National News

Thad Mumford, Pathbreaking Television Writer, Is Dead at 67

Posted September 18, 2018 10:20 p.m. EDT

Thad Mumford, an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for “M.A.S.H.” and other hit television shows at a time when African-Americans were practically unheard-of in network writing rooms, died Sept. 6 in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was 67.

His death was confirmed by his sister-in-law, Donna Coleman, who did not specify the cause. She said Mumford, who lived in Los Angeles, had gone to Silver Spring to visit his ailing father, who died last month.

Mumford wrote both for predominantly black shows, like “Good Times,” “That’s My Mama!” and “A Different World,” and for shows with largely white casts, like “Coach” and “Maude.” He told The New York Times in 1983 that he did not want his race to define or restrict his work.

“I don’t want to be called a black writer or a black producer,” he said. “I’m a producer and a writer who happens to be black.”

Mumford attributed his writing success to self-confidence and audacity. He first wrote professionally while he was a page at NBC, when he was also studying at Fordham University in the Bronx. He badgered “Tonight Show” writers Hank Bradford, who was the head writer for years, and Marshall Brickman into pitching his jokes to Johnny Carson, who used some of them. He eventually became a regular contributor.

In a 2016 interview for the Archive of American Television, Mumford traced his boldness in part to his upbringing.

“I think my dad and my mom wanted to raise my brother and I without the sense of being contained within a narrow world of being black,” he said. “A lot of parents raise their kids like, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do that.’ I had none of that — and in the process became so pushy, just headstrong, because I didn’t have any fear.”

Bradford became a mentor, and Brickman helped Mumford get a job in the early 1970s writing for the popular PBS children’s show “The Electric Company,” whose cast included Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno. Mumford was ill-prepared for the job — he told The Washington Post in 1986 that he “wasn’t good enough” — and he was fired after less than a year.

“The Electric Company” later rehired him, and he shared a Primetime Emmy in 1973 with some of the show’s other writers, including Dan Wilcox, who became his longtime writing partner. They worked together on “Sesame Street,” “What’s Happening!!" and one segment of the ABC mini-series “Roots: The Next Generations” (1979-81), a sequel to Alex Haley’s seminal autobiographical account of a black family’s experience in America.

Mumford was asked to contribute to the “Roots” series and hoped to collaborate with Wilcox, who is white. The producers worried that using a white writer would seem inappropriate.

“They were determined to have one black writer, without some honky attached to him,” Mumford said in the Archive interview.

The two planned to credit the script to Mumford and split the pay. But Mumford decided that it was unfair not to credit Wilcox, and he submitted the script under both their names, infuriating the producers and network executives, he said.

Wilcox, who also took part in Mumford’s interview with the Archive, called it the “bravest thing I ever saw a human being do.” Mumford said it was just “decency,” adding that “the only person who wasn’t upset was Alex Haley.”

Ultimately they both received credit.

They went on to work together for years on “M.A.S.H.” and were among the ensemble of writers credited with the show’s memorable finale, which aired in 1983.

In the 1980s Mumford found more work as a producer, of shows like “ALF" and the “Cosby Show” spinoff “A Different World,” while also writing for both.

Thaddeus Quentin Mumford Jr. was born in Washington on Feb. 8, 1951. His father was a dentist, and his mother, Sylvia (Jefferson) Mumford, was a public school teacher. He graduated from Western High School in Washington, now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, before attending Fordham.

A lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, he became a ball boy for the team as a teenager, when African-Americans rarely held such jobs. After he became a success in television, he was invited back for several Old-Timers’ Days at Yankee Stadium to catch fly balls during batting practice.

Mumford ruminated on baseball and other sports in occasional columns for The New York Times in the 1990s. In one he wrote of his admiration for Mickey Mantle shortly after Mantle’s death in 1995, jokingly calling him “the first blond I ever fell for.”

Mumford also wrote for “Home Improvement,” “The Cosby Show” and “NYPD Blue,” and was a writer and producer for the children’s show “Blue’s Clues.”

He is survived by his brother, Jeffrey; his stepmother, Gloria Mumford; a stepsister, Dr. Karen Cooper; and a stepbrother, Donnell Cooper.

As Mumford accrued influence in television, he pushed, gently, for black characters who were not stereotypes.

“All I ask for is balance,” he told The Washington Post in 1986. “It wouldn’t occur to most white people to think of parts for black actors. What I can do is say quietly, ‘What about a black character?’ and people say, ‘Oh, that’s great.'”