Three Generations of Classical Kanters

It happens more often than not — I go to work on a post about someone in show business, and the tunnel leads to a rabbit warren of similarly accomplished relatives and/or collaborators. Thus this post about one guy has exploded into one about three generations of a single remarkable family, whose work, it’s safe to say, is more famous than they are, which to my mind is all the more reason to celebrate the people behind the work.

I think I may have mentioned my dad’s old copy of the Classics Illustrated version of The Ten Commandments in my post about the film. Subsequently I encountered many other examples of this comic book series, which adapted classic works of literature into a visual format not unlike what we now think of as graphic novels. The man behind them was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the U.S. named Albert Kanter (1897-1973). Kanter worked for years as a traveling salesman before selling his Big Idea, initially called Classic Comics, to a publishing company in 1941. For some perspective, comic books had only been in existence for a few years at that point. Superman had debuted in 1938; Batman in 1939. This was essentially a variation on a brand new invention. Kanter clearly had noble intentions, I think, but he was still criticized. Believe it or not the anti-comics crusade of the 1950s attacked Kanter’s creations just as it had more obvious malefactors like E.C. Comics. It was charged (no doubt with accuracy) that kids would go to the comic books instead of their assigned literature in English class, much as they would later go to Cliff’s Notes. And naturally, the comic book versions were more sensationized, violent, and simple-minded, thus contributing to the overall degradation of the culture (so it was charged). For a variety of reasons the enterprise ceased in 1961, although reprints and old copies circulated for decades, which is how I knew about it.

Albert’s son Hal Kanter (1918-2011) was the original jumping-off point for this post, for he was a writer-producer-director in radio, film and television, and had worked with many classic comedians and was responsible for many important and lasting creations. Kanter started out in the biz supplying gags to Eddie Cantor’s radio show, reportedly getting through the studio gate because his name “Kanter” sounds the same as “Cantor”. He broke into TV as a writer on The Ed Wynn Show (1949-50). TV would be where he went on to make his greatest mark.

Kanter worked repeatedly with certain key comedians who valued his contributions and support. This is obviously why he’s not a household name — he specialized in making other people look good. One of these symbiotic relationships (a major one) was with Bob Hope. Kanter co-wrote the screenplays to My Favorite Spy (1951), The Road to Bali (1952), Off Limits (1953), Here Come the Girls (1953), Casanova’s Big Night (1954) and Bachelor in Paradise (1961). He also wrote for Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and several of Hope’s TV specials including the outlandish, all-star Joys (1976) which we wrote about here. Writing for Hope also led to Kanter contributing regularly to the annual Oscar ceremony telecast, which he did through 2008!

Kanter co-wrote the Martin and Lewis vehicles Money from Home (1953) and Artists and Models (1955). In 1958 he wrote, produced and directed the western comedy film Once Upon a Horse starring the team of Rowan and Martin a full decade before the advent of Laugh-In.

Kanter produced and wrote for The George Gobel Show (1954-55) and directed Gobel’s Goodman Ace-penned movie I Married a Woman (1958), which co-starred English bombshell Diana Dors. Similar vehicles he had a hand in as co-writer include Let’s Make Love (1960) with Marilyn Monroe and Tony Randall, and Move Over Darling (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner. He also helped Tennessee Williams adapt The Rose Tattoo for the screen in 1955.

Kanter also worked with pop stars! For Elvis Presley he directed and cowrote Loving You (1957) and co-wrote Blue Hawaii (1961). For Pat Boone he co-wrote Mardi Gras (1958).

In 1958 and 1959 Kanter produced, wrote and directed The Milton Berle Show.

In 1961 Kanter co-wrote Pocketful of Miracles (1961), the last Hollywood movie directed by Frank Capra.

The mid-60s to mid-70s were the high water mark for Kanter in television. First he created, produced and wrote for the sitcom Valentine’s Day (1964-65) with Tony Franciosa and Jack Soo. This, in and of itself was not so major, other than it led to a streak as a creator of sitcoms, and his next one made the history books. Kanter’s next show, which he created, produced, wrote for and occasionally directed, was the groundbreaking Julia (1968-71), starring Diahann Carroll, the first television show to star an African American female in a non-stereotype role (as opposed to say, Beulah). One of Kanter’s first TV writing credits had been a 1951 episode of Amos and Andy. A good bit of ground had been covered in those two decades. In hindsight, Julia has been criticized for not going far enough (i.e., for being too integrationist and not very inclusive of actual black culture), but it has to be admitted that it was an advance over Beulah. From here, Kanter went on to create, produce and write for the short-lived sitcom The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-72). Kanter had earlier co-written Stewart’s 1965 comedy Dear Bridgett (1965). It is from Kanter’s 1999 memoir So Far, So Funny: My Life in Show Business that the world learned that Stewart was a closet racist. When Kanter tried to introduce black characters and actors onto the show, Stewart angrily balked and blocked the efforts, displaying an inner ugliness few would suspect given his public persona. But that’s okay. The time for old-fashioned sensibility was over and Stewart’s show lasted but a single season. After this, Kanter went on to do some producing and writing for All in the Family and Chico and the Man from 1974 through 1976.

Kanter’s last directing gig, a 1980 TV movie called For the Love of It had a mouth watering cast: Deborah Raffin (star of the TV version of Foul Play), Jeff Conaway of Taxi, Barbi Benton, Tom Bosley, William Christopher of M*A*S*H, Norman Fell, Henry Gibson, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs of Welcome Back Kotter, Adam West, Pat Morita, Don Rickles and Jack Carter! It’s practically a Love Boat episode without a boat! In 1986-87, he worked on developing Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You into a TV sitcom starring Harry Morgan. After this, he worked on his memoirs, and of course those annual Oscar telecasts for another two decades! 90 years old at the time of his last credit!

We would be remiss in not including Donna Kanter, Hal’s accomplished daughter here as well. Like her dad, she is a writer, director and producer both for film and television, although her specialty is documentary. Of her 100 or so credits, most of her work has been in the genre of true crime, although our readers will especially appreciate her 2016/17 film Lunch which features her dad, and comedy colleagues like Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Arthur Hiller, Gary Owens et al as they cut up and kibbitz over the noonday meal — a rich showbiz tradition. Her most recent film The Presence of Their Absence (2018) is about the children of Holocaust survivors. Learn much more about her at her website here.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.