America says 'good night' to comedian George Burns Entertainer beloved for wry, easy manner dies at 100 in Calif.

March 10, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

George Burns, the beloved cigar-puffing comedian whose career spanned vaudeville, radio, movies and television, died yesterday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Mr. Burns, 100, was the foremost comic "straight man" of his time in a partnership with his late wife, the scatterbrained Gracie Allen. He began a new solo career in show business when he was nearly 80.

When he was well into his 90s, Mr. Burns announced with his customary brio that he had arranged to celebrate his 100th birthday, on Jan. 20, 1996, with an engagement at the London Palladium. That being the case, he noted, he could not possibly die -- "I'm booked," he explained.

The diminutive, gravel-voiced Mr. Burns, delivering doses of his dry humor and occasionally breaking into a fragment of some long-forgotten vaudeville ditty, all the while savoring a huge cigar, was a beloved figure to several generations of Americans.

The Burns and Allen team rose to the heights of the entertainment world in the 1920s and remained there, whether in vaudeville, movies, radio or television, until Miss Allen's retirement in 1959.

After Miss Allen died in 1964 at the age of 58, Mr. Burns continued to perform on television and in concerts and nightclubs. In 1975, when he was 79, having undergone major heart surgery, Mr. Burns made a triumphant movie comeback in Neil Simon's "Sunshine Boys," in the role of a retired vaudeville performer, and began his remarkable second career.

He had been absent from the screen in a leading role for 35 years, but he won an Academy Award as best supporting actor, a coup that led to new film roles. He also appeared in annual television specials and was a guest on many other programs.

Mr. Burns and Miss Allen were products of that golden age in vaudeville that produced many comedians who successfully made the transition to motion pictures, radio and television.

As one of America's most successful comedy teams, Mr. Burns and Miss Allen were millionaires several times over.

In the 1950s, when theirs was one of the top-rated television shows, Mr. Burns added to their fortune by forming a production company that filmed their show and others.

The Burns and Allen comedy team came into being in 1922, but Mr. Burns had been in show business for about 15 years before that.

Mr. Burns, whose original name was Nathan Birnbaum, was born on Jan. 20, 1896, on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the ninth of 12 children.

As a child, he and a pal would pick up bits of coal from the streets to take home. Friends, on seeing the boys' knickers bulging with coal, would call out, "Here come the Burns Brothers," a reference to the name of a coal company that served the neighborhood. The nickname stuck.

Later, following the vogue of the times, Mr. Burns appeared in vaudeville as a trick roller skater and a member of Latin and ballroom dance teams.

He was part of a song-and-dance act at a theater in Newark, N.J., when he was introduced to Miss Allen in 1922.

Although she was only 16, Miss Allen had four years of vaudeville experience, playing Irish colleens. Mr. Burns persuaded her to join him, with Miss Allen playing his straight "man." But it soon became apparent that Miss Allen was a natural comedian, and Mr. Burns rewrote their material to give his new partner most of the laughs.

By 1926, when they were married, Mr. Burns and Miss Allen had become stellar attractions in vaudeville.

Their radio debut came in 1929, when they were appearing at the Palladium in London. On their show, which began on NBC in 1932 and lasted until 1950, Mr. Burns cultivated Miss Allen's characterization of the scatterbrained nitwit.

Their patented humor carried over into movies. They played themselves in more than a score of films, which included "The Big Broadcast" series of 1932, 1936 and 1937, "International House" (in 1933, with W. C. Fields), "Many Happy Returns" (1934), "A Damsel in Distress" (in 1937, with Fred Astaire) and "College Swing" (1938).

"The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" made the transition from radio to television, on CBS in 1950, and it traveled well. After Miss Allen's retirement in 1958, Mr. Burns continued the television show for a season, working with their son, Ronald.

His son, of Los Angeles, and his daughter, Sandra Luckman of San Diego, survive him, as do seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

In 1960, he teamed with Carol Channing for nightclub appearances, and later appeared on television, but his days as a major performer had seemingly ended.

After "The Sunshine Boys" won him an Oscar, he appeared in pictures including "Oh, God!," a 1977 film in which he played God, "Just You and Me, Kid" (1979) and "Going in Style" (1979).

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