“The only thing that made me do a movie,” rasps George Burns, “is that they asked me to do a movie.” Not since 1939, when Burns and Allen appeared in a forgettable MGM epic called Honolulu, had he acted on screen.
“For the first time I’ve played a different character from myself,” says Burns of his role as Al Lewis in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, a wistful look at two artful codgers who odd-coupled in vaudeville for 43 years. “If the picture is a hit,” says George, “I may forget the name George Burns.”
Well, The Sunshine Boys is a hit, and no one is about to forget George Burns—even if his real name is Nathan Birnbaum, born January 20, 1896, on the Lower East Side into a family of seven sisters and four other brothers.
Today he lives in Beverly Hills splendor, the kind shown on postcards of movie stars’ homes at Schwab’s drugstore. The lawns are manicured several times a week. A new dark blue Cadillac stands in the drive. A pool glistens at the rear of the property. Inside, the entry hall is two stories high with a curving staircase and crystal chandelier. There are antiques, and the wallpaper is hand-painted. Burns, who just returned trim and ruddy from a promotional tour, flips off the color TV set in the sunroom and relights his cigar. Daniel D’Hoore, a Belgian who with his wife Arlette looks after Burns, serves tiny cookies and coffee on a china tray. The white linen napkins are monogrammed in white. George Burns long ago became accustomed to living in style.
And yet he is the familiar street-corner sharpie of vaudeville when he squints and flicks an ash, the same man that movie critics have discovered as “a master of understatement and bull’s-eye comic timing,” “the foremost purveyor of the sideways insult that comes in low and inside before it hits the mark.” The encomium of his co-star, Walter Matthau, is perhaps a better measure of the 79-year-old Burns: “He’s delightful; he’s delicious; he’s delectable. He’s devastatingly droll. He’s just an absolute picnic. If I said any more, I’d be gilding the lily.”
“The movie was a great experience,” Burns acknowledges. “They were all worried to death about me. I had had open heart surgery a year ago and Benny had died. [Jack Benny was set for Burns’s role in the film.] Every time I took a step there was a chair following me. It was a pleasure to go to the bathroom just to stand up.”
When George Burns gives an interview, it’s a one-man vaudeville turn by the greatest surviving practitioner of the art. The problem is that most of the story sounds created by his writers. It was. But in George Burns’s case, the comic routine is the man, and that’s probably the only truth there is.
“I’ve worked for as long as I can remember,” says Burns. “I used to shine shoes, sell newspapers. I would buy a box of vanilla crackers in the store, ten for a penny, and sell them on the street at eight for a penny.”
Young Nat and a friend, Abie Kaplan, regularly snitched from the Burns Brothers Coal Company, stashing the coal in their knickers. “Here come the Burns brothers,” yelled their peers. Hence the last name. The George came from his oldest brother, who was 20 when Nat was 7. “We all loved George and changed our names to his. When my mother would call out the window for George, we would all answer.
“My mother was working in the garment industry,” says Burns, whose father died when he was 7. “We would sit around and pull threads out of coats. Money meant nothing to us. There was always a big pot of sauce bubbling on the stove. We would eat it. It could have been anything. It could have been food.
“We used to sleep on the floor. My mother would say, ‘You’re very lucky. A lot of kids don’t have a floor to sleep on.’ I used to wonder where they slept.”
In 1903 a mail carrier on the block organized him and three other kids into the Pee Wees, sort of a preshave barbershop quartet. “We sang in saloons, on ferryboats, in yards,” Burns recalls. “One Halloween we made the biggest money of our lives, $17. There were a bunch of Gentile kids waiting to grab us. We finally ran to the boys’ club, which was Jewish, and told them what happened. They went out and chased the kids—and then took our $17.”
When he was only 12, Burns taught dancing and roller skating. “I had very little schooling. I was the only one in the family making money. I was so nuts about show business and so crazy about singing, I read in the paper that Caruso thought garlic improved the voice, so I started eating garlic.”
By the time Burns was 14, schooldays were over. As Brown of Brown & Williams (“Everybody on the East Side was named either Brown or Williams”), Burns went on the road. “I played Wilkes-Barre,” he recalls, “and there was a young girl who kind of went for me. She was 17, and she sneaked me up to her room. I think maybe that was my first affair. I was in show business though, and nothing was good unless I got applause. I don’t remember much applause that night.”
By age 16, Burns was running the Bernstein and Burns college of dance in New York City, selling $5 lessons in the waltz and the two-step. The school was closed by the cops when one client turned out to be a thief who had knocked over the Astor Hotel. “They claimed we were a hangout for lounge lizards.”
