Sanford Jay Frank, the Emmy Award-winning writer and producer, screenwriting guru and conservative ideologue whom everyone called Sandy, died at his home in Calabasas on April 18 of complications arising out of a glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor. He was 59.
Frank grew up in Springfield, Mass., where his father worked at the post office. He attended Harvard, where he found an outlet for his humor when he joined the Harvard Lampoon, also creating lifelong friendships with Jim Downey (“Saturday Night Live”) and Lawrence O’Donnell (“The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell”). Frank graduated from Harvard Law School and became an associate at the prestigious law firm Donovan Leisure. However, as Frank told the Chicago Tribune in a 1985 article, “There wasn’t room for humor in a law firm.” So he took what would turn out to be a better-paying job, writing for “Late Night with David Letterman.” The hardest part of the job, Frank said, was learning to stop dressing up for work.
At “Letterman,” Frank created the legendary 1984 Velcro suit stunt, in which the late-night host donned a suit made of Velcro, jumped on a mini trampoline and adhered to a wall. It became one of the defining icons of Letterman’s show and his humor. Frank won four Emmy awards for his writing.
Frank was also on the writing team of the culture-defining sketch comedy show “In Living Color,” which brought prominence to the Wayans family, as well as to actors Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx and Alexandra Wentworth, and to Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez as dancers and choreographers. Frank’s recurring sketch “Men on Film” has often been cited as one of the show’s most memorable highlights and was a frequent contender for feature film development.
After “In Living Color,” Frank worked on a number of African-American-led sitcoms, including “Martin” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.” What Frank loved about working on those shows, he often said, was that there always came a moment when the performers and writing staff would forget he was a white Jewish kid, drop all their inhibitions and enter a zone where anyone could say what they really felt about the issues of the day — which at the time included the O.J. Simpson trial.
At Harvard, Frank was part of the Reagan-era embrace by young intellectuals of conservative thought that led to the birth of the neoconservative movement led by such Jewish Republicans as Franks’ Harvard classmates Eric Breindel and William Kristol, among others. Frank liked nothing more than to take a liberal point of view to its most absurd endpoint in order to deflate it.
The opportunity for Frank to do so in writing first came during Lawrence O’Donnell’s short-lived one-hour drama about a freshman senator, “Mister Sterling”; then for a half-hour program that mocked the liberal news media and establishment, “The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” which was conceived by Joel Surnow (“24”) as a conservative answer to “The Daily Show.” It was put on the air by Roger Ailes of Fox News, with Frank as head writer and Dennis Miller, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter as commentators. Although the show never found its footing and was canceled after 15 episodes, Frank earned the respect and friendship of such conservative luminaries as Coulter and Limbaugh as well as Andrew Breitbart.
Following the show’s cancellation, Frank worked on a variety of entrepreneurial and creative projects including founding an SAT and test prep school, and writing what some call the Gemara of screenwriting, “The Inner Game of Screenwriting” (Michael Wiese, 2011). He was also working on a screenplay, which remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Frank battled brain cancer for two years, during which, despite challenging moments, he was able to spend memorably good times with his wife, Pam, and daughters Priscilla (a UC Berkeley graduate who is now the arts and culture editor of the Huffington Post), Harley (about to graduate from Berkeley) and Michaela (a freshman at Tulane University). He is also survived by his brother, Eric Frank. He will be missed by all who enjoyed his comedy, and mourned by all who knew him. May his memory be a blessing.