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Scriptwriter Bob Comfort's humour sustained him through good times and bad

In one of the movies he wrote, Friendly Voices , a character's motto is: "Live audaciously, speak the truth, have a good breakfast." That same aphorism might well have applied to the life its author, Bob Comfort, who died on Jan. 8 at the age of 69. He once told a lifelong friend that if they examined her DNA, they'd find party hats on it. That, says Mr. Comfort's widow Bonnie (née Brotman), was true of him as well.

In a letter sent to friends recently, she wrote: "Bob loved being with friends, saying hilarious things and having everyone join in till we were drunk with laughter."

His nickname for his wife was "Pretty," as in "Hi, Pretty. How are you?" And, says Bonnie, "he really did want to know how I was. All of our 32 years together. And when he talked to you, he really wanted to know how you were, wanted you to know he believed in you, and probably had too much advice for you about the risks you should take to change your life. He was a big believer in trusting your abilities and taking a chance on them."

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Bob, she added, "was funny and charming, all the way to the end."

The end came last month in Portland, Ore., the couple's home for the past 14 years, the result of Lewy Body Dementia, a rare condition with the same underlying neuropathology as Parkinson's disease. Mr. Comfort was formally diagnosed in 2004. In LBD, microscopic protein deposits destroy normal brain tissue. There is no known cause.

Many Albertans will remember Mr. Comfort for his four years spent as a colourful afternoon radio show host in Edmonton in the early 1970s. In addition to his hosting duties, he was president of Tinsel and Sham, which created shows and commercials for radio and TV. In a series of sketches about Canada's conversion to the metric system he played a character named Yardly Footlong, a villain doing battle against Milly Meter. Mr. Comfort was said to be so popular that political parties tried to get him to run for office.

Once, on his radio show, he interviewed a reverend whom he thought was a con man. Preparing for the session, he sent away for a mail-order certificate that made him a reverend as well. When his guest insisted that Mr. Comfort call him Rev. Smith, he hauled out his own ordination certificate and said, "Then you have to call me Rev. Bob." Later, he did his best to debunk Scientology, receiving threats from members as a result.

His antipathy for religion derived from his upbringing. Mr. Comfort was born in Drumheller, Alta., one of three sons. His father was a high school teacher and the family were devout members of the Church of the Nazarene. By his teenage years, some of the faith's more fundamentalist beliefs were causing him problems - the more so since not far from the church lay the bones of dozens of dinosaurs, fairly conclusive evidence, he thought, that the earth was older than 6,000 years, as it said in the Bible.

He eventually left the church, but remained deeply interested in things inherently spiritual, such as particle physics. He read widely in the field and followed discoveries in space. "Bob did believe there was something beyond this life," Bonnie says.

At 17, Mr. Comfort went to live with an aunt and grandmother in Pasadena, Calif. He finished high school there, then joined the Marine Corps, soon shipping out to the Far East.

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On his first day in boot camp, in 1959, Mr. Comfort threw back a pint of milk just before a company run. Suddenly needing to vomit, he raced outside the mess hall, pursued by a drill sergeant.

"What … do you think you're doing?"

"Sir, the private had to heave, sir."

The sergeant moved his face inches from Mr. Comfort's. "You're a Marine … or you're going to be. Swallow it!"

As Mr. Comfort later recalled it, "he didn't believe that I was actually going to do it. I did. He jumped back and I got vomit all over his feet, all over his shoes."

One time, during a routine bunk inspection by officers, Mr. Comfort was asked what the 'NP' on his Marine dog tag stood for.

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"Sir, no preference, sir," he said.

"There's no atheists in a foxhole," the captain replied.

Mr. Comfort explained that he belonged to a small religious denomination that other soldiers had made fun of. To avoid further mockery, he put 'NP' on the tag.

The captain then asked what denomination he belonged to.

"Well, sir," he said, "I don't like to say it real loud, but I'm a Comfortist."

"What … is a Comfortist?"

"Well, sir, it's a very small denomination and people don't mean any harm, but my feelings are a little hurt."

The Captain, none too bright, told Mr. Comfort he should be proud of his religion and then chewed out the company, extolling religious tolerance in America.

Discharged at 22, Mr. Comfort took classes at Pasadena City College, sharing one course with singer Kenny Loggins and Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's assassin. All of them were love with the same girl.

A job as a bartender at the local comedy club led to his first writing gig. There, he met Rick Kellard, with whom he would partner, writing variety shows and specials for Alan King, Susan Anton, Dinah Shore, Walt Disney and Kenny Rogers. They co-created two series, The Cheap Show , a send-up of game shows, and Wacko , an off-the-wall Saturday morning kids show. Later, he and Mr. Kellard wrote sitcoms for ABC's Just Our Luck and The Redd Foxx Show, and pilots for 13 other shows, 11 of which were shot. Once, during a high-level pitch meeting at CBS - it's a scene that might have come right out of Seinfeld - "Bob got up, went into a corner, squatted and then farted. The room, full of well-dressed "suits," was completely stunned. "Ya gotta get these things out," Mr. Comfort explained. The meeting continued.

