second session of the interview on August 20, 2008.

"Everything doesn't have to read funny to be played as a first-rate comedy -- it's in the interpretation... Gleason used to say, 'if it's funny, it's never going to go out of style because it makes you laugh'."

Highlights
Leonard Stern on the genesis of Get Smart as a satire of James Bond; originally Tom Poston was to play the lead; then they looked to Don Adams for the lead
Leonard Stern on the legacy of Get Smart 
01:18
Leonard Stern on some classic episodes of The Honeymooners; "Pal of Mine", how Gleason and Carney would remain in character
Bill Dana's "Jose Jiminez" character on The Steve Allen Show ; how it came about
Leonard Stern on recurring sketches on The Steve Allen Show : Man on the Street and The Question Man; how Don Knotts' "nope!" came about; Tom Poston's character who forgot his name
Full Interview

Chapter 1

On his early childhood, parents, schooling
On why he believes he started writing comedy; on being a "student of the medium" of radio; his desire to be a writer
On his tenure in the Army; writing radio for Milton Berle and other name-personalities on Army radio
On how Milton Berle gave him his first job; Berle's treatment of writers; other radio shows
On writing adlibs for the $64,000 Question ; moving to California in 1948; writing for Abe Burrows
On writing for Abbott and Costello; the Dead End kids
On his writing process with partner Martin Ragaway; writing the film Africa Screams; on his relationship with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; on the "Who's on First" routine;
On writing feature films for Abbott and Costello; trying to cast Phil Silvers in a role later given to Jimmy Durante; on how Abbott came to work with Costello

Chapter 2

On working with Lou Costello many years following Abbott & Costello
On the first time he saw television - the Dodgers in 1941 on experiemental television at the NYU Science department; 
On the Comedy Writers Show (radio); dark or "sick" comedy; writing sketch material for Norman Abbott and Gabe Dell
On working as a consultant on Broadway Open House for Norman Abbott and Gabe Dell; his first foray in television
On how he came to write for the Jackie Gleason Show ; naming his fee and Gleason's reaction; writing for the Alan Young Show and using stuntpeople
On starting to work on the Jackie Gleason Show ; how he wanted it to be different from the Honeymooners; how Gleason worked; the other writers

Chapter 3

On Jackie Gleason, who memorized his lines, making a mistake on a commercial for Schick; on Gleason's personality and their friendship
On Jackie Gleason's talents as a comic actor; reacting to lines; some of the characters he portrayed; on Ralph Kramden as the Everyman; Joe the Bartender
On The Honeymooners episodes he wrote: "Letter to the Boss", "Stand in for Murder", and "Teamwork Beat the Clock"
On the producers of The Honeymooners ; on an episode where Gleason broke his leg
On why The Honeymooners became a series

Chapter 4

On The Honeymooners episode "Pal of Mine"; how Gleason and Carney remained in character
On Art Carney and his Honeymooners character "Ed Norton"; how the hand gesticulations came about
On the "get-rich-quick" motif on The Honeymooners ; On classic '39 episodes "Something Fishy", "Oh My Aching Back"
On The Honeymooners ' Audrey Meadows and her "Alice" character
On more classic Honeymooners epsiodes; "A Dog's Life"; on Gleason's fainting spells; jokes about his weight, "Head of the House"
On Gleason and Carney's reactions to the lines, their technique; on the use of mystery; "On Stage" based on one word polo ponies
On the Honeymooners episode "Mind you Own Business" and "A Man's Pride"; on director Frank Satestein

Chapter 5

On The Honeymooners ' Joyce Randolph
On why The Honeymooners was only on for one season
On the Hollywood Blacklist and how Gleason fought for the original "Alice" who was blacklisted
On his involvement with the Phil Silvers Show ; becoming a writer replacing Nat Hiken; on some specific episodes
On coming on board the Steve Allen Show (Sunday evening NBC show) as head writer; hiring Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana, Tim Conway, Dayton Allen, Pat Harrington
On recurring sketches on The Steve Allen Show : "Man on the Street" and "The Question Man"; how Don Knotts' "nope!" came about; Tom Poston's character who forgot his name; Martha Raye
On Bill Dana's "Jose Jiminez" character on The Steve Allen Show ; how it came about

