Variety is reporting the death of Ben Starr, a comedy writer who flourished in sitcoms, including his most famous co-creations for NBC, Silver Spoons and The Facts Of Life. Starr was 92.
After getting his big break writing gags for radio stars like Al Jolson, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and George Burns, Starr broke into TV in the 1950s, contributing to shows both comedic, like The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, and dramatic, like Perry Mason. He landed his first steady gig writing for Mister Ed, penning some 40 episodes of the sitcom about the talking horse. Starr’s other 1960s credits included My Favorite Martian, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show. He also co-wrote the cult classic Our Man Flint, which starred James Coburn as an exaggerated James Bond parody.
Starr stayed busy throughout the ’70s by writing for classic sitcoms like The Brady Bunch, All In The Family, and Mork And Mindy. He also wrote the first episode of Diff’rent Strokes; as he explains in the video below, it was he who created the housekeeper character of Mrs. Garrett. Arguably, however, his biggest contribution to the show was Gary Coleman’s catchphrase—which Starr wrote as “What are you talking about, Willis?” Coleman put his stamp on it and, as Starr says, “That was it.”
In 1979, Starr wrote the final episode of Diff’rent Strokes’ first season as a backdoor pilot for a spinoff starring his Mrs. Garrett character, in which she considers leaving behind the Drummonds to become the housemother at a girls’ prep school. Though she turns down the job in the finale, the spinoff got the go-ahead, and soon Mrs. Garrett, played by Charlotte Rae, was overseeing all-new young charges on her very own show. Long after Rae had departed and The Facts Of Life barely resembled itself, Starr’s name was credited as a “developer” on all 200-plus episodes, alongside Jerry Mayer and his fellow Diff’rent Strokes writer, Howard Leeds.
In 1982, Starr, Leeds, and a third Diff’rent Strokes writer (and Who’s The Boss? creator) Martin Cohan partnered on another show that explored upper class coming of age, Silver Spoons. The series gave The Champ’s breakout child star Ricky Schroder his first major break as the estranged son of an eccentric goofball millionaire, while also launching the careers of Alfonso Ribeiro and Jason Bateman. (Simultaneously, Silver Spoons co-star Erin Gray launched a lot of young boys into manhood.) Silver Spoons ran for five seasons and—like Diff’rent Strokes and Facts Of Life—forever in syndication.
Starr’s other credits include the 1973 animated version of Treasure Island, the Bob Hope/Jackie Gleason movie How To Commit Marriage, the Sid Caesar supernatural comedy The Spirit Is Willing, and the Broadway play The Family Way. He can also be seen in the 2012 documentary Lunch, in which he and a group of his fellow veteran comedy writers and directors—like Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Monty Hall, and Arthur Hiller—gather every other week to talk shop.