By 11 a.m., George Burns is sitting in his Hollywood office schmoozing on the phone and finishing off cigar No. 3.
He's just nixed an offer to work with Bob Hope in Australia for five weeks. "Too tough," he explains. "I'm 94. I faint twice a day, sometimes three times a day."
A long pause, then the gravelly, smoke-filled voice breaks into laughter. Although he lacks a stage and a large audience, the elder statesman of comedy can't help but turn a phone conversation into a jokefest.
On being interviewed: "It's very nice to be 94 years old and get out of bed to be interviewed. At 94, you can't make any money in bed."
On the new comedians: "You mean the younger kids like Milton Berle and Danny Thomas? Oh, they'll all make it."
During his 86 years in the business, Mr. Burns has become known as the self-deprecating master of the one-liner, a best-selling author and Oscar-winning actor. But the show-biz legend, who will perform at Lifesongs 1990 on Sunday (see box for details), offers one simple reason forhis success.
"I love show business," he says. "That keeps me going. Lemme tell you something, and this goes for all your readers, fall in love with what you're going to do for a living."
For Mr. Burns -- whose real name is Nathan Birnbaum -- the love affair began in 1904 on New York's Lower East Side. His father had died and the 8-year-old, born ninth of 12 children, wanted to earn extra money. After selling newspapers, running errands and shining shoes, he found his real calling: performing. With several friends, he formed the Peewee Quartet and combed the streets looking for people willing to shell over a coin for a song.
By age 14, Mr. Burns had left school for vaudeville.
He tried impersonations, trick roller skating, Latin dancing and even played in a trained seal act. Marquees, at various times, listed him as Wily Delight, Jed Jackson and Captain Betts before he eventually settled on George Burns.
"I was very lucky," he recalls. "In those days, there were places to be bad. There are no places to be bad today. The only place you can play today is the comedy clubs and 'The Johnny Carson Show.' But in vaudeville in those days, they had thousands and thousands of theaters. ... When I started in show business, it would take you seven or eight years to play every theater. And I was bad for a lot of years, but I didn't think I was bad ... I thought the audience was bad."
His luck changed when he teamed up with an unemployed Irish-American actress named Gracie Allen. She played the scatterbrain; he was the straight man. "I was able to think of the things and Gracie was able to do them," he says. "That's what made us a good combination."
An on- and off-stage combination, that is.
After performing together for three years, the couple married in 1926. Over the next 36 years, they made movies, created a legendary radio show and TV program, and formed their own multimillion-dollar production company.
"Before I went on the stage to work with Gracie, I used to walk out by myself to see which way the wind was blowing so the smoke from my cigar didn't go in Gracie's face," Mr. Burns recalls affectionately. "If I blew smoke in Lucille Ball's face, she'd blow it back. But ... Gracie, she was very fragile. She weighed about 95 pounds, dainty and beautiful. I was very lucky."
The couple adopted two children, and today Mr. Burns has sevengrandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After Ms. Allen's death from a heart attack in 1964, Mr. Burns submerged himself in his career -- going on to win an Oscar for his supporting role as an ex-vaudevillian in "The Sunshine Boys;" playing God in the movie, "Oh, God," and its sequels, and penning numerous best-sellers, including "Gracie: A Love Story," affectionate memoir about his wife and their marriage.
He still lives in the Beverly Hills home the couple shared and visits Gracie's grave once a month. "I talk to Gracie sometimes. I tell her a joke, but she doesn't laugh. She's heard them before," he says.
His days now follow a similar pattern: Arrive at the office by 10 a.m. Leave by noon. Have lunch at a Los Angeles country club. Play bridge. Nap. Drink two martinis. Eat dinner. Read. Watch TV.
In between, he makes time to polish off 10 to 20 cigars.
Although he says his favorite performers are Hope, Berle and Danny Thomas, he's diplomatic about the current state of comedy -- particularly controversial funny men like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison.
"You do what the people like, and people like them," he says simply.
As for the future, he's talked to Warner Bros. about starring in "Oh, God -- Book IV," he says. "If they pay me, I'll come down again."
He's adamant about one thing, though: not remarrying. Despite the bevy of curvaceous models he's seen with and the recognition as one of "America's sexiest bachelors" by Harper's Bazaar, getting hitched again is out of the question.
"I'm too old," he says. "Even if I got married I couldn't do anything. I don't think a girl would be excited watching me smoke a cigar."
George Burns will perform at Lifesongs 1990, an AIDS benefit at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at 7 p.m. Sept. 16. Eartha Kitt, impersonator Jimmy James, and Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra also will be featured. Tickets range from $25 to $100. For more information,call 337-7930.