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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 8)

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.

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