Carl Gottlieb (b. 1938) has been at the hub of American show business for over half a century and its hard to find a decent vintage photo of him online! This is because, though he sometimes acts, it’s usually in bit or ensemble parts, whereas his biggest inroads have been as a writer, producer, and director. It’s the sum total of the various pieces that add up to something legendary.
After studying drama at Syracuse and two years of service in the entertainment division of the U.S. army, the New York native wound up in San Francisco, where he became a member of the famous improv comedy troupe The Committee with Howard Hesseman, Alan Myerson, Peter Bonerz, and others, becoming part of the L.A. contingent we mentioned in our recent Hesseman post. With the Committee, he appeared on Playboy After Dark, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, This is Tom Jones, The Dick Cavett Show etc. There was also a Committee movie in 1969. Gottlieb was doing sketches with the Committee on TV as late as 1976.
In 1968 and 1969, Gottlieb and Committee cohorts wrote and performed as regulars on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which is where he became friends with Steve Martin, which is how he later got to direct Martin’s Oscar-nominated 1977 comedy short The Absent-Minded Waiter (still Martin’s best film, IMO), and to co-write The Jerk (1979). Also with Martin, he co-produced and co-created the short-lived 1986 sit-com Leo and Liz in Beverly Hills starring Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrin.
Another Smothers Brothers alum whom Gottlieb collaborated with further is Rob Reiner. With him, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Kevin Pollack and others he was one of the principal creators of the cult obscurity Morton and Hayes (1991). I was a HUGE fan of this failed experiment when it first aired 30 years ago. It was a loving re-creation of classic comedy teams of the 30s and 40s like Abbott and Costello, Olsen and Johnson, The Three Stooges, and Hope and Crosby, filmed in black and white, period style, with latter-day interviews with “participants” in the vein of This is Spinal Tap. Gottlieb directed the pilot episode, and co-produced and wrote for much of the series!
In 1972, Gottlieb had a supporting role in the early Steven Spielberg TV movie Something Evil (1972). This led to Gottlieb getting heavily involved in the Jaws franchise. In the original 1975 movie he played the supporting part of Meadows, the Amity newspaper editor, co-wrote the screenplay, and then wrote a book about the experience The Jaws Log. He also cowrote the scripts to Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D. I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that he wrote the funny bits in those three movies.
In 1979, Gottlieb directed a couple of episodes of Delta House, the TV sit-com based on Animal House. He would later work directly with Animal House director (and Spielberg pal) John Landis, when he took a small role in Into the Night (1985) and then co-wrote and directed segments of Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). Gottlieb also co-wrote Dan Aykroyd’s first solo vehicle Dr. Detroit (1983), and the 1977 Richard Pryor comedy Which Way Is Up? based on Lena Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi (1972).
If all this were not already enough, Gottlieb is also part of Beatles history! He wrote and directed the notorious Ringo Starr solo vehicle Caveman in 1981! Traditionally this credit has not reflected glory on anyone connected with it, but I am definitely going to give it a second look, knowing more as I do now about Gottlieb’s track record.
Another rock connection — Gottlieb co-wrote David Crosby’s two memoirs, which came out in 1988 and 2006. In 1971, Gottlieb had co-produced the documentary Celebration at Big Sur, which chronicled a 1969 concert featuring Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Joan Baez; John Sebastian; Mimi Farina; and others.
Gottlieb’s counterculture street cred would not be complete with some Robert Altman interaction. In 1970, Gottlieb played the gas-passer “Ugly John” in Altman’s M*A*S*H (the part was recast on the TV series with John Orchard). I couldn’t find a decent photo still of him, though as I recall there are one or two decent shots of him solo in the movie, and he has several funny lines. He’s the guy in the handle-bar mustache and the Aussie bush hat. The group shot above is from the Hot Lips shower scene; he’s the one beating a steel barrel like a drum (easy to spot in his bumble-bee themed, black and yellow striped top). (Speaking of which, RIP Sally Kellerman; she passed away about a month ago). Gottlieb also had a walk-on in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Other notable comedy film auteurs Gottlieb worked with as an actor include Paul Bartel (Cannonball, 1976), and Amy Heckerling (Johnny Dangerously , and Clueless ).
We’re not done burnishing Gottlieb’s legend. In 1987, he directed the stand-up special Paul Reiser: Out on a Whim (five years before Mad About You). Some more of his TV variety history: he produced, wrote, and directed for George Burns Comedy Week (1985); wrote and produced specials starring Lorenzo Music (1976), co-creator of The Bob Newhart Show (which Gottlieb also wrote for and acted on, probably through the Peter Bonerz connection); and in the early to mid ’70s wrote and performed on The Ken Berry Wow Show, The Flip Wilson Show, Dean Martin Comedy World, and Sammy and Company. Gottlieb also wrote and episode of The Odd Couple and directed and acted on Laverne and Shirley (both probably though the Rob Reiner connection), and made guest shots on shows like Baretta, Chico and the Man, and Mork and Mindy.
Most of Gottlieb’s recent credits seem to be appearances in documentaries, cameos as himself on various TV shows, and live appearances at Jaws conventions, and the like. These days, Gottlieb seems to dine out on Jaws almost as much as Bruce does!
For more on variety history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; and for more on classic and slapstick film history read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.