Chapter 6

On how "Jose Jimenez" character came about on The Steve Allen Show, developed by Bill Dana
On his role on The Steve Allen Show (1961) as head writer and director of comedy
On the open audition process on The Steve Allen Show; Mike Nichols and Elaine May's audition; The Smothers Brothers
On teaming up with Roger Price to found Price Stern (later Price Stern Sloan); the birth of Mad libs
On his transition from The Steve Allen Show to Sgt. Bilko , and the birth of his show I'm Dickens, He's Fenster; on the changes in comedy at the time
On the origin of I'm Dickens, He's Fenster ; describing how a pitch meeting went in the 1960s; the premise of the show; the lead actors and director Arthur Hiller

Chapter 7

On Talent Associates; on Get Smart as a satire of James Bond; pitching it to ABC which was rejected; switching the lead from Tom Poston to Don Adams
On the humorous pitch meeting for Get Smart with Grant Tinker and Dick Darso
On the contributions of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to Get Smart ; on the original 7 minute pilot; receiving network notes only on Don Adam's "strident delivery"
On the title of Get Smart ; on the opening sequence and music by Irving Szathmary
On the creation of "Maxwell Smart" on Get Smart ; how Don Adams was cast
On the famous catchphrases of Get Smart ;"sorry about that chief", "would you believe", "missed it by that much"; why Maxwell Smart's agent name was 86
On Get Smart' s Agent 99 and how Barbara Feldon, Ed Platt, and Bernie Kopell were cast; casting agent Pat Harris
On his changing role as the "paternal figure" on Get Smart
On Get Smart' s producer-director Jay Sandrich, writers Buck Henry, Stan Burns, Jerry Gardner, Bill Dana, and other contributors
On a typical workweek on the set of Get Smart; on some memorable episodes, "Ship of Spies" which won an Emmy

Chapter 8

On the movie reunions of Get Smart and his involvement with "The Nude Bomb"
On the movie adaptation of Get Smart, "Get Smart Again"
On two television shows he created: The Hero and Run Buddy Run ; on He and She and how Paula Prentiss was cast with her husband Richard Benjamin; the protests over the show's cancellation amidst its many honors; why it was groundbreaking
On the premise of He & She; the interrelation of a couple
On The Governor and J.J with Dan Dailey and Julie Sommars; incidents with casting; Carroll O'Connor was to have been in the show but wound up on All in the Family
On The Good Guys with Bob Denver
On how McMillan & Wife came about out of his desire to write a mystery; on casting Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James
On the Snoop Sisters; inadvertently sending the script to Helen Hayes for the third time; working again with Art Carney
On Lanigan's Rabbi with Art Carney; getting a network note to make the rabbi "less jewish"
On Faraday and Company ; with Dan Dailey, introducing Sharon Gless, 

Chapter 9

On Diana with Diana Rigg, Richard Mulligan; problems finding writers for that show
On Vanities ; with Kathy Bates; on the "voodoo" of marketing research
On Holmes and Yo-Yo with Richard B. Schull and John Schuck
On Operation Petticoat ; an adaptation of the film; changes he made to the script
On Rosetti & Ryan ; the premise; on Tony Roberts and Squire Fridell
On Windows, Doors, and Keyholes written by Arnie Sulton, Bill Dana and 
On the pilot Wild about Harry ; a personal favorite of Sterns, with his wife actress Gloria Stroock
On the feature film Just you and Me Kid with George Burns
On Partners in Crime ; developed for Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson
On Murphy's Law ; the premise of a wheel of different detectives but going with just one- George Segal
Leonard Stern on his greatest professional achievment- making people laugh; on his mentors
On his advice to aspiring writers- keep writing!
On the legacy of The Honeymooners, Get Smart, and how he'd like to be remembered

