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Golden Oldie : How George Burns, Almost 93, Was Reborn in a Town Obsessed by Youth

<i> Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor of this magazine. </i>

ON A JETLINER HEADED FROM Reno to Los Angeles, George Burns is reading a Newsweek cover story about the troubled life of the late John Lennon. “Drugs?” Burns suddenly blurts out, his voice rat tling like a loose muffler. “Why did John Lennon want to take drugs? He was at the top; he had everything.”

It’s suggested that perhaps the pressure of overwhelming fame was too much for Lennon. “What pressures?” Burns wants to know. He dismisses the suggestion with a little flip of his hand.

He pauses and takes a sip of his Bloody Mary. A look of confusion flickers in his dark blue eyes. “Listen,” he says, “if you’re a dress cutter and you cut women’s dresses all day long and you don’t make any money and you can’t feed your family . . . then you take drugs. But John Lennon, he was at the top.”

But couldn’t Lennon’s emotionally disrupted childhood have been a factor? “No,” says Burns, sounding mystified by such psychobabble. “You get beyond those things, leave them behind you. You grow up.”

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It’s inconceivable to Burns that Lennon surrendered to his own demons in the face of critical acclaim; Burns has suffered more than a few of his own traumas, yet managed to survive and conquer them. Even though he never mentions it without wry humor, he experienced some bleak days growing up in a poor Jewish neighborhood on New York’s Lower East Side. From the age of 7 until his late 20s, Burns was a bottom-of-the-bill song-and-dance man. Then, he paired up with Gracie Allen, and suddenly, he was half of a husband-and-wife comedy team on a 38-year winning streak. In 1964, the luck ran out: Allen died of heart failure, and Burns experienced the indignity of a decade-long downward slide as he worked on developing a one-man act. “After Gracie died,” says Mort Lachman, a veteran comedy writer and executive producer of such sitcoms as “All in the Family” and “Kate and Allie,” “George had to learn from scratch, start all over again. It took him 10 years to do it. Anybody else would have tried it and quit. But George stayed with it. And he got better and better and better.”

In 1976, when Burns won the Academy Award for his role in “The Sunshine Boys,” it was more than just the end of Burns’ career slump, Lachman says. “It was like the phenomenal rebirth of a human being. To me, that’s the unusual part about George. He became a major part of the entertainment world. Twice.”

Today, George Burns may be the most beloved man in Hollywood. Wherever he goes, people stick to him like static cling. Among comedians, he currently holds the sixth-highest “Q” rating (a measure of audience appeal and familiarity widely used in the entertainment industry), one notch below Eddie Murphy’s. His latest book, “Gracie: A Love Story,” co-authored by David Fisher, flew to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List only three weeks after publication. Last month, Burns received the Kennedy Center’s prestigious lifetime achievement award. Tonight, he will be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in a ceremony to be broadcast Jan. 23, three days after his 93rd birthday.

Burns’ popularity reflects the rare choice in our culture to accept age over youth. He projects an optimistic attitude about the inevitability of aging. But his appeal goes beyond that. There is a sweetness that radiates from him, a quality that “Sunshine Boys” producer Ray Stark describes as “a tremendous inner truth. Acting, in my opinion, is secondary as far as movies are concerned. The first thing an audience wants is to believe and like someone. George has a wonderful, endearing honesty about him.”

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IT’S 9 ON AFriday night. Tomorrow evening, Burns will perform at Washington State University’s Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum in Pull man. But tonight he is eating dinner with Irving Fein, his 77-year-old manager, and Morty Jacobs, his pianist of 23 years, at a noisy hotel steakhouse called the Broiler Room.

“Watch this,” Fein stage-whispers. Like anyone who’s grown up poor, Burns loathes wasting food. So when he can’t finish his outsize brandy snifter of pink bay shrimp, he tries to trick Jacobs into eating it. “Try a couple forkfuls, Morty, it’s good,” coos Burns. Pause. “Here, Morty, have another bite.” Pause. When Jacobs ultimately confesses that he’s allergic to shellfish, Burns says: “Eat the shrimp and die, Morty. I’ve never seen anyone die right at the dinner table.” This is a typical Burns joke; it’s naughty-boy funny. At his age, he knows he can say whatever he wants and get away with it. Even in an interview, where Burns tends to rely heavily on ritualized anecdotes, he’ll occasionally let loose. He loves the shock value, that gasp of recognition that comes when his audience realizes that underneath that stiff, gray hairpiece is a mind that is always ticking.

