12/14/2011 12:03 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

My Start in Television

My writing partner Ed Simmons and I were living in L.A. with our families in the summer of 1950, selling living room furniture door to door to support ourselves while trying to break into show business.

One of the things we'd come up with was an idea for a routine for the great comic raconteur Danny Thomas, and one day, while browsing a copy of Daily Variety, we learned that his agent was Phil Kellogg at the William Morris Agency. That was no secret, of course -- we may even have already known it -- but the Variety mention that particular day inspired me to figure out how to reach Mr. Thomas to pitch him the idea.

At one p.m., it being 98 percent likely that Mr. Kellogg was at lunch, I phoned his office and identified myself as a reporter for The New York Times. "I've been out here for two days interviewing Danny Thomas," I told the secretary breathlessly. "I'm at the airport now, writing this piece on the plane, filing it as soon as we land, and I have two last questions for Mr. Thomas. Quick, please, they're calling my flight."

I had his number in an instant, dialed it and Danny Thomas picked up the phone. He was curious to learn how I got his home number. When I told him the truth, he laughed and was intrigued with what I wanted to pitch him.

"I've got a date tomorrow night at Ciro's, a Friars Frolic," he said. "They know my routines, but I have no time to learn something new. I'm looking through my stuff for something old enough to seem fresh."

"This will learn easily," I responded, "and it's short."

"Tell me in two sentences," he ordered.

"Three Yiddish words," I spoke quickly. "They have no counterpart in English and would take a paragraph in any other language ..."

"Get over here right away," he said, and gave me his address in Beverly Hills.

"I can't get over there now, but my partner and I will be there by six. How's that?" I asked prayerfully.

"But you said you're in Hollywood, you're twenty minutes away."

"Yes," I said, "but I've got other things to do."

"You've got something more important to do than sell me a piece of material you've been killing yourself to get to me?" he yelled incredulously.

The truth was that in all the time we'd talked about it we hadn't yet set a word to paper. But I finessed his question with: "Well, you gotta admit, we're off to a funny start!"

Amused despite himself, he said, "All right, if you're not here by six sharp, forget it."

Simmons and I got there with no time to spare with our finished piece, "Zemischt, Fardreit And Farblungit." Three Yiddish words describing escalating degrees of confusion, and we'd written him a story about each of the words. One described a waitress at a diner who had to fill a take-out order for eight cups of coffee -- one with two sugars, no cream; one with one cream, no sugar; one with two sugars, two creams; etc. She was zemischt. Another woman -- nine months pregnant, with an infant crawling on the floor, a cake in the oven, the phone and doorbell ringing, and her water bursting -- was fardreit. Finally, we had a guy with terrible indigestion and no Tums, driving a huge flat-bed rig in a pouring rainstorm with a two-story home on the back, turning mistakenly into a dead-end street. He was farblungit.

Danny Thomas loved the piece and gave us five hundred dollars for it.

The next night Ed and I stood in the kitchen at Ciro's, peering into the club, listening to the laughs he was getting with his glorious rendition of the routine we'd written. It was a smash.

The morning after the Friars Frolic, I got a call from David Susskind, my first cousin (with whom I shared an unforgettable childhood moment involving our fathers, an itchy scrotum, and a bowl of iodine -- for the gory details you'll have to wait for the memoir I'm currently writing.) David was a young agent with Music Corporation of America, a goliath in every area of entertainment. He had been at Ciro's when Danny Thomas "killed, but I mean killed, Norman." Cousin David was beside himself. When he asked Thomas who wrote the new piece and heard it was "some kids from out of nowhere, Simmons and Lear," he wasn't even sure the Lear was me, but he had heard something about my moving to California and couldn't wait to make the call.

As luck would have it, David was the MCA rep for a new network variety show going into production and asked me if Simmons and Lear had written for television. I said, yes, of course, feeling comfortable with the lie since we had never written for a night club comic before and our success there was why he'd called us in the first place.

"I'm flying back to New York tomorrow," he said. "Can you get me a couple of sketches I can show to Jack Haley when I get back?" Haley was a low-key song and dance man and a light comic, famous for playing the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. The Ford Motor Car Company had just hired him to host a new musical comedy show, The Ford Star Revue on NBC, and David was helping to assemble the elements.

The woman whose bungalow my first wife and I were renting lived with an actor who'd done some TV, and he had a few scripts lying around. We looked at them to familiarize ourselves with the format, then wrote two sketches, "School for Comics" and "Blind Date," which David Susskind took with him to New York.

Three days later he phoned us. Haley loved our work, he wanted to do one of the sketches on the first show, we would be paid seven hundred dollars per show for the team, and how quickly could we get to New York? Seven hundred dollars! Three hundred fifty each! It seemed like as much money as there was in the world. A quick confab with the wives and we called back to say we could be there the day after tomorrow.

Eddie and I were flying high before we got off the ground.

At LaGuardia Airport there was a car waiting for us. The uniformed driver at Baggage Claim was holding up a little sign. It was the first time we'd seen it in print: SIMMONS AND LEAR. My God, we were important!

I hadn't called my folks long distance from California to tell them the good news. While waiting for our luggage at LaGuardia, I phoned them at their home in Hartford, Connecticut. My father answered, and he was surprised at how close I sounded.

"Yeah, Dad," I said, "I just landed at LaGuardia."

"You're in New York? What're you doing in New York?" he bellowed.

"It's a long story, Dad," I answered in an uncontrollable rush. "Eddie and I wrote a routine for Danny Thomas and last week he did it at Ciro's, you know, Ciro's, and the audience, all big shots, laughed their heads off, and Ed and I have been hired to write a new show for Jack Haley, The Ford Star Revue, can you believe it, on NBC, and Dad, listen to this, they are paying us seven hundred dollars for the team. I will be making three hundred and fifty dollars a week!"

My father's reply? "When you make a thousand dollars a week, that's a lot of money."