George Burns (January 20 1896–March 9 1996; born Nathan Birnbaum) was an American comedian, actor and writer.
His career spanned vaudeville, film, radio and television, with and without his wife, Gracie Allen. His arched eyebrow and cigar smoke punctuation became familiar trademarks for over three quarters of a century. Enjoying a career resurrection that began at age 79, and ended shortly before his death at 100, Burns was as well known in the last two decades of his life as at any other time during his career.
Early life and career
Nathan Birnbaum was the ninth of twelve children born to Louis and Dorothy (Bluth) Birnbaum in New York City
. His father was a substitute cantor
at the local synagogue
but did not work very often. During the flu epidemic
of 1903, Louis had his chance to earn some real money but contracted the flu and died. Nattie (as he was known to his family) started working in 1903 after his father's death, shining shoes, running errands, and selling newspapers.
When he landed a job as a syrup maker in a local candy shop at age seven, Nattie Birnbaum was discovered, as he recalled many years later:
We were all about the same age, six and seven, and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with, 'no more chocolate syrup. It's show business from now on.
We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.
Burns quit school in the fourth grade to go into show business full-time. Like many performers of his generation, he tried practically anything he could to entertain, including trick roller skating, teaching dance, singing, and adagio dancing in small-time vaudeville. During these years, he began smoking cigars—which became comic props—and adopted the stage name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He claimed in a few interviews that the idea of the name originated from the fact that two star major league players (George H. Burns and George J. Burns, unrelated) were playing major league baseball at the time. Both men achieved over 2000 major league hits and hold some major league records. Burns also was reported to have taken the name George from his brother and the Burns from the Burns Brothers Coal Company (he used to steal coal from their truck).
He normally partnered with a girl, sometimes in an adagio dance routine, sometimes comic patter. Though he had an apparent flair for comedy, he never quite clicked with any of his partners, until he met a young Irish Catholic lady in 1923. "And all of a sudden," he said famously (and repeatedly—never failing to get a laugh from it, either), in later years, "the audience realised I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent—and I was married to her for 38 years."
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen
was born into a show business family and educated at Star of the Sea Convent School in San Francisco, California in girlhood. She began in vaudeville around 1909, teamed in an Irish-dance act with her sisters, Bessie, Hazel, and Pearl.
She met George Burns and the two immediately launched a new partnership, with Gracie playing the role of the "straight man" and George delivering the punchlines as the comedian. Burns knew something was wrong when the audience ignored his jokes but snickered at Gracie's questions. Burns cannily flipped the act around: After a Hoboken, New Jersey performance in which they tested the new style for the first time, Burns's hunch proved right. Gracie was the better 'laugh-getter', especially with the "illogical logic" that formed her responses to Burns's prompting comments or questions.
Allen's part was known in vaudeville as a "Dumb Dora" act, named after a very early film of the same name that featured a scatterbrained female protagonist, but her "illogical logic" style was several cuts above the Dumb Dora stereotype, as was Burns's understated straight man. The twosome worked the new style tirelessly on the road, building a following, as well as a reputation for being a reliable "disappointment act" (one that could fill in for another act on short notice). Burns and Allen were so consistently dependable that vaudeville bookers elevated them to the more secure "standard act" status, and finally to the vaudevillian's dream: the Palace Theatre in New York.
Burns wrote their early scripts, but was rarely credited with being such a brilliant comedy writer. He continued to write the act through Vaudeville, films, radio and finally television, first by himself, then with his brother Willie and a team of writers. The entire concept of the Burns and Allen characters, however, were created and developed by Burns.
As the team toured in vaudeville, Burns found himself falling in love with Allen, who was engaged to another performer at the time. After several attempts to win her over, he finally succeeded (by accident) after making her cry at a Christmas party. She told a friend that "if George meant enough to her to make her cry she must be in love with him". They were married in Cleveland, Ohio on January 7 1926, somewhat daring for those times, considering Burns's Jewish and Allen's Irish Catholic upbringing. (For her part, Allen also endeared herself to her in-laws by adopting his mother's favorite phrase, used whenever the older woman needed to bring her son back down to earth: "Nattie, you're such a schmuck," using a diminutive of his given name. When Burns's mother died, Allen comforted her grief-stricken husband with the same phrase.)
