Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95
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Though admittedly Berle is a difficult man to live with, he and Ruth made an ideal couple. They remained married for 38 years. Along the way, in 1961, they adopted an infant son whom they named William after their close friend, Academy Award-winning film director and writer Billy Wilder, who became the baby's godfather.
Ruth died of cancer in 1989, and although it wasn't lung cancer, Berle blames her death on her addiction to cigarettes. She smoked three to four packs a day throughout their marriage. Berle tried to wean her off cigarettes but failed.
Berle's personal life showed a marked improvement when he married Ruth, but his television ratings were down. Texaco had dropped his show in June 1953. It was still making audiences laugh but was beginning to suffer from the competition of newer programs like "I Love Lucy," "Your Show of Shows" (starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco) and "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends."
Buick picked up the Berle show with a slightly changed format for the 1953-1954 season. The ratings were respectable, but some of the magic was gone.
To further dampen 1954, Mama died on May 31 while Berle was rehearsing the fifth of six shows being produced and broadcast from NBC in Burbank. He left immediately for the East to take care of the funeral arrangements, while Bob Hope substituted for him on that week's episode.
Buick dropped the show in 1955 after two seasons, for it was no longer a success. Berle blames his fall on the fact that Goody Ace, his head writer, turned his character into a schnook instead of the aggressive, pushy, outrageous, baggy-pants comic he had been when he was on top. "Besides, Goody, great writer that he was, didn't write visual comedy," complained Berle, "and I'm a visual comic."
With his $200,000-a-year guarantee from NBC for the next quarter century, Berle didn't have to worry about money. Nor was there a dearth of jobs if he felt like working. He was still a big attraction in nightclubs and at the gaming palaces in Las Vegas. There were plenty of comedy roles for him in Hollywood films, and because he was a good, legitimate stage actor he toured the country in plays like The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Impossible Years (which I happen to have written).
He also emceed the "Kraft Music Hall" on television for a full season and during another season starred in a game show called "Jackpot Bowling."
As a major television personality, though, he was all washed up by the 1960s.
Another bitter pill for him to swallow was the embargo the United States slapped on Cuba after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis. The blockade meant Berle could no longer procure Cuban cigars.
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