Chapter 10

On the birth of the Television Academy and Syd Cassyd's vision for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
On writer's attitudes between writing for film and television; within that community screenwriting had always been the "ultimate"; but gradually that changed in the "golden age" of television
On how Syd Cassyd got him to be among the very first votes for the Television Academy; his desire to emphasize television as an important medium and the role the new Academy should take
On the importance of preserving the history of television; and all its participants from creators and editors down the line
On the award ceremony associated with the Academy: The Emmys; in the early days the writers were not allowed to attend the awards show for which they were nominated
On the fact Jackie Gleason was never nominated for an Emmy award
On his recollection of the early Emmy award shows in the 1950s
Shows

$64,000 Question

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On writing adlibs for the $64,000 Question ; moving to California in 1948
00:17

Alan Young Show, The

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Leonard Stern on writing for the Alan Young Show ; using the This is Your Life format 

Broadway Open House

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Leonard Stern on working as a consultant for Broadway Open House  for Norman Abbott and Gabe Dell

Diana

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On Diana with Diana Rigg, Richard Mulligan; problems finding writers for that show
05:01

Get Smart

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Leonard Stern on the genesis of Get Smart as a satire of James Bond; originally Tom Poston was to play the lead; then they looked to Don Adams for the lead
On the contributions of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to Get Smart ; on the original 7 minute pilot; receiving network notes only on Don Adam's "strident delivery"
Leonard Stern on the origin of the title of the show Get Smart ; he thought it sounded too much like a game show
Leonard Stern on the famous opening sequence of Get Smart; the nuances of the original idea
Leonard Stern on Irving Szathmary's original score for Get Smart
Leonard Stern on the creation of "Maxwell Smart" on Get Smart ; how Don Adams was chosen, having developed the character Inspector Glick on The Bill Dana Show ; the voice was based on William Powell 
Leonard Stern on the famous catchphrases of Get Smart ;"sorry about that chief", "would you believe", "missed it by that much"
Leonard Stern on Get Smart ' s Agent 99 and how Barbara Feldon was cast; Ed Platt; Bernie Kopell
Leonard Stern on a typical workweek on the set of Get Smart; on some memorable episodes, "Ship of Spies" which won an Emmy
Leonard Stern on the legacy of Get Smart 
01:18

Governor and J.J., The

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Leonard Stern on casting The Governor and J.J with Julie Sommars

He & She

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Leonard Stern on the creation of He & She and the message behind it; how Paula Prentiss was cast; the protests when the show was cancelled
Leonard Stern on the premise of He & She

Hero, The

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Leonard Stern on The Hero

Honeymooners, The

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Leonard Stern on writing for The Honeymooners and describes "Letter to the Boss", "Stand in for Murder", and "Teamwork Beat the Clock"
Leonard Stern on why The Honeymooners became a series
Leonard Stern on some classic episodes of The Honeymooners; "Pal of Mine", how Gleason and Carney would remain in character
Leonard Stern on the "get-rich-quick" motif on The Honeymooners
Leonard Stern on classic '39 episodes "Something Fishy", "Oh My Aching Back"
Leonard Stern on The Honeymooners ' Audrey Meadows and her "Alice" character
Leonard Stern on more classic Honeymooners epsiodes; "A Dog's Life"
Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason's fainting spells; jokes about his weight
Leonard Stern on the Honeymooners episode "On Stage" based on the word polo ponies
Leonard Stern on the Honeymooners episode "Opportunity Knocks But" and "A Man's Pride"
00:58
Leonard Stern on why The Honeymooners was only on for one season
Leonard Stern on why The Honeymooners is still funny
01:59
Leonard Stern on the award ceremony associated with the Academy: The Emmys; receiving the first nomination for writing (for The Honeymooners ) but no invitation to the ceremony

I'm Dickens ... He's Fenster

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Leonard Stern on working with Don Hinckley trying to write comedy; coming up with I'm Dickens, He's Fenster; how they pitched the show to ABC
Leonard Stern on the premise of I'm Dickens He's Fenster ; the use of physical comedy on that show; the motif of human fraility
Leonard Stern on the lead actors of I'm Dickens He's Fenster ; Marty Engels

