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Remembering George Burns

The ”Oh, God!” comedian gave us the laughs of a century

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Just wait. George Burns, the impossibly enduring eldest statesman of American showbiz, died on March 9, just weeks after his 100th birthday. But judging by the extraordinary resilience and adaptability that defined his life and work, Burns will surely find a way to turn this, too, into yet another new phase in his career.

No matter that no one has ever done it before. Neither did any other performer survive all the seismic shifts in popular entertainment over the course of this century — vaudeville, radio, movies, TV, records, publishing, even video — and prevail in every one. Bob Hope? Never had a hit TV series like The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, a network fixture from 1950 to 1958. Milton Berle? Didn’t win an Oscar, as Burns did for his 1975 comeback performance in The Sunshine Boys. Nor did any of Burns’ contemporaries have four best-sellers, out of ten books bearing his byline.

Why George Burns, of all entertainers? What gave this short, low-key comedian, slo-mo hoofer, and salty-voiced singer such longevity — mere genetics aside? Was it the ever-present cigar? The bad wig? The martinis? The shtick about dating young women? Apolitical, unsentimental, a bit narcissistic, often arch, Burns’ persona and humor were ever rooted in the joyous hedonism and detachment (underlined with a hint of arrogance) that always seem to evoke youth.

Just as important, Burns was clearly gifted at the business of show business. He had keen eyes and ears for what worked in the entertainment marketplace — and a willingness to reinvent himself to adapt. Born Nathan Birnbaum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side into an impoverished family of 12 kids (”We were very poor,” he said. ”We ate one of my sisters”), Burns began performing in 1903, when, at age 7, he headed up the Peewee Quartet, a group that sang for pennies in neighborhood taverns. Playing low-rung vaudeville houses in his teens, he tried dozens of aliases, including Willie Delight, because he found 2,000 cards printed ”Willie Delight, in Vaudeville.”

In 1923 Burns met Gracie Allen, a 17-year-old dramatic actress who asked the 27-year-old comedian to write a routine for the two of them. Logically, Burns gave Allen the straight lines, and he delivered the jokes, only to find the audience responding to Allen’s natural comic delivery. He rewrote the act, developing a blithely addled character for Allen based on what Burns would call ”illogical logic.” In years of one-nighters, Burns and Allen fine-sanded their act into an exquisitely shaped and burnished model of comic characterization and timing — Allen poised and womanly, never pitiable or demeaned for all the trappings of her dim-bulb role, Burns buoying her with an impeccably placed nod of the head or a thoughtful draw on his cigar. Their utterly unique act carried Burns and Allen to the top of vaudeville, onto their own hit radio show, into the movies (they appeared in 14 films between 1932 and 1938), and, finally, to television.

There was nothing quite like The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on TV — before or after it. At a time when most series were corny playlets staged and shot like theatrical productions, what Burns created for his wife and their cast was avant-garde by any standard. The shows function on at least three referential levels, beating Pirandello by one. Burns and Allen portray Burns and Allen, depicted behind the scenes of the show they’re actually in at the time. Burns, meanwhile, moves in and out of the action, winking and grinning and sometimes even talking directly into the camera, a character in the show (though playing himself) who’s also aware that it’s all just a show. An omniscient figure among the actors, the part was of a piece with what would later become his most famous role, God.

After Allen’s retirement in 1958 and her death of a heart attack in 1964, Burns floundered. He flopped with his own series, The George Burns Show, and then with a Burns-and-Allen knockoff costarring Connie Stevens called Wendy and Me. Retrenching behind the scenes, he concentrated on producing and had a hit with Mr. Ed. Burns had pretty much retired when, in 1975, he agreed to fill in for his lifelong friend Jack Benny, who died shortly before he was scheduled to star with Walter Matthau in the screen version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Burns’ performance — at the age of 79 — earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and yet another career as a movie star and poster guy for geriatric cool.

On the heels of The Sunshine Boys, Burns starred in eight more films, including his most successful movie, Oh, God! (1977), and its two sequels, in which he portrayed the Title Character as a sassy old wisecracker with a supreme knack for card tricks. At the age of 90, he signed a three-year contract with Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Croaking out monologues between puffs of cigar smoke, he made television specials, taped a video (1989’s George Burns: His Wit and Wisdom), and dictated best-sellers such as Gracie: A Love Story (1988) and All My Best Friends (1989).

It seemed that he would live forever. Maybe he really was God. ”I can’t die,” he said. ”I’m booked.” Burns was signed to do a high-profile one-nighter on his 100th birthday, but he suffered a fall in his bathtub in 1994, underwent surgery to remove a buildup of brain fluid, and never fully recovered. When the big birthday came, he was too ill to perform. No longer booked, he had, for the first time in 93 years, no more reason to live.