The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado
As Cigar Aficionado magazine approaches 20 years in print, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable stories we have published over the years. In this step back into our vaults, we go to 1994, when we put legendary comedian George Burns on our cover. It was one of his final interviews. Few people in history have been more closely associated with cigars, and when Burns was buried, he was wearing his finest suit, complete with three cigars in his breast pocket.
Comedian George Burns is not only a living legend, he's living proof that smoking between 10 and 15 cigars a day for 70 years contributes to one's longevity.
"If I'd taken my doctor's advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn't have lived to go to his funeral," deadpans the 98-year-old comedian from a chair in his Hollywood office the morning I show up to discuss his career as one of the world's most renowned cigar smokers. As if to emphasize his point, he takes a puff of the cigar in his hand and exhales the smoke in my direction. He knows I couldn't object to secondhand smoke since I had spent so many years in the company of another renowned cigar aficionado, my father, Groucho Marx.
He flicks a cigar ash into an ashtray and takes a sip of tea from the teacup that is perched precariously on the edge of his desk near his right hand, which is partially covered by a gauze bandage. I start to shake that hand, then think better of it, withdraw mine and ask him if he has injured his. "No, I just have a little itch," he explains. "The bandage keeps me from scratching it."
George isn't sitting at his desk in the usual manner, but to the left side of it facing visitors, in a straight-backed chair that doesn't look comfortable. He is dressed informally in slacks and a sport shirt, his gray hairpiece is immaculately groomed and his eyes twinkle behind perfectly round, black eyeglass frames.
Burns seems slightly smaller than he had when I'd last seen him 10 years before when he was doing a guest shot on "Alice," the television series I wrote for. His face seems thinner, as if he is on a diet of too much Lean Cuisine. His loafered feet barely reach the carpet. He is frailer all over, as if he has shrunk with age.
"Would you like a cup of tea or coffee, kid?" Burns asks me as I sit down in a chair near him and take out my Sony and set it on record. "It's decaffeinated." As I accept his offer of coffee, I am flattered that Burns refers to me as "kid," but am immediately deflated when I remember that he calls everybody "kid" when he can't remember names. Legend has it that Burns once walked up to Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount, at Hillcrest Country Club and suddenly forgot who the gentleman was. "How are you doing, kid?" asked the quick-thinking Burns. At the time Zukor was 103 years old.
"Bring Arthur a cup of coffee," Burns instructs Hal Goldman, a former writer for Jack Benny who now works for him and who is sitting in a chair nearby monitoring our conversation. Now I really am flattered, for Burns has, after all, remembered who I am and even why I am here. "I understand you want to know about my cigar smoking," he says, blowing more smoke past my nose.
"Yes I do," I say. "What kind of cigars do you smoke?"
He looks at the half-finished stogie smoldering between his fingers and says, "I smoke a domestic cigar. It's a ..."
He is interrupted by Irving Fein, his manager, who walks in from the outer office to tell Burns to pick up the phone. "It's your interview with Cincinnati," he reminds him. Burns looks at me apologetically, and I say, "that's OK, George. I'm a little early."
His wood-paneled office seems to be furnished in Early Sears, Roebuck--a sofa, a Naugahyde armchair on which I am sitting, another chair and a couple of inexpensive tables and lamps. The room is coldly lighted by overhead fluorescent bulbs and the walls are covered with framed black-and-white photos of George with various celebrities and co-workers. There is a poster from one of his most successful films, Oh God!
A number of the latest celebrity biographies are heaped on the coffee table in front of the sofa. The room smells of cigar smoke. The whole setting reminds me of a low-rent film producer's office I had once visited. Functional, but not exactly the plush surroundings one would associate with a man of George Burns' means, reputation and good taste. I know he has taste because I have been in his home, and it is beautifully decorated and furnished.
"George is playing Cincinnati next month," explains Goldman, a tall, pleasant man in his mid-60s, handing me a cup of instant decaffeinated. Burns hangs up the phone after about 10 minutes of doing his interview shtick with Cincinnati and turns back to me. "Now what was I saying?" "You were telling Arthur why you smoke domestic cigars," Fein calls from the other room.
"Oh, yes." Burns puffs on his cigar some more and says, "I smoke a domestic cigar. It's a good cigar. It's called an El Producto. Now the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I'm doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you're onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out. That's why I smoke El Productos. They stay lit."
"How much does an El Producto cost?" I ask.
"I don't know how much they cost today. I get them for nothing from the Tobacco Institute [in Washington, D.C.] ," replies Burns. "But about 10 years ago they sold for 33 cents apiece. Figure inflation in, and they're probably 50 cents apiece today."