Often, as he leaves a restaurant, he’ll work the room, moving from table to table, shaking hands and playfully instructing customers, “Don’t pay the check.” It’s the vaudevillian in him; he still gets a charge from live crowds. And they love him, perhaps partly because he is open, without the wall of arrogance so many celebrities erect to keep the public at a distance. Burns returns their interest by making steady eye contact and giving his usual hello-wave, a stiffened thumb and four waggling fingers. But he also points out that “people love me because they know I like them and because I’ve been around for a thousand years.” Burns’ act is as comfortably familiar as his appearance; his long-lived image as a grandfatherly scamp has virtually reached registered-trademark status. Give or take a new tune or an updated gag, he has been doing the same material for at least 15 years. What’s remarkable about the act--a well-polished collection of songs, witty reminiscences and a rickety soft-shoe--is Burns’ ability to feel out the audiences’ rhythm, to make much-repeated words sound absolutely unpremeditated.

He credits the technique to Gracie, who informed him in bed the night after his solo debut that his supporting acts had outshined him. “I said, ‘Hey! What about me? The guy you’re sleeping with?’ ” Burns recalls. “And she said, ‘You recited your monologue.’ From then on, I stopped reciting. The most important thing on stage is to have complete concentration that you’re talking to the audience; you gotta make it sound like you’ve never done it before.”

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So, he keeps the act new by constantly fiddling with it, making microscopic changes, subtly reworking set-pieces. Tonight, for example, an idea has sprouted from his show at El Camino College in Torrance the week before. “This is what I wanna do,” he says, leaning forward in his chair and speaking to Fein and Jacobs in a confidential hush. Because the college couldn’t afford Burns’ usual fee, there was no customary 15-piece orchestra at El Camino. Instead, there were just George and Morty, alone on the bare wooden auditorium stage. For the show tomorrow night, Burns wants to recapture the same low-key feeling.

“Morty,” he says, “when you play ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ (Burns’ entrance theme) with the band, I want it to be soft. That was a nice feeling at El Camino. Intimate.”

“Now, George,” Fein suggests gently, “it has to be exciting. You don’t want it to be too quiet.” As with most managers, Fein is more cautious than his client.

“I want to try it my way,” Burns says stubbornly. “If it doesn’t work, Irving, we can always go back to the same old way.” Burns is silent for a moment, unreadable behind his round, thick-lensed glasses. Then he flashes Jacobs a sweetheart smile. “I’m sick of loud music,” he announces. “I’m not a singer of songs, I’m a teller of lyrics. The lyrics are important. It has to be quiet.

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“So, Morty, when we go on tomorrow night? Play it nice and mellow.” Burns lifts his hand with a slow flourish. “Play it like we ain’t gettin’ paid. . . .”

HERE ARE THE essential items that George Burns requires to put on a show: (1) a backless stool on which to perch; (2) a lightly rehearsed orchestra; (3) a martini or two chased by a cup of hot black coffee, a liquid pick-me-up that is consumed just before curtain; (4) an ashtray in which to tidily flick his ashes, and (5) a plastic mouthpiece through which he smokes his beloved El Productos.

If circumstances require that Burns walk long distances, Fein also requests a wheelchair, which is used like a getaway shuttle. After his encore, for example, Burns will hop in and be rushed out of the auditorium, an exhaust cloud of gray-brown cigar smoke trailing behind him. Burns does nearly 25 shows a year like this evening’s performance at Beasley Coliseum, one-night engagements for which he receives an estimated $60,000 for 54 minutes of work. He’ll fly into towns such as Reno or Bakersfield or Toronto, performing at events with names like the Great Valentine Gala or for organizations like the California Grocers Assn. These are meat-and-potato gigs; the prestige bookings--Burns has a yearly contract for one-week stints at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Caesars in Atlantic City--earn him about $250,000 to $300,000 a week. But his friend Jack Benny tipped him off to the easy money of the convention circuit, and Burns has never lost the habit.

Before any show, Burns’ ritual is nearly always the same. He puts on his shiny patent leather loafers, sheer knee socks, a crisp white shirt, a bow tie and a paisley dressing gown, then sits around pantless. The wide-belted black Sy Devore tuxedo slacks only come on at the very last minute so they don’t lose their knife-sharp crease.

