By Richard Lacayo
March 25, 1996 12:00 PM

GEORGE BURNS HAD A JOKE ABOUT HIS LONGEVITY—”I’m going to stay in show business until I’m the only one left”—and he very nearly made good on his promise. When Burns died March 9 at his home in Beverly Hills, two years after a bathtub fall dealt him a head injury that may have triggered his final decline, he was 100 years old and, if not the last comic, then one of the last to have started in vaudeville. But there’s no reason to assume that he’s retired from the business even now. Before he started filming Oh, God!, his funniest movie, he sent a memo to his agent with a few suggestions for the script. The Supreme Being, Burns advised, “could use more humorous epigrams.” Well, if Heaven needs a gag writer, it now has one of the best. “He was probably the most focused and economical comedian who ever lived,” says Mel Brooks.

Not that Burns would have put it that way. He always played down his own abilities. “I had a very special talent,” he used to say. “Gracie Allen.” But during his years with Gracie, he was arguably the greatest straight man ever, a perfectly imperturbable foil for his wife’s strenuous exercises in making sense. It was Burns who wrote much of the scatterbrained material that Allen delivered with such cockeyed charm.

Even so, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, the great vaudevillians he lunched with and looked up to for much of his life, would have been astonished that Burns—a second banana!, a guy who fed jokes to his wife!—would go on to be more famous than any of them and for a great deal longer. In effect, he had two careers. In the first, his long partnership with Gracie Allen, he happily stood aside while his wife got most of the laughs. But after Grade’s death in 1964, when he might easily have settled into a comfortable retirement, Burns moved on instead to become something unique—a wry advance man in the world of very old age, scouting the fringes of life and sending back funny dispatches to the rest of us.

Burns was introduced to the public as a 7-year-old singer in the Peewee Quartet, a squirt harmonizing for small change in an America where Teddy Roosevelt was President. A fourth-grade dropout, he and his friends worked the street corners and backyards of New York City’s immigrant-packed Lower East Side or vocalized for the crowds on the Staten Island ferry. “The only place they could go to avoid us,” he once said, “was by jumping overboard.”

He made his first entrance on Jan. 20, 1896, as Nathan Birnbaum, the son of an Eastern European-born assistant cantor and butcher’s helper who died at 47, leaving a wife and 12 children. Thrown into the adult world at 7, young Nattie, as he would always be called by family and friends, soon began working in any capacity—trick roller skater, dance teacher, standup comic—that would land him near a stage in the freewheeling vaudeville circuit at the turn of the century.

Burns’s most fateful encounter came in 1922, when he was appearing in Union City, N.J., as half of a faltering male comedy duo. A friend introduced him to a 17-year-old pal from secretarial school. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen—Gracie—was studying typing at the time, but strictly as a fallback. The daughter of a San Francisco song-and-dance man, she had first performed in her father’s act at age 3. Her real goal was to stay in show business.

George’s heart went ba-da-boom. He persuaded Gracie to try out a new comedy act with him. She would feed him the straight lines, he would deliver the gags. After gauging the audience reaction at their first few stage appearances, Burns realized he had it backward. Gracie was getting all the laughs. He rewrote the act. He would be the straight man, she the comedian. Burns later would say it was the audience that created Grade’s character: “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type.”

That type went mostly like this:

George: “Did the nurse ever drop you as a baby?”

Gracie: “Don’t be ridiculous. We were too poor to have a nurse. My mother had to do it.”

As they struggled and stumbled, billed beneath acrobatic dogs and dancing moppets, Burns found himself falling in love with Allen. Though she was already engaged to another vaudevillian, her fiancé was frequently away on tour, leaving George free to press his case, which he did more and more desperately. At a Christmas party in 1925, Burns, dressed in a Santa costume, stomped out of the room because the gift he wanted that year—Grade’s hand—was still being denied him. Seeing his frustration, Gracie relented. On Jan. 7, 1926, they were married in Cleveland. For the rest of her life, even when their income passed $10,000 a week, Gracie wore the $20 ring George bought her for their wedding day. After her death, he kept it on his watch chain.

Two years before their marriage, Burns and Allen had already made it to the Palace Theatre on Broadway, the biggest thing in vaudeville. But by that time vaudeville was no longer the biggest thing in showbiz. Radio was the new star machine. Just as many stars of silent films would find their careers ended by the advent of talkies, some of vaudeville’s greatest names were finding themselves stymied by radio studios. For showmen like Jolson who were accustomed to prancing back and forth across the stage, the stationary mike might as well have been a stop sign. But the comic dialogues of George and Gracie, which didn’t require pratfalls and eye-rolling, were perfect for the nonvisual medium. A 1930 booking on Guy Lombardo sparked an offer from CBS for a Burns and Allen radio series. It began in 1932 and became one of the most popular programs on the air, running 18 years.

When the money started coming, the couple bought the two-story colonial in Beverly Hills, where Burns lived till his death. Because George was sterile, he and Gracie adopted two children, Sandra and Ronnie, who were raised as Catholics, according to Gracie’s wishes. Burns and Allen lived a quiet life by Hollywood standards, socializing mostly with close friends Jack Benny and his wife, Mary Livingston. Most days, George lunched at the Hill-crest Country Club with a group of showbiz friends that included Benny, Harpo and Groucho Marx, Jolson and Jessel. Discreetly—since he knew public disclosure would ruin not only his marriage but his livelihood, which depended on it—Burns dallied with a variety of young actresses, though none could ever threaten his deep attachment to Gracie.