"What kind of cigar did you smoke when you first started?"
"Any five-cent cigar. I was 14 years old. But I liked a nickel cigar called Hermosa Joses the best."
"Why did you start smoking cigars?" I ask.
"I smoked them because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they'd say, 'hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.' Of course, it's also a good prop on the stage. That's why so many performers, including your father, use them. When you can't think of what you are supposed to say next, you take a puff on your cigar until you do think of your next line."
"How many cigars did you smoke when you first started?"
"I'd say two cigars a week would last me. Hermosa Joses were long cigars, and I'd let them go out when I wasn't on the stage or trying to impress someone."
"Do you inhale cigar smoke?"
"No. I've never smoked a cigarette." He pauses while he puffs on his cigar and blows some smoke into the room. "Just cigars. They're better for you. Today I smoke about 10 cigars when I'm not working and 15 when I am working."
Over the years that would be a lot of cigars, more than 300,000, if you consider that Burns has been smoking for more than 70 years. That many cigars could run into big money. Of course, he explains, he wasn't doing well enough in show business to afford 10 cigars a day when he started. Out of necessity, Burns started working when he was seven years old.
The ninth of 12 children, Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896, on New York's Lower East Side. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue, but he didn't work very often.
When the cantor at the synagogue became ill, George's father filled in for him. But the regular cantor was a fairly healthy man, so George's father didn't get a crack at being the cantor very often. His great opportunity came during the flu epidemic of 1903. He was looking forward to getting a lot of work, but unfortunately he got the flu, too, and died.
As a result, Burns had to go to work part-time. He started out earning money shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers on street corners. His first taste of show business came when he landed a job, with three other contemporaries, at Rosenzweig Candy Store, making chocolate and strawberry syrups in the basement.
"We were all about the same age, six and seven," recalls Burns, "and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with, 'no more chocolate syrup. It's show business from now on.'
"We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats."
Burns quit school in the fourth grade to go into show business full-time. He tried various avenues of entertainment. By the time he was 14, he'd been a trick roller skater, a dance teacher, a singer and an adagio dancer in small-time vaudeville. He also took up cigar smoking seriously and changed his name from Nathan Birnbaum to George Burns.
In those days, people used coal to cook and heat their homes. One of the biggest suppliers of coal to Manhattan's Lower East Side was a company called Burns Brothers, whose trucks delivered coal to various customers. Coal was expensive, and Burns' widowed mother, who took in washing and did other menial jobs, couldn't afford to buy it. So George and a friend took to stealing chunks of coal off the Burns Brothers' truck when the driver wasn't around, stashing it in their knickers and delivering it to Mrs. Birnbaum in that fashion.
All the kids in the neighborhood were aware of what George and his friend were doing, and started referring to them as the "Burns Brothers." George liked the way Burns sounded and adopted the name for himself. He got the inspiration for George from his older brother, whose name actually was George. George went better with Burns and looked better on a vaudeville marquee than "Nathan Birnbaum," which immediately stamped him as Jewish. Jews weren't too popular in Burns' Irish neighborhood at the turn of the century. Over his brother's protests, he kept the name George.
Burns usually worked with a girl, sometimes doing an adagio dance, sometimes just funny patter. George's act was constantly changing from dancing to attempts at comedy and didn't seem to be going anyplace until he met Gracie Allen in 1923, when the two of them formed a team.
"I was about 26 at the time," recalls Burns. "I never knew Gracie's age. I knew her birthday, but not her age. Anyway, we were playing a split week at a vaudeville house on Long Island and were on the bill with an act called Rene Arnold and Co. Rene was the headliner. But it was a small-time theater: four acts and a movie. I don't remember what our act was called. Brown and Williams or Brown and Brown or Williams and Brown. Or maybe even Burns and Brown. I was always changing it to confuse the booking agents. If they recognized the name of my act, they wouldn't hire me. Anyway, it was something like that.
"The first time I saw Gracie she came backstage to visit Rene. The two of them were rooming together. Two Catholic girls. Gracie was an Irish-American lass who called herself an actress. She was quite pretty, but out of work. Rene said to Gracie, 'these guys are breaking up Wednesday night.' She was referring to me and my partner. 'Why don't you go out front and take a look at their act? You might want to work with one of them.' So Gracie went out front and saw the act. She liked me, and I liked her. Not only was she attractive, but she didn't object to my smoking cigars."
When they first teamed up, George was the comic and Gracie was the "straight" woman. But they switched roles after their first performance in Hoboken, New Jersey, when she drew all the big laughs. As a result, their act quickly evolved into what was known in vaudeville circles as a "Dumb Dora" act.
