Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
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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.
"I knew two weeks before it happened that I'd no longer be able to buy Cuban cigars," Berle told me. "So I decided to put in a supply of them. I went to Dunhill's and to every great department store in New York, like Saks, Bloomingdale's and places that had great tobacco departments. I was determined to buy up as many as I could. When I went into Saks and asked if they had any Upmanns, the salesman said he had a few left. I told him to trot them out, as I'd like to sample one. Which I did. But after a couple of puffs I pronounced, 'this is not an Upmann.' The salesman, a very polite young man, insisted that it was. 'Well, it doesn't taste like an Upmann,' I told him. Now there was a guy with a little moustache sitting on a couch nearby. He interrupted me and said, 'that's an Upmann.' Well, I got testy and cracked, 'who asked you? I'm buying cigars, and I'm an expert on Upmanns. And I can tell you this is not an Upmann. I don't know what it is, but this is not an Upmann.' The guy on the couch said, 'but I can tell you it is an Upmann.' Finally, I turned at him and yelled, 'will you shut up? I've had enough of you. Who the hell are you, anyway?' And he turned to me with a straight face and said, 'my name is Upmann. H. Upmann. And my father started the Upmann Cigar Company.'
"I was never so embarrassed in my life. I felt like crawling out of the place."
Today, embargo or no, Berle is still smoking very expensive Cuban cigars. He wouldn't reveal his source, but while we were talking he opened up his bag and took out a leather cigar case that contained five large cigars and handed me one. It was long and thin.
"That's a Cohiba," he said. "The kind Castro smokes. Or smoked. I understand he's given them up."
I put the side of the Cohiba to my nose and smelled it. But Berle said, "no, no, you don't smell a cigar that way. Stick the end of it into your nostril."
So I did, and it smelled the same. Then I asked him how much a cigar like that cost. "Five bucks?" I ventured.
Berle looked at me as if I were nuts and exclaimed, "would you believe 25?"
I nearly choked upon hearing the price. "But you can't buy them. They're embargoed," he went on. "I have a connection."
"How many of those do you smoke a day?" I asked.
"Four. Maybe five."
"Well, that certainly can't hurt you," I told him.
"Of course not. Cigars are fine as long as you don't inhale them [or sit next to George Burns]. That's why I'm always after my friends to give up cigarettes. That's what kills them. That's what killed Ruth."
While we were on the subject, I had to ask him what he thought of all the restrictions on smoking today.
"I don't like it. I don't believe that secondhand smoke gives you cancer. They've never proved it.
"You know, when Bush was president, he appointed Arnold Schwarzenegger national chairman of the Council on Physical Fitness. Schwarzenegger smokes cigars, you know, though he doesn't want the public to know it. Anyway, Arnold appointed me spokesman for physical fitness for older Americans.
"Recently I've been going around to all the senior-citizen places speaking on the subject. I tell people that I smoke cigars, but tell them to lay off cigarettes. And I mention that I keep healthy by exercising. Every day I run on the treadmill and punch the bag. I used to be an amateur boxer."
At the time of our interview, Berle was producing a videotape starring himself called "The Milton Berle Low Impact/High Comedy Workout for Seniors."
In it he leads a group of oldsters ranging in age from 70 to 101 through some fairly strenuous exercises.
Berle not only acts in the tape, he directed it, wrote the material, set the key lights, chose the camera angles and is in charge of its distribution. Shades of his "Texaco Star Theater" days.
Berle's comedy-workout tape will be in video stores by the time this is published. According to those who've seen the finished product, it's not only helpful and inspirational, it's extremely funny.
After Ruth died, Milton Berle was a fairly lonely man. Many of his friends from the Round Table gang were gone, including Groucho and Jack Benny, and so were all of his brothers, except Phil, who is 94 and lives in Hollywood.
As a result, Berle found himself spending more and more of his afternoons in a booth reserved especially for him in a corner of the dining room at the Beverly Hills Friars Club.
He eats lunch there when he's in town, smokes cigars and exchanges jokes and show-business talk with his cronies, such as singer Tony Martin, comedy writer Buddy Arnold (who wrote the Texaco song) and some younger members, such as Frank Ferrante--who portrayed Groucho in Groucho: A Life in Review, off-Broadway--and Joe Vitrelli, a character actor who has played Mafia types in films like Goodfellas and Bullets Over Broadway.
Within reach of Berle's well-manicured right hand is a telephone on which he constantly fields business calls and offers to perform.
And when he gets the opportunity, he tries to convert friends who are hooked on cigarettes to cigars. One such friend is Vitrelli.
Berle likes Vitrelli and hated to see him killing himself with cigarettes. So every time they met, Berle would walk up to him and yank the cigarette out of his mouth. One day Berle handed him a Churchill-sized Romeo y Julieta cigar and told him to try it.
"Hey, dis smells good," he told Berle, who showed him how to cut the end and light it.
A few days later, Vitrelli walked into the Friars and over to Berle's table with a cigar in his mouth. Berle congratulated him on making the switch and asked him what kind it was.
"It's the same as the one you gave me," said Vitrelli. "It's a Romeo and...uh...a Romeo and...uh..." Unable to recall the rest of it, he looked at Berle with a helpless expression and asked, "a Romeo and...uh...what's that fuckin' broad's name?"
Even after Ruth's demise, Berle maintained an active evening social life. As one of the last of the legendary comedians, he was a much-sought-after guest on the Bel Air party circuit at the tony homes of people like Aaron Spelling, Marvin Davis and David Geffen. Which is how he met Lorna Adams, his third wife--or fourth, depending on how many times you want to count his marriages to Joyce Mathews.
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