The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado
Ninety-eight-year-old George Burns shares memories of his life.
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95
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Although they liked each other, there was a running feud between Burns and Groucho that revealed itself in various comic ways. Burns' favorite dish was sea bass and he always ordered it when he was having lunch at the Round Table. But every time Burns ordered sea bass in front of Groucho, who wasn't averse to making a corny pun if he thought he could get a laugh from the group, would start to sing in a loud voice, "If you can't sea bass every night, you can't see mama at all," a parody of the famous Sophie Tucker lyric, "You've got to see mama every night, or you can't see mama at all."
Burns thought it was funny the first time Groucho sang it and mildly funny the next time. But after Groucho kept it up every day for a month, Burns finally stopped ordering sea bass. He figured it was the only way to stop Groucho, who, once he latched onto a gag, loved to keep repeating it to bug his victim. "But I liked sea bass a little better than I liked your father," says Burns, "so one day at lunch I called the waiter over and whispered into his ear, 'bring me some sea bass.' And the waiter whispered back to me, 'if you can't sea bass every night, you can't see mama at all.' "
At a party one night, Burns and Groucho got into a discussion about who was the funniest comedian in history. Burns said Charlie Chaplin. Groucho said, "I think I am." Whereupon Burns shot back, "Well, if you think you're the funniest, then I must be, because I know I'm funnier than you." Groucho didn't talk to him for a month.
Although Burns loved to rib Groucho when he got the chance, he simply loved Harpo. They played golf together every afternoon before Burns gave it up. "I absolutely hated the game. I hated it because I was never very good at it. I just enjoyed the company. And I loved to sing while I was on the course. Harpo, on the other hand, was a good golfer. He shot in the low 80s regularly."
One day Burns was playing with Harpo, who was shooting the best round of his life. He was one under par for the first three holes. The fourth hole was a 600 yard par five, with a small green surrounded by sand traps at the top of a steep incline. It is considered to be the toughest hole on the course. Harpo's third shot landed in one of the traps around the green.
"Because I didn't want to disturb Harpo or make him nervous, I stayed at the bottom of the hill while he climbed to the top of the hill and got ready to hit his ball out of the trap," remembers Burns. "Suddenly he looked down at me standing at the bottom of the hill and said, 'what are you doing down there, George?' I called back, 'you're one under par. I don't want to upset you by watching you hit out of the trap.' And he said, 'you are upsetting me. Come on up here, like you always do.' So I told him OK and I trudged up the hill and stood on the edge of the trap while he was preparing to strike the ball. I looked the other way so I wouldn't upset him. But then he asked, 'why aren't you watching me, George, like you always do?' And I explained again, 'Harpo, I don't want to upset you. You're one under par.' And again he said, 'you are upsetting me. Do what you always do.' So just as he took his backswing, I started to sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in a very loud voice. And he missed the ball completely, which of course was the end of his under-par round. But we stayed friends anyway."
On an unusually hot August day, when the temperature was about 100 degrees in the shade, Harpo and Burns elected to play golf without their shirts. When they returned to the clubhouse, the manager reminded them that there was a club rule forbidding members to play in their bare chests. "That's an outrage," protested Burns. "We can go swimming on a public beach without a top, why do we have to wear one here?" "Sorry," said the manager. "A rule is a rule." The next day Harpo and Burns appeared on the course wearing shirts but sans pants--just their undershorts--and played 18 holes that way. When this news reached the manager, he intercepted these two grown delinquents on the 18th green and demanded an explanation. "You were right," said Harpo. "The rules say you have to wear a shirt, but they don't say a word about having to wear pants."
For George Burns, the '50s were more than just golf, bridge, sea bass and trying to top his peers at lunch. He was also busy making money. In 1955 Burns and Allen founded McCadden Corporation, which had its headquarters on the General Service Studio lot in the heart of Hollywood, to film television shows and commercials. Besides "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," which was very successful, the company produced for television "The Bob Cummings Show," "The People's Choice," starring Jackie Cooper; "Mona McClusky," starring Juliet Prowse and "Mister Ed," starring Alan Young and a talented "talking" horse. The "Burns and Allen Show" ran through 1958, when Gracie decided to retire because her heart condition was getting worse.
Gracie easily fit into the role of Hollywood housewife, throwing all her energy into raising, Ronnie and Sandra, who are now parents and grandparents themselves. Sandra is a kindergarten teacher in San Diego, California, and Ronnie is a television executive. George, meanwhile, continued on alone as the star of "The George Burns Show." That program wasn't quite so successful without Gracie, and the following television season Burns teamed with Connie Stevens in a series called "Wendy and Me," which might have made it if it hadn't been for the fact that it drew a time slot on NBC opposite the most successful sitcom of all time: "I Love Lucy."
After Gracie died of a heart attack in 1964, Burns immersed himself in work. His company coproduced the television series "No Time For Sergeants," based on the hit Broadway play. Simultaneously he toured the country playing nightclub and theater engagements with such diverse partners as Carol Channing, Dorothy Provine, Jane Russell, Connie Haines and Berle Davis. Burns also embarked on a series of solo concerts, playing university campuses, New York's Philharmonic Hall and winding up a successful season at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, where he wowed a capacity audience with his show-stopping songs, dances and jokes.