Jackie Gleason Show, The

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Leonard Stern on how he came to write for the Jackie Gleason Show ; naming his fee and Gleason's reaction
01:33
On starting to work on the Jackie Gleason Show ; about Gleason
05:10

Lanigan's Rabbi

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On Lanigan's Rabbi with Art Carney; getting a network note to make the rabbi "less jewish"
00:54

McMillan & Wife

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Leonard Stern on how Rock Hudson came to be on McMillan & Son ; on Susan Saint James

Murphy's Law

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Leonard Stern on Murphy's Law ; the premise of a wheel of different detectives but going with just one- George Segal
01:29

Partners in Crime

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Leonard Stern on Partners in Crime ; developed for Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson
04:38

Phil Silvers Show, The aka You'll Never Get Rich aka Sergeant Bilko

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Leonard Stern on finding Nat Hiken was irreplaceble on The Phil Silver Show when he came on as writer

Run, Buddy, Run

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Leonard Stern on Run Buddy Run ; a spoof of Run for your Life

Steve Allen Show, The (1956-61)

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Leonard Stern on coming on as head writer of the Steve Allen Show (Sunday evening NBC show) and hiring new cast members hiring Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana, Tim Conway, Dayton Allen, Pat Harrington
Leonard Stern on why they never found a female comedian to work on the Steve Allen Show depsite working with Carol Burnett and Nanette Farbray
Leonard Stern on recurring sketches on The Steve Allen Show : Man on the Street and The Question Man; how Don Knotts' "nope!" came about; Tom Poston's character who forgot his name
Leonard Stern on the "letters to the editor" sketch on The Steve Allen Show ; Martha Raye
Topics

Bloopers

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Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason, who memorized his lines, making a mistake on a commercial for Schick
01:43

Characters & Catchphrases

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Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden as "Everyman"; Joe the Bartender
Leonard Stern on Art Carney and his Honeymooners character "Ed Norton"; how the hand gesticulations came about
Leonard Stern on The Honeymooners ' Audrey Meadows and her "Alice" character
Leonard Stern on recurring sketches on The Steve Allen Show : Man on the Street and The Question Man, how Don Knotts' "nope!" came about; Tom Poston's character who forgot his name
Bill Dana's "Jose Jiminez" character on The Steve Allen Show ; how it came about- running a school for Santa Clause
Leonard Stern on how "Jose Jimenez" character came about on The Steve Allen Show, developed by Bill Dana
Leonard Stern on the famous catchphrases of Get Smart ;"sorry about that chief", "would you believe", "missed it by that much"

Emmy Awards

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Leonard Stern on how Syd Cassyd got him to be among the very first votes for the Television Academy; his desire to emphasize television as an important medium and the role the new Academy should take
Leonard Stern on the award ceremony associated with the Academy: The Emmys; receiving the first nomination for writing (for The Honeymooners ) but no invitation to the ceremony
On his recollection of the early Emmy award shows in the 1950s

Hollywood Blacklist

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Leonard Stern on how Jackie Gleason fought for an actress who was supposed to play "Alice" on The Honeymooners , who was blacklisted
Professions

Show Creators

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Leonard Stern on how a pitch meeting went in the 1960s; how he sold a show
04:46

Writers

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Leonard Stern on his advice to aspiring writers- keep writing!
02:49
Genres

Comedy Series

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Leonard Stern on how comedy was changing in the 1960s; he was asked to write a comedy without jokes; the birth of the sitcom

Commercials

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Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason, who memorized his lines, making a mistake on a commercial for Schick
01:43
People

Bud Abbott

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Leonard Stern on first meeting Abbott and Costello; their bodyguards had gotten into a fight and were trying to kill each other!
Leonard Stern on his relationship with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; on the "Who's on First" routine; trying to cast Phil Silvers in a role later given to Jimmy Durante
Leonard Stern on writing feature films for Abbott and Costello; trying to cast Phil Silvers in a role later given to Jimmy Durante; on how Abbott came to work with Costello; how the relationship soured
04:22