In later years Burns admitted that, following an argument over a pricey silver table centerpiece Allen wanted, he had a very brief affair with a Las Vegas showgirl. Stricken by guilt, he phoned Jack Benny and told him about the indiscretion. However, Allen overheard the conversation and Burns quietly bought the expensive centerpiece and nothing more was said. Years later, he discovered that Allen had told one of her friends about the episode finishing with "You know, I really wish George would cheat on me again. I could use a new centerpiece."
Stage to screen
Getting a start in motion pictures
with a series of comic short films, their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s included The Big Broadcast of 1932
; International House
in 1933; Six of a Kind
in 1934; The Big Broadcast of 1936
; The Big Broadcast of 1937
; A Damsel in Distress
1937 (in which they danced step for step with Fred Astaire) and College Swing
in 1938, in which Bob Hope
made one of his early film appearances.
Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road" pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with a young crooner named Bing Crosby. The story did not seem to fit the comedy team's style, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite the script to fit two male co-stars: Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore and it made motion picture history.
Burns and Allen first made it to radio
as the comedy relief for bandleader Guy Lombardo
, which did not always sit well with Lombardo's home audience. In his later memoir, The Third Time Around
, Burns revealed a college fraternity's protest letter, complaining that they resented their weekly dance parties with their girl friends to "Thirty Minutes of the Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven" had to be broken into by the droll vaudeville team.
In time, though, Burns and Allen found their own show and radio audience, first airing on February 15 1932 and concentrating on their classic stage routines plus sketch comedy in which the Burns and Allen style was woven into different little scenes, not unlike the short films they made in Hollywood. They were also good for a clever publicity stunt, none more so than the hunt for Gracie's missing brother; a hunt that included Gracie turning up on other radio shows searching for him as well.
The couple was portrayed at first as younger singles, with Allen the object of both Burns's and other cast members affections. Most notably, bandleaders Ray Noble (known for his phrase, "Gracie, this is the first time we've ever been alone") and Artie Shaw played "love" interests to Gracie. In addition, singer Tony Martin played an unwilling love interest of Gracie's, in which Gracie "sexually harassed" him, by threatening to fire him if the romantic interest wasn't returned. In time, however, due to slipping ratings and the difficulty of being portrayed as singles in light of the audience's close familiarity with their real-life marriage, the show adapted in 1940 to present them as the married couple they actually were. For a time, Burns and Allen had a rather distinguished and popular musical director: swing era titan Artie Shaw, who also appeared as a character in some of the show's sketches. A somewhat different Gracie also marked this era, as the Gracie character could often found to be mean to George.
George Your mother cut my face out of the picture.
Gracie Oh George you're being sensitive.
George I am not! Look at my face! What happened to it?
Gracie I don't know; it looks like you fell on it.
Census Taker What do you make?
Gracie I make cookies and aprons and knit sweaters.
Census Taker No, I mean what do you earn?
Gracie George's salary.
As this format grew stale over the years, Burns and his fellow writers redeveloped the show as a situation comedy. The reformat focused on the couple's married life and life among various friends, including Elvia Allman as "Tootsie Sagwell," a man-hungry spinster in love with Bill Goodwin, and neighbors, until the characters of Harry and Blanche Morton entered the picture to stay. Like The Jack Benny Program, the new George Burns & Gracie Allen Show portrayed George and Gracie as entertainers with their own weekly radio show. Goodwin remained, his character as "girl-crazy" as ever, and the music was now handled by Meredith Willson (later to be better known for composing the Broadway musical The Music Man). Willson also played himself on the show as a naive, friendly, girl-shy fellow. The new format's success made it one of the few classic radio comedies to completely re-invent itself and regain major fame.
The supporting cast during this phase included Mel Blanc
as the melancholy, ironically named "Happy Postman"; Bea Benaderet
and Hal March
(later more famous as the host of The $64,000 Question
) as neighbors Blanche and Harry Morton; and the various members of Gracie's ladies' club, the Beverly Hills Uplift Society. One running gag during this period, stretching into the television era, was Burns's questionable singing voice, as Gracie lovingly referred to her husband as "Sugar Throat." The show received and maintained a top ten rating for the rest of its radio life.