As Burns' 75th birthday approached, he enjoyed good health and had the stamina of a much younger man, although he confesses that he was beginning to spend more of his spare time visiting doctors. Notwithstanding, he continued doing his act around the country (also "in the city," as the old Martin and Lewis gag goes) and he was pleased to note that with age his popularity with the general public seemed to grow. "Everything has a price, however," philosophizes Burns. "With old age, it's losing so many of the people who meant the most to you."
By the early 1970s, many of the Round Table gang had left this world. Remaining members were Groucho, Danny Kaye, Jessel and Jack Benny, who was Burns' dearest friend. Benny and Burns had been extremely close since their early days in radio, when they had both moved to the West Coast and settled in Beverly Hills. Benny loved Burns because the latter could keep him in stitches most of the day. "All I had to do was say hello to Jack, and he'd fall on the floor in hysterics," recalled Burns.
Gracie and Mary Benny were close, too. The two couples not only exchanged dinner invitations several times a week, but they traveled to Europe together in the early '30s. On one of these trips, Mary Livingston Benny, who collected jewelry like a kid collects baseball cards, neglected to declare about $25,000 worth of precious gems she had picked up in Paris. The U.S. Customs Service caught the Bennys trying to smuggle jewels into the country and fined them heavily. This created headlines in the newspapers and contributed greatly to Jack Benny's reputation as a miser. "Which, of course, he wasn't," declares Burns. "He was one of the most generous men I've ever known."
In 1974, Benny, who was managed by Irving Fein at the time, signed to play one of the lead roles in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. But Benny, who was not feeling well (yet didn't know why), told Fein to let Burns fill in for him on a series of nightclub dates to which Benny had committed around the United States. "The Sunshine Boys is going to keep me busy for six months," Benny told Fein, "so why don't you give the work to George?"
Burns didn't need it for economic reasons, yet he gladly accepted the engagements because he enjoyed working and keeping busy. Burns has always believed that when you stop working, you shrivel up and die. "The happiest people I know are the ones that are still working. The saddest are the ones who are retired. Very few performers retire on their own. It's usually because no one wants them. Six years ago Sinatra announced his retirement. He's still working."
He also believes that every life has a few major events that change its direction. One of these events for Burns was the result of Jack Benny's misfortune.
In 1974, while preparing to play the role of Al Lewis, one of two cranky ex-vaudevillians in The Sunshine Boys, opposite Walter Matthau, Jack Benny died of cancer of the pancreas. Benny's quick-thinking manager (who would soon be Burns' manager) immediately pitched George for the role in the MGM film. Fortunately for everyone concerned--Burns, Matthau, Fein, MGM and Neil Simon--he landed the part, his first movie role since Honolulu in 1939. Burns proved to be a much better actor than his pal Benny. "Benny could only play himself," says Hal Goldman of his ex-boss. "You never believed him when he played a character. But George was able to forget who he was and be Al Lewis--with such credibility and humor that to no one's surprise he picked up an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Burns was 80 at the time. Said he in his acceptance speech, "This is all so exciting I've decided to keep making one movie every 36 years."
When The Sunshine Boys was released in November 1975, it broke the single-day box-office record at New York's Radio City Music Hall. In addition, Burns' notices were unanimously glowing. As a result, he didn't have to wait 36 years to do another film. In 1977 he was given the title role in Oh, God!, a film in which he was teamed delightfully with singer John Denver.
Oh, God! was also a smash, and Burns was on his way to a new career in films. He followed Oh, God! with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; Just You and Me, Kid with Brooke Shields; Going in Style with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg; Oh, God!--Book II and Oh, God!, You Devil in 1984.
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.
"Altogether it's a two-hour show," he explains. "Someone else opens the show, and I do the second half. I'm onstage for an hour.I do an hour of stand-up. Actually, I do 10 minutes standing up and 50 minutes sitting in a chair. Oh, occasionally, I stand up again to do a dance or put over a song. But mostly I sit down. A great invention, sitting down."
Burns is such a sellout at theaters and nightclubs that after playing three or four engagements a year at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas since 1984, the management recently signed him to a lifetime contract with the hotel. He's already agreed to do a show for them on the evening of his 100th birthday on January 20, 1996.
Two weeks after the announcement of that engagement, the entire booking sold out. "It's the earliest sellout in the history of show business," says Fein.
Burns doesn't believe he's being overly optimistic about being able to honor that engagement. (Fein has said that since Burns' setback in September he is recovering well.)
"I'm in good health...knock wood. I'm doing what I love to do and I lead a clean life. I get up every morning. I have a little breakfast. I eat a dish of prunes. I walk around my pool 15 times for exercise. Then I get dressed, and Conrad drives me to the office here. I stay until 12. Then I go to Hillcrest and have a little soup. I play bridge until 3. I go home and take a nap. I get up around 5. I get out of bed very quietly because I don't want to wake her up. (I lie a lot.) Then I have a couple of Martinis and smoke a cigar. Maybe I'll go out to dinner with friends...Barry Mirkin...Irving Brecher and his wife...to Chasen's or some other fancy restaurant. Or maybe I'll go to a friend's house. Of course I haven't many friends left whose houses I can go to anymore.
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