In 1950, Burns and Allen made their move to television with a brilliantly imaginative expansion of their radio show that dissolved the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Just as the loud domestic comedy of The Honeymooners would open the way for Roseanne, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show—with its standup monologue and characters playing themselves—was the precursor of Seinfeld. Burns headed the production company that turned out the series along with other hit shows starring Bob Cummings and Jackie Cooper.

By the third season, Gracie was already resisting the strain of going on with the show. She suffered her first coronary in the early 1950s, and within a few years the heart problem had become a daily burden. Burns later would claim he never entirely understood just how serious Gracie’s condition was, but a bottle of nitroglycerine tablets was always close at hand to relieve her frequent chest pains. In 1958, after eight seasons, Gracie announced her retirement without publicizing the fact that she was leaving the show on doctor’s orders. Burns attempted a series without her, The George Burns Show, but it lasted just a season.

Gracie herself lasted only a few years more. On Aug. 27, 1964, she suffered a final, deadly heart attack. Her death left Burns shattered and alone. David Brenner remembers guest-hosting The Tonight Show when Burns told him that after Gracie’s death he couldn’t sleep at night: “He said they were at the age when they had two separate, single beds. He told me, ‘One night I got out of my bed and went over to Gracie’s bed and got in, and I have been sleeping there like a baby ever since.’ ”

As a remedy for grief, Burns plunged back into work. Though he didn’t need the money—he made a reported $3.5 million by selling rebroadcast rights to The Burns and Allen Show and retained a lifelong percentage of the series Mr. Ed, which he produced—he needed the distraction. “You know,” he once said, “you cry and you cry and you cry. And finally there are no more tears. Then you go back to work.”

Burns returned to playing clubs. By the mid-’70s, he was still a working comic, still a legend, but no longer as much of a presence. It took the passing of someone else close to him to change all that. Jack Benny died of pancreatic cancer in 1974, at 80, just weeks before he was to start filming Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Benny had been cast opposite Walter Matthau as one half of a squabbling team of aging vaudeville comics. After Benny died, the role was hotly sought by Hollywood’s senior set. Phil Silvers and Art Carney were just two of the actors angling for it. But by that time, Burns had hooked up with Benny’s longtime manager Irving Fein, who persuaded producer Ray Stark to audition his latest client. Though he hadn’t worked in movies since 1938, Burns got the part.

The Sunshine Boys was a box office hit and brought Burns, at 79, an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. (He would hold the record as the oldest performer to win an Oscar until 80-year-old Jessica Tandy was named Best Actress in 1990.) Suddenly he was a star again, now getting the kind of parts that had eluded him in the ’30s, when he and Gracie made more than a dozen B-list pictures, such as Honolulu and We’re Not Dressing.

The biggest of those new parts was the title role in the 1977 comedy Oh, God! By playing The Supreme Being as a kind of all-seeing headliner at Vegas, Burns made the film a major hit that grossed $61 million and spawned two sequels. Around the same time, he began a highly profitable career in books, most of them coauthored with writer David Fisher. In the best of them, Gracie: A Love Story—which topped The New York Times bestseller list three weeks after it was published in 1988—Burns revealed that “Gracie couldn’t cook, and her gardening skills consisted of occasionally watering the flowers in the centerpiece, but she was an outstanding suitcase-packer, and she made very good lists.”

When not writing or acting, he polished his patter. “I smoke 35-cent domestic cigars,” was a typical later-life Burns line. “If I paid $4 for a cigar, I’d sleep with it.” Burns joked a lot about octogenarian sex, but if there were many women after Gracie, he kept quiet about them. In the mid-’80s he was seen regularly with Cathy Carr, a Dallas socialite 45 years his junior, who met Burns after sending him a fan letter. He was uninterested in marriage, however, and the relationship lapsed.

By that time his life had already settled into an agreeable routine of morning and afternoon bridge games, with a few hours in between of work in the cluttered, three-room office he had kept at Hollywood Center Studios since the ’30s. Once a month there was a visit to Gracie’s burial site in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. “I tell her everything that’s going on,” he once said. “I don’t know if she hears me, but I do know that every time I talk to her, I feel better.”

In his final years, Burns could still be seen at lunch most days at the Hillcrest Country Club. He would take two martinis, a bowl of soup and a bite of everything each person at his table was having. Then he would adjourn with friends, such as billionaire oilman Marvin Davis, to play bridge. “In the last few years, the games were rigged so he always won,” says Davis, noting that someone had to hold the comic’s cards for him. Yet Burns still had pretty much of a full deck upstairs. Every time Burns greeted him, Davis says, “he would ask me, ‘Can I loan you any money, Marvin?’ ” Now Burns has left the Hillcrest tables where he once traded jokes with Benny and Jessel, Danny Kaye and Danny Thomas, all of them departed years before him. Would it be too much to hope that Burns has joined them again, at another big table where he can hold his own cards, smoke his cigars, and leave only to go home to Gracie?

RICHARD LACAYO

DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles

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