The couple took the show to CBS
in 1948, after having spent their entire radio career to date on NBC
. Their good friend Jack Benny
reached a negotiating impasse with NBC over the corporation he set up to package his show, the better to put more of his earnings on a capital-gains basis and avoid the punishing 80 percent taxes slapped on very high earners in the World War II era. When CBS czar William S. Paley
convinced Benny to move to CBS (Paley, among other things, impressed Benny with his attitude that the performers make the network, not the other way around as NBC chief David Sarnoff
reputedly believed), Benny in turn convinced several NBC stars to join him, including Burns and Allen. And thus did CBS reap the benefits when Burns and Allen moved to television
On television, The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show
put faces to the radio characters audiences had come to love. A number of significant changes were seen in the show:
- A parade of actors portrayed Harry Morton: Hal March, The Life Of Riley alumnus John Brown, veteran movie and television character actor Fred Clark, and future Mister Ed co-star Larry Keating.
- Burns often broke the fourth wall, and chatted with the home audience, telling understated jokes and commenting wryly about what show characters were doing or undoing. In later shows, he would actually turn on a television and watch what the other characters were up to when he was off camera, then returned to foil the plot.
- When announcer Bill Goodwin left after the early episodes, Burns hired veteran radio announcer Harry Von Zell to succeed him. Von Zell was cast as the good-natured, easily-confused Burns and Allen announcer and buddy. He also became one of the show's running gags, when his involvement in Allen's harebrained ideas would get him fired at least once a week by Burns.
- The first shows were simply a copy of the radio format, complete with lengthy and integrated commercials for sponsor Carnation Evaporated Milk by Goodwin. However, what worked well on radio appeared forced and plodding on television. The show was changed into the now-standard situation comedy format, with the commercials distinct from the plot.
- Midway through the run of the television show the Burns' two adopted children, Sandra and Ronald, began to make appearances: Sandy as an occasional drama school classmate of Ronnie, and Ronnie himself as George and Gracie's son, who held his parents' comedy style in befuddled contempt and deemed it unsuitable to the "serious" drama student. In one episode, Ronnie and Sandy, in a plot centered around their school's staging a vaudeville-style show to raise money, performed a remarkable impersonation of their famous parents' stage and radio comedy routines.
Burns and Allen also took a cue from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions and formed a company of their own, McCadden Corporation (named after the street on which Burns's brother lived), headquartered on the General Service Studio lot in the heart of Hollywood, and set up to film television shows and commercials. Besides their own hit show, the couple's company produced such television series as The Bob Cummings Show (subsequently syndicated and rerun as Love That Bob); The People's Choice, starring Jackie Cooper; Mona McClusky, starring Juliet Prowse; and Mister Ed, starring Alan Young and a talented "talking" horse.
The George Burns Show
The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show
ran on CBS Television from 1950 through 1958, when Burns at last consented to Allen's retirement. The onset of heart trouble in the early 1950s had left her exhausted from full-time work and she had been anxious to stop but couldn't say no to Burns.
Burns attempted to continue the show, but without Allen to provide the classic Gracie-isms, the show expired after a year.
Wendy and Me
Burns subsequently created Wendy and Me
, a situation comedy in which he co-starred with Connie Stevens
, Ron Harper
, and J. Pat O'Malley
. Burns acted primarily as the narrator, and secondarily as the advisor to Stevens' Gracie-like character. The first episode involved the middle-aged Burns watching with amusement the activities of his young upstairs neighbor on his television set, apparently via hidden cameras, then breaking the fourth wall
and commenting directly to viewers. The series did not last long, as Burns withdrew because of Gracie's health. In a promotion, Burns had joked that "Connie Stevens plays Wendy, and I play 'me'." Like Burns, Walter Brennan
also failed in a 1964–1965 comeback in the short-lived ABC sitcom The Tycoon
After fighting a long battle with heart disease, Gracie Allen suffered a fatal heart attack in her home on August 27
. Her exact age remains a mystery to this day (Burns set the date as 1902). She was interred in a crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial Park
in Glendale, California
. In his second book, They Still Love Me in Altoona
, Burns wrote that he found it impossible to sleep after her death until he decided to sleep in the bed she used during her illness. He also visited her grave once a month, professing to talk to her about whatever he was doing at the time — including, he said, trying to decide whether he really should accept the Sunshine Boys
role Jack Benny had had to abandon because of his own failing health. When Burns died thirty-two years later, he was interred beneath Allen because he believed she was entitled to have "top billing". He also left instructions to have the crypt's marker changed to read 'Gracie Allen and George Burns — Together Again'.
