IT HAS BEEN A HECK OF A CENTURY. On the downside: war, famine, environmental disasters, pierced eyebrows. On the upside: medical advances, the conquest of space, the apparent end of the Police Academy movies. But through it all, good and bad, there has been one common thread. Man’s quest to better the lot of his fellowman? No, George Burns, who turned 100 years old on Jan. 20.
In his lifetime, Burns has seen the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The Soviet Union has risen—and fallen. World War II? He wasn’t even middle-aged then. When Burns was born, there were people still living who might have dined with John Quincy Adams. All the other famous people born in 1896—from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Rogers Hornsby to Wallis Warfield Simpson (of the pre-O.J. Simpsons)—can be found only in history books. But George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, endures, still smoking his El Producto cigars, still cracking wise.
Felled by the flu and still recovering from a 1994 fall in his bathroom, George wasn’t able to be at his centennial party last week, a fund-raiser for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A.’s Four Seasons, where his showbiz pals had gathered to talk about him behind’ his back. “This is a guy,” says Mel Brooks, “who always knew where the very heart of the comedy was—and he went straight to it without any detours.” It has been a long journey from the poverty of the Lower East Side to the accolades at his birthday bash. But if anyone were to ask George just how-he got from there to here, he’d probably tell them his recipe: “I like my food hot, I exercise, I smoke 15 to 20 cigars a day and I dance very close.”
For those who weren’t there, or who missed it for reasons of youth, PEOPLE presents the George Burns Timeline—some highlights from his life and some highlights from the world outside. George, this is your century!