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Tonight, the pattern is altered slightly. Lissa Petersen, one of Burns’ seven grandchildren and the offspring of his daughter, Sandra, is up visiting with her husband and two children from Seattle. Two hours before he performs to an audience of about 8,500, he shuffles up the carpeted hotel hallway and escorts his relatives and Fein and Jacobs to the Broiler Room and treats them to dinner. Throughout the meal, Petersen and Burns chat. When she was a child, Petersen ate Monday dinner at her grandparents’ house, but years ago she moved away. Now, the conversation stops and starts in the eager-but-awkward manner of relatives who feel a connection with each other but who have spent more time apart than together. At the end of the meal, when a crowd of fans group around Burns, he turns not to them but to his 8-year-old great-grandson. “Hey,” he says, touching the boy lightly on the cheek. “Betcha didn’t know your Papa was so famous. . . .”

As it turns out, Burns’ experience as a patriarch spans back to his childhood. His father, Louis Birnbaum, a Polish emigre and part-time cantor, died when Burns was 7, leaving his son to help support a family of 10 that could never make ends meet. Burns’ obsession with “stove-hot” food comes from years of eating too-small portions of too-thin soup. (“If soup is hot enough,” he explains, “then you can’t tell if it’s good or bad.”)

For a while, Nathan Birnbaum (Burns’ original name) dabbled in petty hustles like stealing empty seltzer bottles and melting the lead tops for resale. Then, he and three neighborhood boys formed the Peewee Quartet and sang for spare change on street corners and on the Staten Island Ferry. Burns’ mother worried that he would end up a gangster, and, in fact, one member of the Peewee Quartet eventually became involved in organized crime and wound up in the electric chair. But those first few show-biz pennies intoxicated Burns; he dropped out of school in the fourth grade. The subsequent string of specialty acts with which he clowned his way through the vaudeville circuit--dancer, yodeling juggler, trick roller-skater, half of a seal act--make up a large part of his self-deprecating talk-show patter.

“Now that I’m doing well, I can look back and see how bad I was then,” he always says. “But at the time, I didn’t think I was so bad. I was in show business. I was doing what I loved.”

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The way Burns tells the joke is that in his chance meeting with a 17-year-old Irish-American actress named Gracie Allen, he discovered his one true talent . . . and he stayed married to her for 38 years. It’s a line that’s one part modesty and one part calculated shifting of emphasis from him to Gracie. This technique was at the heart of the team’s success. Early on, Burns realized that he could write the material but he couldn’t sell it. So he reduced his own dialogue to a few spare lines--like “How’s your brother?"--to spark off his wife’s loopy, pealing-bell spiels. Burns played a model of male resignation; in a loving way, this stand-up couple tapped into the age-old confusion that men and women have about each other.

“George made it look so simple,” Mort Lachman says. “But the truth was their material was one beat ahead of everyone else.” But Burns, whom Lachman calls “one of the greatest reaction men in comedy,” has never owned up to his sophisticated writing skills. “He’d say, ‘Oh, that. That’s just funny.’ ”

After huge success in vaudeville and on radio, the team made the transition to TV in 1950 with “The Burns and Allen Show.” The show’s run ended in 1958 when, because of her failing health, Gracie decided to retire. “I couldn’t blame her,” Burns says. “She had to do all the hard work.” That year, he sold the series rights to Screen Gems for a reported $3.5 million. After Allen stepped down, Burns cast about, searching for some way to rechannel his talents. Along the way, he produced sitcoms, including “No Time for Sergeants,” “The Bob Cummings Show” and “Mr. Ed,” of which he still owns a one-third share. He also starred in two short-lived series--"The George Burns Show” and “Wendy and Me"--that failed to change the public’s perception of him as nothing more than Allen’s cigar-smoking sidekick. “Every time we opened a door,” Burns says, “they expected Gracie to come out. They missed her.”

Then, on Aug. 27, 1964, around 9 p.m., Gracie suffered a massive heart attack and died later that evening in her bed at Cedars of Lebanon. Ronnie and Sandra, the Burns’ adopted children, had been warned about the extreme delicacy of their mother’s condition. “But (the doctors) never told (Dad),” says Ronnie. “They didn’t know how he’d react.”

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“It was terrible,” Burns says. “I didn’t think Gracie was going to die. She had a bad heart, but she’d had it for so long.”

“When Mother died, it was a great void . . . let’s put it that way,” says Ronnie Burns, 54, who played himself on his parents’ TV show and is now a Pacific Palisades real estate investor. "(Dad) had to find something else to fill that void, and it just couldn’t be with the family.”

Burns still keeps Gracie’s tiny wedding ring in his pocket on a watch chain. And once a month, he goes to Forest Lawn Cemetery to visit her white marble crypt, to fill her in on the events of his life. But, for the first six months after her death, his need to see her was so great that he went every day.