Don Adams

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Leonard Stern on the creation of "Maxwell Smart" on Get Smart ; how Don Adams was chosen, having developed the character Inspector Glick on The Bill Dana Show ; the voice was based on William Powell 

Steve Allen

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Leonard Stern on his relationship with Steve Allen when he came on board as head writer of The Steve Allen Show (Sunday show)

Milton Berle

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Leonard Stern on how Milton Berle gave him his first job; Berle's treatment of writers
03:10

George Burns

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Leonard Stern on writing the feature film Just you and Me Kid with George Burns
02:25

Art Carney

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Leonard Stern on Art Carney and his Honeymooners character "Ed Norton"; how the hand gesticulations came about

Syd Cassyd

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Leonard Stern on Syd Cassyd's vision for the Television Academy (Academy of Television Arts & Sciences); the Academy's role 

Lou Costello

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Leonard Stern on first meeting Abbott and Costello; their bodyguards had gotten into a fight and were trying to kill each other!
Leonard Stern on his relationship with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; on the "Who's on First" routine; trying to cast Phil Silvers in a role later given to Jimmy Durante
Leonard Stern on writing feature films for Abbott and Costello; trying to cast Phil Silvers in a role later given to Jimmy Durante; on how Abbott came to work with Costello; how the relationship soured
04:22
Leonard Stern on working with Lou Costello on his solo career; on how he got the cream pies used in their routine

Bill Dana

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Bill Dana's "Jose Jiminez" character on The Steve Allen Show ; how it came about
Leonard Stern on the origin of Bill Dana's "Jose Jimenez" character
00:49

Barbara Feldon

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Leonard Stern on Get Smart ' s Agent 99 and how Barbara Feldon was cast; even though she was too tall

Jackie Gleason

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Leonard Stern on how he came to write for the Jackie Gleason Show ; naming his fee and Gleason's reaction
01:33
On starting to work on the Jackie Gleason Show ; how he wanted it to be different from the Honeymooners ; visiting Gleason at Doctor's hospital; how Gleason worked
05:10
Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason, who memorized his lines, making a mistake on a commercial for Schick; he never received an Emmy nomination
02:04
Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason; his personality; his friendship with Stern
Leonard Stern on Jackie Gleason's talents as a comic actor; reacting to lines
Leonard Stern on some of Jackie Gleason's characters; Joe the Bartender
Leonard Stern on Gleason's famous fainting spells; his technique; jokes about his weight
Leonard Stern on the fact Jackie Gleason was never nominated for an Emmy award

Helen Hayes

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Leonard Stern on the Snoop Sisters; inadvertently sending the script to Helen Hayes for the third time

Buck Henry

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Leonard Stern on Buck Henry's contributions to Get Smart 

Nat Hiken

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Leonard Stern on finding Nat Hiken was irreplaceble on The Phil Silver Show when he came on as writer

Bernie Kopell

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Leonard Stern on casting Bernie Kopell as Get Smart' s Seigfried

Elaine May

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Leonard Stern on Mike Nichols and Elaine May's audition for The Steve Allen Show

Audrey Meadows

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Leonard Stern on The Honeymooners ' Audrey Meadows and her "Alice" character

Mike Nichols

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Leonard Stern on Mike Nichols and Elaine May's audition for The Steve Allen Show

Joyce Randolph

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Leonard Stern on the talents of the Honeymooners Joyce Randolph

Martha Raye

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Leonard Stern on Martha Raye's sketches on The Steve Allen Show (NBC 1961)

Jay Sandrich

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On Get Smart' s producer Jay Sandrich and how he became the in-house director
06:22

Dick Smothers

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Leonard Stern on Tom and Dick Smothers

Tom Smothers

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Leonard Stern on Tom and Dick Smothers

Irving Szathmary

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Leonard Stern on Irving Szathmary's original score for Get Smart (he was Bill Dana's brother)

Alan Young

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Leonard Stern on writing for the Alan Young Show ; using the This is Your Life format; on Alan Young personally
02:35

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