Michael M. Ross

Ross, Michael M.
Michael "Mickey" Ross died this morning May 26th. A day after Memorial Day. True, during WWII he was a B 17 bomber pilot with the 8th Air Force. He would have smiled at the irony. But to be remembered thus? How many jokes can you wring out of an air raid? He would have been ninety in August. The greater part of those years he lived as a clown - a writer, a producer of comedy, a teacher to those who yearned to work in the laugh trade. After settling his score with the Nazis, there wasn't a mean, vengeful, impulse in his system. Frequently, and using carefully crafted words, he would make pronouncements as though his voice were booming from Olympus. But their intention was to explain, exhort, bend, fashion or render a laugh. Or instruct. Such as: "What do you know from comedy?"
He was born in New York August 4, 1919 and called Isidore Rovinsky. As soon as he could understand what it meant to be a writer and a producer he looked back at his natal name and realized that it needed editing. As Mickey Ross he became more succinct, more pronounceable, more mnemonic. But if you accused him of truncating the name to seem less Jewish he bristled. Mickey never lost his pride in his heritage. In his later years he donated an enormous sum - 10 million dollars - toward the pursuit of Jewish Studies. However at the end of his life, he might have subtly hinted, it was an expensive search to learn that he might have been comfortable with his given name after all.
He loved music. Beethoven and Mozart were his gods. And opera was his mother's milk. A writer had to beware that you couldn't sneak the synopsis of an opera past this musical detective and pretend it was an original story.
Mickey met his future partner, Bernie West, at City College in the mid '30s and they became a stand up comic team. In the 1950s, Mickey began working at the Green Mansions resort in the Adirondacks, directing the likes of Don Adams, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar. He had his television debut during that time as director for The Gary Moore Show. The partners later worked on The Martha Raye Show where they developed a relationship with Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. A spec script for All in the Family in 1971 brought them from New York to L.A.
This led to a staff position on All in the Family - and eventually, a producing post. This ground breaking show earned the partners numerous prestigious awards including an Emmy in 1973.
All in the Family spun off a new comedy series, The Jeffersons. The series was based on an upwardly mobile African-American family that lived in a "de-luxe apartment in the sky." Nicholl, Ross and West became NRW, and the show became another ground breaker.
In 1976 NRW acquired an English sitcom, Man About the House. Retitled Three's Company, it made instant stars of John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers. The show ran for eight seasons. While not a critical success it remains hugely popular in syndication around the world to this day. And Mickey, for all we know, has found his Olympus, and is now booming his instructive mantra to critics: "What do they know from comedy?"
Three's Company spun into The Ropers, and Three's a Crowd - after which NRW dissolved.
In 2000, his wife Irene died, and Mickey found his interest in the business ebbing. The two original writers on Three's Company, George Burditt and myself, Paul Wayne - together with Bernie West, formed a little lunch club that met at a restaurant every Friday. We reminisced, told jokes and amazing anecdotes. Mickey and Bernie insisted on paying. Wouldn't even let us tip. One Friday George said, "We've got to stop meeting like this. Sooner or later we're going to run out of things to reminisce about. I mean how long can these lunches go on?" Mickey said, "As long as we keep picking up the check." You don't meet a man of principle every day. He kept the lunches going even when he suffered those little strokes and could no longer walk out. And the venue changed to his condo. We met for ten years and never repeated a story or a reminiscence. His picking up the tab had nothing to do with it.
Now there'll be something extra to remember every Memorial Day. Especially by longtime partner, Bernie West (and his daughters Isabel Davis and Ellen Harris), and close friends Carol Summers and Cynthia Harris. And his loyal care takers, chiefly Barbara Chavez, Ara Oganisyan, Brian Gordon, Norman Victor and Business Agent, Mads Bjerre. Plus his surviving relatives, his niece Judith and nephew Bob Rovinsky. And us, his former writing/producer/lunch companions.
Mick was a non-believer. But just in case there is Something, we can't help but envy the Angels for acquiring a man of talent and integrity; also, if the Bible is any true indication the occupants in Paradise are in need of a good lesson in joke construction and comedy-timing, and Mickey will be arriving not a moment too soon; and furthermore we trust that with any luck our Mick will find, regain and embrace some semblance of his original true given name.
Goodbye, old friend, old Michael Mickey Ross. Goodbye, Isadore Rovinsky.
There will be a service for Mickey this Sunday, May 31 at 11 AM to be held at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.
Paul Wayne and George Burditt

Published in the Los Angeles Times from May 28 to May 30, 2009