George Burns' final wish isn't hard for cigar lovers to understand. He was buried with three of his favorite cigars. He simply didn't want to be without his constant companions of the last 70 years of his life, especially on the day of his reunion with Gracie, his stage partner and his only wife, who died in 1964. On any given day, he smoked 10 to 15 cigars, usually El Productos (he liked them because they stayed lit on stage), and you have to assume that he figured once he got to the promised land, he wouldn't have to worry about his supply. That final anecdote from his life illustrates one very key thing--Burns' love of cigars was more than just a habit. More than any other celebrity in the United States, George Burns was identified with cigars.
Most of us grew up with George Burns. Whether it was his television comedy show with Gracie back in the 1950s, "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," or his 1974 Oscar-winning performance for best supporting actor in The Sunshine Boys with Walter Matthau, the trademark Burns comedy was lively and engaging. With his hit in The Sunshine Boys, Burns went on to a second career in Hollywood with hits like Oh, God!, Oh, God! Book II and Oh, God! You Devil, as well as roles in Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Just You and Me, Kid with Brooke Shields and Going In Style with Art Carney. Before that series of films, he had last made a movie in 1938, a hiatus of 36 years. As he said in his Oscar acceptance speech, "This is all so exciting I've decided to keep making one movie every 36 years." At the time, he was 79 years old.
In that statement, Burns captured his own essence, the quality that made him so attractive to his adoring public. There was never any desire to lay back, rest on his laurels or stop doing what he loved best because he was too old or too tired. His energy was infectious, and all who saw him came away with a renewed sense of the possibilities of being alive. Here was a man who, years in advance, signed to do a show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on the night of his 100th birthday. He passed that milestone this past January, but he couldn't make the show. It wasn't because he didn't want to--his age had finally caught up with him.
He was the last of his generation of Hollywood comics. For years, that group--which included Jack Benny, Al Jolson, George Jessel, Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx, Danny Thomas and Danny Kaye, among others--met as often as they could for lunch at the Hillcrest Country Club in West Los Angeles. Their group was known as the Comedians' Round Table, and most of them were cigar smokers. As more than one writer has suggested, it may have very well been the funniest place on the planet to eat lunch, with each one trying to outdo the other. Who was the funniest? Well, Burns himself thought Jessel won that prize, but no one counted out Burns with the twinkle in his eye and the dry delivery.
The Hillcrest Country Club also highlighted Burns' enduring passion for cigars, even in the face of mounting anti-tobacco sentiment in his hometown. After attempts were made to ban smoking at the club, an exception was passed for cigar smoking in the card room for anyone over 95. One person benefited from that exception. It showed Burns' willingness to stand up for his rights as a cigar smoker. Although he said many times that he wouldn't smoke if it bothered someone, he kept insisting on the privilege to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes. It's a lesson that every cigar smoker should follow.
We'll miss George Burns. He was a leader in the long struggle to restore the glamour and luster to the pleasures of smoking cigars. In what turned out to be his final lengthy interview, Burns told Cigar Aficionado: "I find you have to take each day as it comes and be thankful for who's left and whatever you can still do. That's why I'm so grateful that after all these years, there's still a demand for me."
In our book, George, you'll always be a star with top billing.