The Sunshine Boys
After Gracie's death George immersed himself in work. McCadden Productions co-produced the television series No Time for Sergeants
, based on the hit Broadway
play. At the same time, he toured the U.S. playing nightclub and theater engagements with such diverse partners as Carol Channing
, Dorothy Provine
, Jane Russell
, Connie Haines
, and Berle Davis
. He also performed a series of solo concerts, playing university campuses, New York's Philharmonic Hall
and winding up a successful season at Carnegie Hall
, where he wowed a capacity audience with his show-stopping songs, dances, and jokes.
Then, in 1974, Jack Benny signed to play one of the lead roles in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (Red Skelton was originally the other). Benny's health had begun to fail, however, and he advised his manager Irving Fein to let longtime friend Burns fill in for him on a series of nightclub dates to which Benny had committed around the U.S.
Burns, who enjoyed working, accepted the job. As he recalled years later:
- "The happiest people I know are the ones that are still working. The saddest are the ones who are retired. Very few performers retire on their own. It's usually because no one wants them. Six years ago Sinatra announced his retirement. He's still working."
But Benny was not even able to work on The Sunshine Boys, as he'd been diagnosed at last with pancreatic cancer, from which he died soon thereafter (December 26, 1974). Burns, heartbroken, said that the only time he ever wept in his life other than Gracie's death was when Benny died. He was chosen to give one of the eulogies at the funeral and said, "Jack was someone special to all of you but he was so special to me…I cannot imagine my life without Jack Benny and I will miss him so very much." Burns then broke down and had to be helped to his seat. People who knew George said that he never could really come to terms with his beloved friend's death.
Burns replaced Benny in the film as well as the club tour, a move that turned out to be one of the biggest breaks of his career: his performance as faded vaudevillian Al Lewis earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and secured his career resurgence for good. At age 80, Burns was the oldest Oscar winner in the history of the Academy Awards, a record that would remain until Jessica Tandy won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.
In 1977, Burns made another hit film, Oh, God!
, playing the omnipotent title role opposite singer John Denver
as an earnest but befuddled supermarket manager, whom God
picks at random to revive His message. The image of Burns in a sailor's cap and light springtime jacket as the droll Almighty influenced his subsequent comedic work, as well as that of other comedians. At a celebrity roast in his honor, former actor and future U.S. president Ronald Reagan
adapted a Burns crack: "When George was growing up, the Top Ten
were the Ten Commandments
Oh, God! inspired two sequels Oh, God! Book Two (in which the Almighty engages a precocious schoolgirl (Louanne Sirota) to spread the word) and Oh, God! You Devil—in which Burns played a dual role as God and the Devil, with the soul of a would-be songwriter (Ted Wass) at stake.
Burns appeared in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
, the film based on the Beatles
' album of the same name.
Burns continued to work well into his nineties, writing a number of books and appearing in television and films. One of his last films was 18 Again!, based on his half-novelty, country music based hit single, "I Wish I Was 18 Again." In this film, he played a self-made millionaire industrialist who switched bodies with his awkward, artistic, eighteen-year-old grandson (played by Charlie Schlatter).
His last feature film role was the cameo role of Milt Lackey, a 100 year old stand-up comedian, in the comedy mystery Radioland Murders.
Burns was a bestselling author who wrote a total of 10 books:
- I Love Her, That's Why (1955)
- Living It Up or They Still Love Me in Altoona (1976)
- The Third Time Around (1980)
- How to Live to be 100 or More (1983)
- Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness (1984)
- Dear George (1986)
- Gracie, A Love Story (1988)
- All My Best Friends (1989)
- Wisdom of the 90s (1991)
- 100 Years 100 Stories (1996)
When Burns turned 90 in 1986, the city of Los Angeles
renamed the northern end of Hamel Road "George Burns Road," City regulations prohibited naming a city street after a living person, but an exception for Burns was made. In celebration of Burns's 99th birthday in 1995, Los Angeles
renamed the eastern end of Alden Drive "Gracie Allen Drive." Burns was present at the unveiling ceremony where he quipped, "It's good to be here at the corner of Burns & Allen. At my age, it's good to be anywhere!" George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive cross just a few blocks west of the Beverly Center
Burns's stage persona in his final phase of professional life was that of an amorous senior citizen, which became a running gag for the rest of his career. In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Honors and had booked himself to play the London Palladium and Caesars Palace for his 100th birthday.