BURNS IS SITTING IN his office, drinking Lipton tea from a mug that reads GOD. It’s a point of pride for him that he has worked out of these three small cluttered rooms at Hollywood Center Studios--the former General Service Studio--five days a week, a couple of hours a day, for the past 38 years. After Allen’s death, he “started back to work right away,” Burns says. “You know, you cry and you cry and you cry. And finally there are no more tears. Then you go back to work. And you feel bad. Every time you come home, you feel bad . . . because Gracie isn’t there.”

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Even though his career seemed stalled, Burns’ ambition flourished. When Jack Benny, his best friend of almost 55 years, was stricken with pancreatic cancer, Irving Fein, Benny’s manager at the time, asked Burns to pinch-hit for him in a stand-up engagement. So, in 1974, only six weeks after Burns had undergone triple-bypass heart surgery, Burns and Morty Jacobs climbed the steep driveway in front of Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel. Burns’ face was blue by the time he reached the top; the trek seemed capable of doing him in. But it was Benny who died that year. By then, Fein, who is a manager, agent, producer and publicist all rolled into one, had signed on George Burns.

It is Fein who decides what jobs Burns will or will not take. However, Burns is quick to point out that “I follow Irving’s advice, unless I don’t like it. Then I say no. I have my own mind about things.” Today, before Burns appears in a commercial for Southern California Edison, Amoco Oil or Continental Airlines, it is Fein who decides if the product suits Burns’ image. When the pair are asked if Fein prefers to approach advertisers first, their responses are peculiarly reminiscent of a vaudeville routine:

FEIN: I call them, they call me.

BURNS: Irving calls them, they call him. The commercials, they gotta fit me.

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FEIN: We turned down a fortune to do a whaddyacallit . . . a Poligrip (ad). It wouldn’t look good for George.

BURNS: It didn’t fit me.

In Hollywood, Fein, a former studio publicist and network vice president, is known as a gentleman and master negotiator. (“Irving makes a deal,” says one business associate, “then he goes back and makes it better.”) Fein has used a creative approach to marketing old age. He emphasizes George’s years in show business, his reliability, and works them to his advantage. In 1975, Fein hooked Burns up with an old friend, Arthur Pine, the literary agent who sold Fein’s top-selling 1976 book, “Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography.” Since then, Burns has written six best-selling books (all with co-authors), and he recently received an advance of more than $400,000 for “All of My Best Friends,” a collection of anecdotes about his famous pals. Fein was also behind the revival of the old Burns and Allen radio show, which runs on 182 stations around the country.

Like everyone who works for Burns, Fein is rarely quoted in articles about his sole client. He rarely takes credit for his part in resuscitating Burns’ career. “George is a team player,” says a friend of Burns, “but in certain areas, he likes everything to be satellited around him .”

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Fein has served as executive producer on many of Burns’ films after “Oh, God!,” the low-budget 1977 film that grossed roughly $61 million. The success of “Oh, God” was largely due to screenwriter Larry Gelbart’s inspired casting idea: As its director, Carl Reiner, puts it, Burns is the epitome of “the kindly image of who people would like to have up there when they go to heaven.” Moviegoers are so happy to accept Burns as the Almighty that they come up to him on airplanes and thank him for a safe trip.

Neither Burns nor Fein has lost time capitalizing on the association. The “Oh, God!” movies are increasingly thin knockoffs of the first film and do only moderately well at the box office. Yet Fein can always sell Warner Brothers another installment. Burns’ popular appeal is such that all of his films return their original investment in television, airline and videocassette rentals. Currently, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Paul Zindel is working on the fourth edition of “Oh, God!” (“God misses the little things in life,” is the God-takes-a-vacation plot line Burns reveals. “Like a hot dog. He wants to go to that place . . . McDonald’s. . . . He wants to go to McDonald’s and have a hot dog.”)

So much has changed since 1975, when it took some persistence for Fein to get his new client an audition for the role opposite Walter Matthau in the film version of Neil Simon’s hit play “The Sunshine Boys” (a part that, at the time of his death, Jack Benny had been slated to do). Every old-timer in town, from Art Carney to Phil Silvers, was hoping to fill the vacancy. Fein peppered his old roommate, Ray Stark, the producer of the film, with phone calls. “How about George?” he’d ask him, until Stark finally agreed to audition him.

Burns took over from there. It was his first film since the 1938 MGM goofball comedy “Honolulu.” And he had never played a character, never acted as anyone except George Burns. So he studied the movie’s key scenes (unbeknown to anyone, Fein had kept Benny’s script). Stark remembers the reading as “marvelous.” They had to cast Burns, Stark says. “He was really better than anyone else.”