Burns, still in his teens, launched a ballroom dancing act with a girl he named Hermosa José, and it led to his first marriage. “Her father wouldn’t let me take her out of town. Well, I love show business, so I married her.” They stayed married for the duration of the act—36 weeks. “She was never too crazy about me,” he now recalls. “About four years ago, I looked her up in New York. She introduced me to all her friends as her ex-husband. I thought that was nice. When I was her husband, she wouldn’t spit on me.”
In reality, admits Burns, “I was a small-time vaudeville actor until I was 27. I always thought I had made it. There was a fellow called Willie Delight who had 2,000 cards printed saying ‘Willie Delight—Show Business.’ He had only used up 200 cards, so I bought the other 1,800 and changed my name to Willie Delight.”
Burns and his partner did an act on skates. When they heard a theater needed a dog act, they picked up a pair of mutts and rolled on stage carrying them under their arms. “In those days, I practically had to change my name every week because all the acts were so bad.”
His break came when an Irish Catholic dramatic actress from San Francisco, Grace Ethel Cecilia Rosalie Allen (her real name), dropped by the theater to see a girlfriend. “Gracie told me she had an act,” Burns recalls. “I also had an act, and mine didn’t need any props, so we used mine. At first I did the comedy and Gracie asked the questions. I noticed the audience loved Gracie. I could feel it. Not being foolish, I changed the act around. The audience found Grade’s character for her. She was just a great actress; her concentration was fabulous. She would look in your eyes and believe everything you said. When we did the wild jokes, she believed them and the audience believed her.”
Burns would go on stage before curtain time to test the wind so that the smoke from his cigar would never blow in Grade’s face. “You couldn’t touch Gracie,” he recalls. “She was tiny, beautiful, fragile, with wonderful blue-black hair. The audience would have been offended if the smoke had come near her.”
Burns and Allen traveled the circuit and all the reviews went to Gracie. George was falling in love. “I didn’t fall in love with Grade’s legs, or her bust,” he says, “I fell in love with her, with her talent. She wasn’t in love with me, though. She had a beau named Benny Ryan.”
At a Christmas Eve party in New York a desperate Burns told Grade either she would have to marry him or he would break up the act. “Gracie did the right thing,” Burns says smugly. “I was a good husband. In 38 years we never had an argument about being married. She could cook only one thing. It was spaghetti, and it was lousy. But, what could I do? She was in love with Benny Ryan. I had to eat it.”
Burns and Allen made it big with a routine that lasted 17 minutes. “That was our life savings,” explains Burns. “You could play for six years with 17 minutes without repeating a joke. Other comedians would ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and I would say, ‘Seventeen minutes.’ ”
The sketch was made into a movie short by Paramount. “It was a living-room set, but we were a street-corner act—a flirtation act. I didn’t know what to do and Gracie said, ‘Ask me about my brother.’ ” The question and Grade’s zany replies became a staple of their act.
Burns: “How’s your brother?”
Allen: “Which one? The one with the scar on his neck or the one who sleeps on the floor because he has high blood pressure?”
Their routines worked even better on radio, and their weekly CBS comedy hour, which started in 1932, soon built up an audience of 45 million listeners. Burns and Allen were more familiar names than that of their sponsor, Lever Brothers.
During those years, flushed with success, they bought the two-story house where Burns has lived for 40 years, the last 11 as a widower. The Burnses’ adopted daughter, Sandra, now 41, is married to Stephen Luckman, son of the noted architect Charles Luckman. She has four daughters. Son Ronny, 40, also adopted, is in the condominium business and has three sons.
As a prelude to turning octogenarian in January, Burns has given up golf and reduced his consumption of 24¢ El Productos to eight a day. He has no plans to cut down his appearances on TV variety shows, at Las Vegas clubs or with pretty girls. In 1966 Burns was squiring a 22-year-old named Kami Stevens, but he disclaimed any match, saying “My tuxedo is two years older than she.”
“I still go out with girls who are young and some who are not so young,” admits Burns. “Some of them are even 21. I take them to a restaurant and sit in some dark corner so they can do their homework. I enjoy women but I would never remarry.”
Even without a wife, George Burns has his act remarkably together these days. Asked how he managed to make the transition from stand-up comic to celebrated actor, George puffed reflectively on his cigar. “I went by what Spencer Tracy used to say, ‘Remember the words and listen.’ So I did that. I found out that acting is easy. It’s much harder to stand up there on stage and tell jokes and sing songs.”
As for his life as Hollywood’s top film discovery of 1975, George Burns says, “I come home, take off my toupee and put it on its block. The block looks great, and I look lousy.”