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5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

RETIRE?” GEORGE BURNS POSED the rhetorical question to himself during a tribute on his 90th birthday. “I’m going to stay in show business until I’m the only one left.” He lasted another decade, but by the time Burns died last week at 100, his prophecy had in a sense come true. He was the last of a generation of comics who grew up in vaudeville, helped inaugurate the era of sound films and radio, and embodied during the television age a style of comedy that has been celebrated or satirized–often both–by virtually every comedian since.

His raspy voice, wryly unflappable manner and ever present cigar were trademarks as familiar as Chaplin’s cane or Lucy’s red hair. Burns was not a particularly influential or groundbreaking comic, like Groucho Marx or George’s old friend Jack Benny. But no one commanded the stage with more easygoing–and, as the years went on, inspiring–authority. He was 62 when his wife and longtime partner Gracie Allen retired, but his career was barely past its midpoint. He went on to even greater success in nightclubs, television and movies. His longevity became part of his appeal and the subject of his comedy. “It’s nice to be here,” he would typically announce. “At my age, it’s nice to be anywhere.” Years in advance, he scheduled a 100th birthday appearance, first at the London Palladium, then at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But after a bathtub fall in 1994, his condition deteriorated, and he was forced to spend the occasion at home, though nearly every major comic in Hollywood paid warm tribute. Said Bob Hope: “It’s hard to imagine show business before George.”

He was born Nathan Birnbaum on New York City’s Lower East Side, one of 12 children. By his teens he was doing anything he could to break into vaudeville, from trick roller-skating to performing with a trained seal. “Whatever type of act the booking agent was looking for,” he recalled, “happened to be the type of act I did.” He did comedy routines with a series of partners, changing his name with each new act–because, he claimed, the booker would never have rehired him if he knew who he was.

In 1923 he teamed with Gracie, a young Irish-American actress and dancer, whom he married three years later. At first Burns did the jokes and Allen played it straight, but that was soon corrected. George’s indulgent prodding of Gracie’s flighty non sequiturs and malapropisms helped make them the most popular male-female comedy act of the century. Burns always credited Allen with being the “genius” and deprecated his own sizable contribution. “There’s a whole megillah about being a straight man,” he said. “It’s supposed to be so difficult. Actually, all you’ve got to have is ears. When the audience stopped laughing, I’d ask Gracie the next question.”

In 1929 Burns and Allen appeared in their first movie short, and went on to a string of films, among them International House, The Big Broadcast of 1932 and A Damsel in Distress (in which they tap-danced with Fred Astaire). But radio was their real metier: beginning in 1932 their CBS show was among the most popular in the country. Switching to TV in 1950, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ran for eight years as a quaint mixture of vaudeville and sitcom: Burns would speak directly to the camera, narrating each week’s story, which typically involved Gracie, their fictional neighbors the Mortons and the show’s announcer, Harry Von Zell. Each program ended with a stand-up routine, brought to a close with Burns’ inevitable “Say good night, Gracie.” The series ended in 1958 when Allen retired; six years later she died of heart disease.

Forced to reinvent himself as a solo performer, Burns tried a couple of TV sitcoms, which failed to catch on, but soon found new life as a performer in nightclubs and on TV variety shows. Wielding his cigar as a silent straight man–a puff between punch lines–he regaled audiences with show-biz anecdotes and obscure songs, which he frequently left unfinished. He launched an improbable third career in 1975, when he got the role–originally to be played by Jack Benny, who died just before filming–of an aging vaudevillian in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Burns’ droll performance opposite Walter Matthau won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and led to other roles, most notably the wisecracking, down-to-earth deity in Oh, God! and its two sequels.

As he outlived most of his contemporaries, Burns’ age, like Benny’s stinginess, became a surefire running gag. “I get a standing ovation just standing,” he quipped. Or, about his dating life: “I would go out with women my age. But there are no women my age.” Only near the end did a hint of melancholy creep in. In the introduction to his last book, 100 Years, 100 Stories, he noted that “things haven’t been the same” since his bathtub accident. “I’m still an optimist,” he added. “But I’m not stupid. That nurse isn’t watching me all day to see if my toupee is on straight.”

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