"What made us a good combination was that the audience loved Gracie, and I was able to think of the things for Gracie to say. For instance, I wrote a joke once. I think it's the best joke I ever wrote. At the time we were just a small-time act. We walked out on the stage, holding hands. While we were holding hands, she'd wave into the wings with her other hand and motion for someone to come out. A good-looking man would suddenly appear and put his arms around Gracie. And then she'd put her arms around him, and they kissed. And then he'd walk into the wings. And Gracie would turn to me and say, 'who's that?'
What made that a great joke was that with just one line, the audience knew Gracie's character."
Another of Gracie's character lines that George was crazy about was something she said on one of their radio shows. She was saying that a person should stick to his guns no matter how much opposition or ridicule he meets. "They all laughed at Joan of Arc," said Gracie, "but she didn't care. She went right ahead and built it."
Burns and Allen worked together, growing more and more successful with their Dumb Dora act and establishing a reputation for themselves until they wound up playing the Palace, the fulfillment of every vaudevillian's dream. With success came love, and George and Gracie were married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland.
Here I interrupt George's story, by asking, "did you know that my father used to date Gracie before the two of you were married?"
"No I didn't. Where did you hear such a thing?"
I told him that my mother had told me. She had been my Uncle Zeppo's dancing partner in the Marx Brothers' first successful vaudeville act, "Home Again." Zeppo liked my mother and took her to dinner one night at Luchow's, a well-known German restaurant in Manhattan. Zeppo introduced her to my father, who was sitting at a table having dinner with a young actress named Gracie Allen.
"Gracie never told me about that," says George with a faraway look in his eyes. "I'll just have to ask her about it the next time I see her."
George is referring to the monthly visits he pays to the vault at Forest Lawn cemetery where his late wife is entombed in the wall. Once a month--ever since Gracie died following a heart attack in 1964--Burns gets into his Cadillac limousine and instructs Conrad, his six-foot-six-inch chauffeur to drive him to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. There in the entombment chamber he sits on a marble bench in front of Gracie's vault and lights a cigar. (In the entombment chamber he doesn't have to worry about polluting the air with secondhand smoke. "Who can object?" he quips.) Then he says a little prayer and tells Gracie everything he's done in the past month.
Burns believes that's the least he can do for her, because without any question in his mind, the biggest turning point in his life was when he met Gracie Allen.
"Until Gracie came along I was going no place. No matter whatI tried the audience disliked it. I got so used to being disliked I thought I was doing well. I didn't know what failure was. How could I? I never had any success to compare it to.
"But the good things for me started with Gracie and for the next 38 years they only got better. It wasn't a marriage we had to work at. I made her laugh, and when she was around I was happy. And then one day she wasn't around anymore. It still doesn't seem right that she went so young and that I have been given so many years to spend without her."
Until he was 93, Burns didn't need Conrad to drive him to Forest Lawn. He did his own driving. But when he had four accidents in one month, he decided it was time to get out from behind the wheel--even though only three of those accidents were his fault.
Burns still hasn't been able to figure out why the Department of Motor Vehicles allowed him to drive until he was 93. As a matter of fact, he isn't sure why he was ever allowed to drive. "I was a lousy driver when I was 33," he asserts. "I not only went too fast, but my mind was always on shows and scripts. I was constantly making left turns while I was signaling right turns. But at least in those days I could see over the steering wheel. By 93, I had shrunk quite a lot. My car was known as the Phantom Cadillac. People would see it whizzing by and they would swear there was no driver.
"Look, who am I kidding? I kept driving because I wouldn't admit to myself that I'd become too old to do it. It's a thing called male pride. It's the same reason I can't give up working today. The only difference is I can't kill anybody if a joke misfires."
By the time Burns and Allen hit their stride in the late '20s, they were "killing" a lot of audiences in big-time vaudeville. But their big break came when they were given a chance to substitute for the ailing, sour-faced comedian Fred Allen in a one-reel comedy short for Columbia Pictures in 1929.
The short was called I Wanna Buy a Tie and it was based on one of their vaudeville sketches in which George walks up to the department-store counter and attempts to buy a tie from Gracie, a dumb saleswoman. Gracie tries to sell him everything else in the store except a tie.
The short was so successful that the two of them wound up starring in 13 additional one-reelers over the next couple of years. Film audiences liked their brand of comedy--with the result that Paramount signed them to move to the West Coast and appear in features. Mostly they were the kind of features that had an ensemble of stars, lots of music and comedy yet very little story. George and Gracie didn't star in them, but had cameo or supporting roles.
