See his Gracie: A Love Story (1988) and All My Best Friends (1989).
(born Jan. 20, 1896, New York, N.Y., U.S.—died March 9, 1996, Beverly Hills, Calif.) U.S. comedian best known for his collaboration with Gracie Allen (1902–64). Burns and Allen formed a comedy team in 1925 and were married in 1926. They performed on radio in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1932–50), with Burns playing the straight man to Allen's malaprop-prone chatterbox, before their show moved to television (1950–58). They made 13 films together, including The Big Broadcast films of 1932, 1936, and 1937. Burns returned to the screen in films such as The Sunshine Boys (1975, Academy Award) and Oh, God! (1977) and its sequels. Famous for his wry humour and his cigars, he continued performing into his late 90s.
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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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
Burns attempted to continue the show, but without Allen to provide the classic Gracie-isms, the show expired after a year.
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:
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.
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 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'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.
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.