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Jewish Journal

Sam Denoff, TV writer and producer, 83

by Alan D. Abbey, JTA

July 19, 2011 | 4:18 pm

Sam Denoff

Sam Denoff

Sam Denoff, who had his greatest success writing and producing the classic sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s, as well as scores of other TV comedies, died July 8 at home in Brentwood, Calif. He was 83.

Denoff and his writing partner, Bill Persky, whom he had met while working at a New York radio station, sold their first script to the Van Dyke show in 1963 and continued as the show’s principal writers, and later story editors and producers. They won two Emmy Awards during that time.

In an episode titled “Bupkis,” Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, tries to earn money off a song he wrote years before for which he ended up earning bupkis — “nothing at all” in Yiddish. Denoff and Persky, who also worked as songwriters, composed a “pseudo-Latin” song with lyrics that included, “Bupkis is a lot of nothing/And that’s what I got from you.’ ”

Denoff was born in Brooklyn, studied piano as a child and always wanted to be a songwriter. He left Adelphi College in Garden City, N.Y., before graduation “to hang out in the Brill Building and be discovered by Perry Como or Frank Sinatra. … That didn’t happen.”

He began his songwriting career by writing jingles at New York radio station WNEW. “Let’s Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn” was one of his and Persky’s first published songs.  

Despite the song, and like the Dodgers, Denoff and his partner relocated to Southern California in 1961, where they began writing for shows such as “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Andy Williams Show.”

After the Van Dyke show, Denoff co-created and co-produced “That Girl,” starring Marlo Thomas, and worked on shows such as “The Practice,” starring Danny Thomas, “The Don Rickles Show,” “The Lucie Arnaz Show,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and others.

In an oral history interview in 2000, Denoff said of writing, “Take great joy in everything you write. Irving Berlin was interviewed ... they said, ‘Mt. Berlin, you have more songs than any other writer living or dead … what is your favorite song?’ And he said, ‘The last one I wrote,’ which really says it.”

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