Their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s were: The Big Broadcast of 1932; International House in 1933; Six of a Kind in 1934; The Big Broadcast of 1936; The Big Broadcast of 1937; A Damsel in Distress in 1937 and College Swing in 1938, in which Bob Hope made one of his early film appearances.
In a strange way, Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Hope and Crosby "road" pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with a young crooner named Bing Crosby. But the story didn't seem to fit George and Gracie, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite their script to fit two male co-stars--Hope and Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore and it made motion-picture history.
George and Gracie's last film together was Honolulu in 1939. During their movie period they also continued to play vaudeville and nightclub dates. But by 1932, big-time vaudeville was on its last legs. Fortunately for Burns and Allen, Columbia Broadcasting System liked their one-reel movie shorts and offered to star them in a radio program, beginning in February 1932.
The Burns and Allen program remained on the air, usually with top 10 ratings, until 1950, when they abandoned radio to go into television for CBS.
George and Gracie had a personal life, too. Unable to have children because of Gracie's frail health--she had a congenital heart condition--they adopted two babies from the Cradle in Evanston, Illinois. The Cradle was the "in" place for Hollywood celebrities to adopt babies in those days.
George and Gracie named their infants Ronnie and Sandra and were so delighted finally to be parents that when they found out that their good friends Bob and Dolores Hope wanted to adopt, they recommended that they, too, try the Cradle. "You'll have to pick them up personally, though," George told the Hopes. "They don't deliver." Over the ensuing years, the Hopes adopted four babies from the Cradle. "And Gracie and I never even got a cut," jokes Burns.
Burns looks at me sheepishly and says, "that wasn't too funny. But it's only 10 in the morning. I don't get funny until around 11:30. And by noon I'm a riot."
By noon Burns is usually on his way to Hillcrest Country Club in West Los Angeles to have lunch and play a game of bridge. When I ask him whether all the smoking restrictions in restaurants and country clubs bother him, he gives me a look and deadpans, "Not at all. You see, for me, Hillcrest passed a special bylaw: anyone over 95 is allowed to smoke a cigar in the card room."
"How about when you're not at Hillcrest?" I ask him.
"If people object, I don't smoke," he shoots back.
In palmier days, Burns ate lunch every noon at a corner table in the Men's Grill known to all the other members of Hillcrest as the Comedians' Round Table. The only members allowed to eat there were the comedians who belonged to Hillcrest--Jack Benny, Al Jolson, George Jessel, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Lou Holtz, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas and, of course, George Burns, who is the Round Table's sole survivor.
In the heyday of the Round Table, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, it was probably the most amusing place to lunch in all the world. Imagine sitting at a table with that group, each one trying to out-funny the other, and all but Harpo, Chico and Danny Kaye puffing on long, fragrant Havanas. If you didn't die laughing, you could have choked on the smoke.
"To me," declares Burns with no false modesty, "the funniest guy at the table was Jessel. I hate to say this, because your father thought he was the funniest, but Jessel was funnier. He had a strange slant and he didn't tell jokes per se. But he had a delivery that nobody else could emulate. For example, I was sitting at the table one day--I'm going back a lot of years--and it was only nine o'clock in the morning. Jessel was at the bar. He was having his third brandy. I said to him, 'Jesus, George, nine o'clock in the morning and you're already on your third brandy. What is this?' And he said, 'Didn't you hear? Norma Talmadge died.' (Norma Talmadge was his former wife.) 'That was 35 years ago,' I reminded him. And he replied, 'I still miss her.'
"He was a strange fellow," Burns goes on without missing a beat. He took a shot at a doctor once--the one who Norma ran away with. And he missed the doctor and hit a gardener two blocks away. The gardener took Jessel to court. And the judge asked him, 'Mr. Jessel, how can you aim at a doctor and hit a gardener two blocks away?' And Jessel replied, 'Your honor, I'm an actor, not Buffalo Bill.' "
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.
"I find you have to take each day as it comes and be thankful for who's left and whatever you can still do. I have my daughter Sandy and my son Ronnie. I have seven grandchildren and five great great-grandchildren. They keep me busy and so does my work. Without that, I'd be lost. That's why I'm so grateful that after all these years there's still a demand for me."
The interview is running longer than either of us had planned--after all, covering 98 years takes time--and I notice that Burns is beginning to glance impatiently at his wristwatch.
"One final question," I assure him. "Do you miss your friends at Hillcrest?"
"Yes I do," he replies. "I'm the only one left." He puffs on his cigar thoughtfully for a moment and then adds, "I guess that makes me the funniest one at the Round Table."
Arthur Marx is the author of three books and two plays about his father, Groucho.