Although his loopy grin and brown cigar are as familiar as his old jokes, few would guess that Milton Berle is 74 years old and about to celebrate his 70th year in show business. The veteran comic, who began his career in a 1914 two-reeler and hit Broadway at 12, starred on the vaudeville and nightclub stage and in 1929 made his TV debut before a closed-circuit audience in Chicago. Berle eventually took possession of the new medium as though he had invented it, and during the late ’40s and early ’50s his Texaco Star Theatre dominated Tuesday night television. In 1951, at age 43, the comedian inked a 30-year contract with NBC, a deal ballyhooed as a “lifetime” pact based on the then current life expectancy of 69 years. Berle has outlived the contract (after collecting $4.8 million), and is still going strong in showbiz. Recently named national chairman of the American Longevity Association, an organization of scientists and laymen interested in the aging process, the ever-affable comic spoke to PEOPLE’s Doris Klein Bacon about his life and the reasons for his durability.
When I was 15 and performing, I always tried to use energy and drive in my performances. So, still being an actor, when the spotlight hits me, the vitality and the energy and the adrenaline just flow out of me. My wife, Ruth, says she can’t understand how she can come into my dressing room before a performance and I’ll be slumped in a chair looking like I don’t have the energy to stand. But it’s like the old joke about the actor who opens the refrigerator door. When the spotlight hits him, he does 20 minutes. I can still do what I did when I was 20 years old.
My mother had a lot to do with my attitude toward life. She had wanted to be an actress, but when she was young, it was considered immoral for a woman to go into the business. So she poured all her ambitions into me. She gave up her job as a store detective to guide my career and left my father to take care of the other four children as we traveled around together. It was the real silver-cord number. She’d even pick my girlfriends for me. I find that I still can’t eat cucumbers because they didn’t agree with her.
But she never thought of age, and that was the good thing she handed down to me. Mother was dynamic, energetic and had more guts and vitality than anyone. She went to the hairdresser every other day and always had a manicure and a pedicure. Even when she grew older, she was still vigorous. At 77, she slipped on the ice getting out of an automobile and broke her hip, but two nights before she had been at El Morocco dancing.
As spokesman for the American Longevity Association, I appear on TV and radio to explain the group’s aim: finding out how all of us can have longer, healthier lives. Do you know that at the turn of the century life expectancy was only 47 years? Today it’s 74, and if we keep at this rate, by the end of the century life expectancy should be over 100. Momma died in 1954 after her fall, but if there had been these great scientists enhancing and prolonging life as much as they do now, she might still be around.
I’ve always taken care of my health, and the only thing I’ve ever had was an ulcer, 13 years ago. But it’s cured. Ruth kids me when I wear an overcoat backstage in July, but I’m the only one who never catches cold. I’m just under six feet, and I stay at about 165 pounds all the time. I stick to a reasonable low-cholesterol diet. I stay away from coffee, fried foods, red meat, and I’ve given up sweets. Even though I grew up in nightclubs and everyone around me was drinking, I never was a drinker. I took one taste when I was a kid, and it tasted like medicine. That was it. The same thing happened with smoking. When I was a teenager I tried a cigarette. I started to sneeze. That was the end of my cigarette smoking. I did take up cigars, though, and for nearly 60 years I’ve been smoking cigars every day. But not inhaling.
I try not to worry; instead, I’m a concerner. I’m more concerned about what’s going to happen. I look ahead, and I don’t think of what has been, so life stays pretty interesting for me. I like to know who’s doing what, who that new comedian is. There are far fewer good comedians around today because they just don’t have the training ground, no place to do their homework. You need to flop for 10 years in different towns to develop into a comedian. But I think Robin Williams is a genius, and I think Richard Pryor, for his bag, is a genius too. And I like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. They have a hell of a chance if they develop.
When I get dressed, the day starts. But when it’s over, that’s it. That’s why I sleep well, because I keep business out of my mind. I make giant fantasy pictures in my mind just before I go to sleep, lying there, of palm trees in Hawaii or anything that is not concerned with show business.
Of course, Ruth has been an important part of my life for all these years. Every morning at home she awakens me with a breakfast tray, and there hasn’t been one moment in 29 years that she wasn’t there when I needed her. She taps me and turns on the light. I get up and have my breakfast, a little Sanka, and I lie down again for 15 minutes to see if my tummy will work. Then I shower and get dressed.
What makes our home life successful is that she has her way of living and I have mine. We have separate bedrooms, and if she wants to keep the light on to read or open the windows wide, she can. There’s no stress at home. We don’t fight. We have little disputes about minor things, and we both give in. I don’t think a woman should change or a man should change after the wedding ring, and each should be himself or herself. So she has what she wants, and I do too. But in all our years together I’ve never seen Ruth with cold cream on her face. She’s always combed and her face refreshed before we really say good morning. Most of the time I don’t see Ruth until she’s dressed. I think it all helps keep me feeling young.
She says I still do more than she does, and I’m 13 years older. I’m president of the Friars Club in California, and there’s a lot of work to do there. I can do clubs in Las Vegas and Atlantic City whenever I want to; I do television, and I have my own production company that’s preparing a show for HBO. I’m writing a comedy encyclopedia, The Comedy Bible, that’s going to run to 12 volumes. And I’ve been asked to play a 100-year-old man in a new play for Broadway titled Goodnight Grandma. When I’m not working, I travel around the country and lecture on comedy at various colleges and universities.
Sometimes I look back and ask myself how I overcame the stress when I had to do a TV show every Tuesday night, live. Being bottlewasher, producer, director, writer and fighting the clock to get ready for the broadcast each week, that put a lot of stress on me. But I overcame it, and I guess enthusiasm is the key, because the work I did, that I still do, doesn’t appear to me as work. Ruth says when I don’t work I’m okay for a day or two but then I start to get restless.
I don’t think you should quit working, ever. If you do have to retire, find something else to do. You’ve got to keep your mind busy or you’ll spend too much time dwelling on unpleasant things. None of the comedians I’ve known ever really quits. Look at Bob Hope. He’s going to be 80, but he acts like a kid half that age. Or George Burns. He’s 86, and he’s working harder than ever, going to parties, having a ball.
About a year after Gracie Allen died, someone asked George whether he was going to retire, and he said, “Retire to what?” Then a few years back George won the Academy Award playing an old actor in The Sunshine Boys. Ruth and I were at a party, and someone said, “Isn’t it wonderful that George has had all this success at his age?” And Ruth deadpanned, “Yeah, I can’t wait until Milton gets old.”