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The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado

Ninety-eight-year-old George Burns shares memories of his life.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 9)

Burns believes that one of the reasons he was able to play God with such conviction was because once he came very close to meeting Him--when he was 78 years old. He had been playing bridge at Hillcrest one afternoon when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He immediately quit the bridge table and went to his doctor's. The doctor took a cardiogram and rushed Burns to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where the best heart-surgical team in the business opened him up and did a triple bypass the following morning. At the time, Burns was the oldest person in the world to undergo a triple bypass and survive, according to Fein.

Not only did Burns survive the operation, but he had not had a sick day since then until he slipped in the bathtub last summer, which resulted in surgery this fall to relieve some swelling in his head. But his long run of good health may be a testimonial to the fact that he ignored his doctor's advice to quit cigar smoking. Burns was so grateful for the job done on him by Cedars-Sinai, that on his 90th birthday in 1986, he contributed his name and energy to a hospital fund-raising campaign. "Burns was made honorary chairman," explains Fein, "and we put a group together that raised over $100 million for Cedars." At the end of that fund-raising drive, Cedars-Sinai thanked the comedian by persuading the city of Los Angeles to rename a two-block street just west of the hospital, between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street, "George Burns Drive."

Moreover, Burns' name, footprints, handprints and cigar print are written in cement in the forecourt of the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. He also has three stars on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame--one for radio, one for film acting and one for his work as a recording artist.

Unlike most people his age, of which there are few, Burns does not believe in looking back or yearning for the good old days, although the name of his first song album for Mercury/Polygram might belie that: "I Wish I Was 18 Again."

"I Wish I Was 18 Again," written by Nashville composer Sunny Throckmorton especially for George Burns, was released as a single in 1980 and was an immediate hit and launched the comedian on a fifth career--that of a recording artist. He followed "I Wish I Was 18 Again" with a second album, George Burns In Nashville and encored with Young at Heart, an album that features the title song and the classic, "As Time Goes By." His rendition of "Young at Heart" was so touching that it was included on the soundtrack of a two-reel documentary short of the same name, which was about two people who find love and marriage in their 80s. The short won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, and Burns' voice on the soundtrack was a major contributor to its success.

Between turning out hit song albums and doing television specials with such guest stars as Matthau, Ann-Margret, Denver, Goldie Hawn, Johnny Carson and Hope, Burns has also managed to find time to become a best-selling author. The books he has turned out in collaboration with David Fisher and his live-in writer, Hal Goldman, include: Living It Up, They Still Love Me in Altoona; The Third Time Around; How to Live to Be 100 or More; The Ultimate Diet, Sex and Exercise Book; Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness; Dear George; Gracie: A Love Story; All My Best Friends, and his latest, Wisdom of the Nineties. Two of these tomes, Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness and Gracie: A Love Story, held positions on The New York Times' best-seller list for 18 and 20 weeks, respectively.

Today Burns occupies a unique position in show business. "I would say that George is the highest-earning person his age in the world," claims Fein. "Nobody at 98 is earning what he makes. There are old people with huge incomes, but it's from clipping coupons and stock dividends. But George is actually out there in the field earning it as an actor."

But Burns will not accept any more picture offers because, by his own admission, at his age it's difficult for him to remember lines in a movie script. That's why he sticks to doing his one-man show at Caesars Palace and in places like Cincinnati, North Carolina and Miami.

"I already know the jokes and the songs I'm going to sing. I've been doing them for 50 years in theaters. Invite me to your house to dinner and I'll do them in your living room, too. But only if you'll let me smoke a cigar."

"How long a show do you do?" I ask him.

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