In July 1994, Burns fell in his bathtub and had to undergo surgery to remove fluid which had collected on his brain. His health began to decline afterwards. All performances celebrating his one hundredth birthday were cancelled. In December 1995, Burns was well enough to attend a Christmas party
hosted by Frank Sinatra
where he reportedly caught the flu, which weakened him further. On January 20
, he celebrated his one hundredth birthday, but was no longer mobile enough to perform and instead spent the evening at home.
On March 9, 1996, just forty-nine days after his milestone birthday, Burns died in his Beverly Hills home of a cardiac arrest. His funeral was held three days later at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather church in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale. George Burns was buried in his best dark blue suit, light blue shirt and red tie along with three cigars in his pocket, his toupee, his watch that Gracie gave him, his ring, and in his pocket, his keys and his wallet with 10 hundred dollar bills, a five and three ones.
As much as he looked forward to reaching age 100, Burns also stated that he looked forward to death, saying that the day he died he would be with Gracie again in heaven. Upon being interred with Gracie, the crypt's marker was changed to, "Gracie Allen & George Burns --Together Again." George had said that he wanted Gracie to have top billing.
- Burns and Allen were the subjects of Rupert Holmes' play Say Goodnight, Gracie.
- In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the two humpback whales are named George and Gracie after Burns and Allen.
- Hooters restaurants had signs that prior to George's death read "We even card George Burns" and following his death were changed to read "We even carded George Burns".
- The Simpsons referenced Burns in the Season 5 episode "Rosebud". The character of Mr. Burns, as a kid, leaves his family to live with a rich man. His father makes the comment "Oh well. At least we still have his little brother George." The camera flashes to a kid-sized George Burns, who sings a line in his style and then says, "Trust me, it'll be funny when I'm an old man."
- In South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, George Burns appears briefly when Kenny goes to Hell. Along with Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi, he is a ghost who talks to Kenny, possibly referring to his role as God being blasphemous. He is heard saying, "Hey fuckface, you seen Gracie?".
- Lambchops (1929)
- Fit to Be Tied (1930)
- Pulling a Bone (1931)
- The Antique Shop (1931)
- Once Over, Light (1931)
- 100% Service (1931)
- Oh, My Operation (1932)
- The Babbling Book (1932)
- Your Hat (1932)
- Let's Dance (1933)
- Hollywood on Parade No. A-9 (1933)
- Walking the Baby (1933)
- Screen Snapshots: Famous Fathers and Sons (1946)
- Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Grows Up (1954)
- Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Beauty (1955)
- All About People (1967) (narrator)
- A Look at the World of Soylent Green (1973)
- The Lion Roars Again (1975)
- The Robert Burns Panatella Show 1932–1933; CBS
- In their debut series, George and Gracie shared the bill with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. The pair launched themselves into national stardom with their first major publicity stunt, Gracie's ongoing search for her missing brother.
- The White Owl Program 1933–1934; CBS
- The Adventures of Gracie 1934–1935; CBS
- The Campbell's Tomato Juice Program 1935–1937; CBS
- The Grape Nuts Program 1937–1938; NBC
- The Chesterfield Program 1938–1939; CBS
- The Hinds Honey and Almond Cream Program 1939–1940; CBS
- This series featured another wildly successful publicity stunt which had Gracie running for President of the United States.
- The Hormel Program 1940–1941; NBC
- Advertised a brand new product called Spam; this show featured musical numbers by jazz great Artie Shaw.
- This series featured a radical format change, in that George and Gracie played themselves as a married couple for the first time, and the show became a full-fledged domestic situation comedy. This was George's response to a marked drop in ratings under the old "Flirtation Act" format.
- Maxwell House Coffee Time 1945–1949; NBC
- The Amm-i-Dent Toothpaste Show 1949–1950; CBS
- Broadcast live every other week for the first two seasons, 26 episodes per year. Starting in the third season, all episodes were filmed and broadcast weekly, 40 episodes per year. A total of 291 episodes were created.
- The George Burns Show 1958–1959; NBC
- An unsuccessful attempt to continue the format of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show without Gracie, the rest of the cast intact.
- Wendy and Me 1964–1965; NBC
- George plays narrator in this short-lived series, just as he had in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, but with far less on-screen time, as the focus is on a young couple played by Connie Stevens and Ron Harper. Stevens is, essentially, playing a version of Gracie's character.
- Another short-lived series, a weekly comedy anthology program whose only connecting thread was George's presence as host. He does not appear in any of the actual storylines. He was 89 years old when the series was produced.
by Martin Gottfried
, published by Simon & Schuster