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Shelter Island profile: Bill Persky, seeking the ‘nothing fancy’

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Bill Persky in his home on Burro Hall Lane.

Bill Persky in his home on Burro Hall Lane.

In the days when television was something to be enjoyed in the living room with family and friends, Bill Persky was the guy who wrote your favorite shows.

Sitcoms were his specialty. Scripts for “The Dick van Dyke Show,” and his work on “That Girl” and “Kate & Allie” brought him five Emmys, and for those who lived through that particular Golden Age of TV, a lot of joy.

Bill and his wife, Joanna, spend summers and weekends in a house on Burro Hall Lane that they built in the late 1990s after leaving increasingly hectic Sag Harbor. The plot of a sitcom episode is nascent in Bill’s stated reasons for their move to the Island. “You get off the ferry and it’s 1940. No wars have taken place,” he said. “You got nothing fancy. I was going to make risotto and the IGA had never heard of arborio rice.”

Bill made a glorious career writing about the ordinary experiences of his own life in an extraordinary way. “My writing isn’t about jokes, it’s writing about what is going on and finding a twist to it that makes it funny,” Bill said. “I get into situations that look like they couldn’t happen in real life.”

In a sense, he said, his father was in the entertainment business, a seller of estates in auction galleries located wherever wealthy people gathered on vacation.

It meant the family moved frequently from one resort to the next. Bill recalls being the first Jewish person in the school system of Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he attended Ramble Elementary School in a location so remote that during recess, one of his classmates was bitten by a rattlesnake.

Bill’s older sister, Bunny, married Paul Grossinger whose family owned the popular Catskills’ resort.

During summers in the early 1950s, Bill worked there as a lifeguard, soaking up the world of Borscht Belt entertainers who radiated around Grossingers during the high season.

He studied advertising at Syracuse University, landed a job at a New York ad agency, and brought a Brooks Brothers seersucker suit, a straw hat and an attaché case. “The only thing I carried in it was people’s lunch, because I was a gopher,” he said. “My attaché case smelled like a delicatessen.”

Bill met Sam Denoff, who would be his writing partner for many years, when they both worked at WNEW in the continuity department.

“When I took the job, I had no idea what the continuity department was, but for $30 a week I figured you didn’t have to be a brain surgeon,” Bill said.

Bill and Sam had to schedule the show for the DJs, so they would know what came next while on the air. They started writing jokes for the DJs to fill in, mostly to entertain themselves. The head of the station liked what he heard, and told them to write some more.

In the 1960s, Los Angeles had become the center of the entertainment industry, and the writing team moved out to write for “The Steve Allen Show.” When Bill was 32, he and Sam were hired by Carl Reiner for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was the most sought-after writing job in television.

The first episode Bill and Sam wrote is still one of the most influential and best-loved 25 minutes of TV ever recorded. “That’s My Boy??” came from Bill’s experience at the hospital after the birth of his first child.

“We got some flowers that were meant for somebody else and somebody else’s dinner, and finally I said ‘How do you know you get the right baby?’” The episode aired in 1963 and included an African-American couple on an otherwise all-white show.

Director Carl Reiner got the CBS censors in a twitch by threatening to quit if they changed the ending, which was hilarious, and progressive at a time when integration and social change were rippling through American society.

Only eight years older than Bill, Carl Reiner had served in World War II and Bill looked up to him. “I thought of him as a totally grown up older man who could have been my father,” he said. Reiner is now 94 and just finished a book titled, “Too Busy to Die.”

“Sometimes when you work with someone, you take away a piece of them, and it becomes part of your DNA, especially the good ones,” Bill said. “There’s a little bit of Carl Reiner running around in me.”

Bill’s not so sure about the the so-called Golden Age of television because he thinks there’s more than one. “The golden age is any time a new dimension comes to it,” he said. He pointed out that in his day, with three prime-time hours a night and three channels, there were only a handful of shows on the air.

Now there might be 40 shows in the same time period. “It’s a much more lucrative business to be in in terms of getting jobs,” he said.

Bill said some of the best material he’s ever seen is being done now, and there’s an overwhelming volume of easy-access, televised entertainment, “The only place in our house you can’t watch television is on the toaster,” he said.

Bill’s “three amazing daughters,” with his first wife, are a huge source of satisfaction for him. His oldest, Dana, is a neuropsychologist in L.A. Jamie owns the restaurant Plate in Stowe, Vermont, and Liza is a television producer.

When Bill met Joanna Patton, a New York advertising executive, he’d been married twice before. “It was worth all I went through just to be available to her,” he said. They’ve been married for more than 20 years.

Life on Shelter Island is “The Bill and Joanna” show, home-centered, revolving around Joanna’s gardening and the antics of Sassy, an attention-loving red dog who came to them through a Shelter Island dog rescue organization.

“Some people it’s not glitzy enough for them,” Bill said. “Everyone is here for the same reason.”