It was while he was working on Wacko in 1977 that he met Bonnie, a hospital psychologist. A former Winnipegger, she'd followed a boyfriend to L.A. and stayed when the relationship ended. "We met at a friend's engagement party," she remembers. "I'd mainly been dating Jewish doctors and I sat down beside this guy and could not believe how hysterically funny he was." Mr. Comfort was smitten, too: The morning after their first date, he called to tell her, "I had a wonderful time and I'm going to fall in love and please don't break my heart."

"That openness, the willingness to be vulnerable, was so touching and so wonderful," she said. Within two weeks, he'd asked her to marry him.

They married seven months later.

Mr. Comfort already had custody of a 10-year old son, John (now a composer), from a previous, short-lived marriage. "I think he wanted a mother for his son," Bonnie says. "It was difficult for him. I was hesitant to take that on at the age of 33, but John was very sweet. He wanted a mom."

Although they scored many successes in TV land, there were many reversals as well. One day, heavyweight producer Grant Tinker called the house.

"This is Grant Tinker."

Disbelieving the caller, Mr. Comfort said: "Really, who is this?"

But it was Mr. Tinker, asking him and Mr. Kellard to write a new sitcom for his wife, Mary Tyler Moore. Half way through the writing, the Tinkers divorced, and the project died.

That sort of frustration was routine in Hollywood and it took its psychological toll. "Bob became more cynical," Bonnie says. "So much about what got on air was capricious. The attitude always was, 'let's do what worked last time, rather than innovate.' Bob had a bigger vision, but he could not realize it in TV."

Film was not much easier. He and Mr. Kellard had already written five screenplays, including a spoof western about cowboys competing to see who was toughest. All were bought, but never produced.

In 1986, after 15 years together, the writers split up. "Bob wanted to concentrate on movies," explains Bonnie. "Rick wanted to stay in TV."

Mr. Comfort then wrote Dogfight, a 1991 film based on his Marine Corps experiences about young soldiers wagering $50 to see who could bring the ugliest girl to a party. It was made at Warner Bros., starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.

After that, Mr. Comfort was awash in scriptwriting offers. In all, he wrote 17 screenplays on his own and, except for a few, they were all bought, paid for and never made. One project, for Roseanne and Tom Arnold, collapsed when the couple divorced.

He had high hopes for a script called The Boys from Neptune , a reunion film about four former beach lifeguards, based on actor Jack Nicholson's adolescent years. Mr. Nicholson, Nick Nolte, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro were interested and a table reading was held at the home of director Penny Marshall. But it, too, languished.

Then he wrote an Americanized version of the 1989 Oscar-winning Italian film Cinema Paradiso. Producer Joel Silver bought it, but the project, like so many others, never was green-lit.

Once, watching a documentary about Dian Fossey, Mr. Comfort saw footage of a mother guerrilla dragging around her dead infant, unable to let it go.

"That's how I feel about my scripts," he told Bonnie. "They're my dead babies."

He had one other screenplay shot - Good Luck , a 1996 comedy starring Gregory Hines and Vince D'Onofrio, about a blind football player and sighted paraplegic teamed in a white-water raft race.

Always a small-town guy, Mr. Comfort persuaded Bonnie to move to Ashland, Ore., in the late 1980s. There, she continued her practice in psychotherapy and wrote a novel, Denial . In 1993, Mr. Comfort - during a trip back to L.A. for pitch sessions - was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. They moved back to California for chemo and radiation treatments, a regimen - Bonnie believes - that may have triggered the disease that later killed him.

"It was the best and the worst at the same time," she recalls. "Bob was in surgery to have a tumour removed when I heard there were two offers for my novel." It subsequently sold to seven foreign countries and became a bestseller in Japan.

While he recovered, the couple resettled in Oswego, outside of Portland. There, Mr. Comfort worked on his final film, still unmade, Jesus on Line 4. Based in part on his days in Edmonton radio, it's about a talk-show host that strikes a deal with a caller claiming to be Jesus. Jesus agrees to help boost ratings by becoming a regular guest, if the host becomes Christ's gardener.

Apart from writing, Mr. Comfort was a keen photographer and avid collector of old children's books and toys. He loved odd, quirky things," says Bonnie. "I have two rooms full of stuff he collected. I think he was trying to connect with his childhood."

Even as he slipped further into dementia, Mr. Comfort remained funny. Visiting friends with a multilevel house, he said, "I really like your home. There are so many places to fall." He was still walking and playing squash six weeks before his death and, according to Bonnie, endured "this terrible illness with enormous grace and good spirits, calling it the 'Louis the XIV disease,' and creating new words in the English language that were every bit as funny and good as the real ones. The most trying and difficult part for him [was]his gradual loss of verbal ability, the gift he had in such large measure." It was, she said, "a hilarious and surprising adventure."

Robert Comfort

Robert John Comfort was born on Sept. 17, 1940; he died on Jan. 8, 2010. He leaves his wife Bonnie, his son John, and his brothers Dave and Doug Comfort and their families.

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