Milton Berle was a man of many names: Mr. Television (with his 1948-53 vaudeville hour, The Texaco Star Theater, drawing up to 90 percent of viewers, he was the medium’s first star); Uncle Miltie (his shticky persona akin to a relative who pulls a quarter out of your ear—every time he sees you); and the Thief of Bad Gags (his reputation for swiping jokes, which led Walter Winchell to tag him with this pun, was well earned). ”Comedy was not only his living, it was his life,” says Alan King.
He was born Milton Berlinger on July 12, 1908. His surname was shortened to ensure larger letters on marquees by his steamrolling stage mom, who ”made Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother look like Mother Teresa,” he quipped in 1998. She’d launched his showbiz career in 1913 by entering him in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, which he won. During the 88-year career that followed, Berle worked with everybody from the Little Tramp (he did a dozen Chaplin flicks) to Tori Spelling (he was Emmy nominated for his 1995 stint as an Alzheimer’s patient on Beverly Hills, 90210).
In recent years, Berle became the target of punchlines, as Howard Stern spread the legend of his ample physical endowment and RuPaul adlibbed a rude line about his cross-dressing forefather’s advanced age while presenting with Berle at 1993’s MTV Video Music Awards (”I could have torn him to pieces…but I don’t need that publicity,” he fumed). Yet Berle got the last laugh. He passed away in his sleep on March 27, secure in the knowledge that his names would never be forgotten.