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Burns’ performance in “The Sunshine Boys” had a heartfelt wisdom and won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. “This is all so exciting,” Burns said in his acceptance speech. “I’ve decided to keep making movies every 36 years. You get to be new again.”

GEORGE BURNS has astonishingly youthful-looking hands. His fingers are elegantly long, and the skin is white and smooth, almost waxen. Every evening, he rubs these hands with Eterna 27, a potion he swears by. And currently, while he waits in the sitting room of his Beverly Hills home, these hands are, as usual, unwrapping the cellophane from an El Producto.

Outside, a mini-van tour bus is cruising past his white-and-green, two-story, plantation-style estate on Maple Drive, which he bought 56 years ago for $59,000. It’s 10 a.m., the time when Burns and his driver, Conrad De Michiel, usually get into Burns’ dark green 1986 Cadillac Seville and drive to the office. Then, after a couple of hours’ work, they drive to the Hillcrest Country Club for lunch. After that, Burns plays bridge. Then, he goes home and takes a nap. It’s part of the secret of his longevity, this rigid timetable.

But today, Burns is being taped performing his daily 20-minute routine of modified toe-touches and sit-ups for “The Wit and Wisdom of George Burns,” which has been conceived as a life-style video for senior citizens. Burns smokes at least 20 cigars a day, drinks at least six martinis and hates fruits and vegetables. But other than some problems with his hearing and an ailing back, this regular exercise keeps him in superb condition--he always passes the stringent physical examinations that film companies require to get insurance. Burns and Fein had been toying with ways to capitalize on his idiosyncratic health regime when they were approached by 29-year-old TV producer Eric Scheffer. The deal was completed in roughly 36 hours. According to Scheffer, the videocassette is being made for $300,000; Burns’ fee is half that, plus 25% of the royalties.

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Burns’ financial success makes him more than just another in the herd of New York immigrants’ sons who’ve done well for themselves. Besides receiving the residuals that regularly tumble in from the sitcoms he produced, he has been investing in stock for years, and he estimates that the dividends it produces make up 25% of his income. “I’m in good shape,” says Burns about his assets, and he is generous to a fault. He has enough money to have donated $1 million to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1986 and $1 million to the Motion Picture and Television retirement home in 1984. Whenever a waiter, a security guard or a bellboy helps him out, Burns says, “Irving, take care of them,” and Fein peels bills off a thick roll of cash.

“People ask me why I don’t retire,” Burns says. “Retire? Retire to what? I play bridge for two hours a day to get away from work. Why the hell would I want to retire to play bridge 24 hours a day?”

For Burns, nothing replaces the thrill of the deal. He’s a businessman who still loves talking dollars and cents, reliving past negotiations, the hard bargains he drove to increase his and Gracie’s pay scale. Burns’ and Allen’s first film short, and one of their most famous, begins with Burns’ straightforward line, “Oh, Gracie? If we can talk for nine minutes, we can make $1,800. Can you talk for nine minutes?”

For the sake of frugality, quite a bit of the life-style video is being shot rent-free at Burns’ home, as was a scene at L’Orangerie restaurant. It simulates what Burns does every Thursday night, which is to eat at one of Los Angeles’ classier joints with Barry Mirkin, a longtime friend, and Lynn Witherell, Burns’ 32-year-old platonic girlfriend.

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Since the death of his wife, beautiful women have become part of the George Burns mythology. They kiss him, they gush over him. It’s not only his perpetual twinkle that attracts them, but possibly the romantic concept of his devotion to one woman. Before Witherell, Burns struck up intimate relationships with singer / actress Lisa Miller and Texas socialite Cathy Carr. But in his heart, he never strayed from Gracie.

You can see it in the decoration of his home. Except for a few modernizations, it seems frozen in time, in tribute to his departed companion.

He isn’t lonely, Burns says, because he doesn’t live alone. There are his three cats--Pauline, Lady and Sergeant--that Burns talks to with a cat lover’s intense concentration. And he is close to Daniel and Arlette Dhorre, the Belgian couple who have taken care of him for the past 20 years.

It’s been a long morning for Burns. Every 20 minutes or so, a production assistant comes to fetch him to tape a scene, and Burns treads up the circular stairway to his upstairs bedroom, throwing his shoulders into the climb, like a hiker attacking a steep cliff. It’s exhausting work, and Burns confides between takes that if he “had known how much trouble this would be, I would never have agreed to do it.” This is something that Burns often says, but never with full-bodied conviction. He always tries to keep his thoughts focused on the present, knowing that precious moments aren’t to be wasted dwelling on regrets. “Two minutes!” calls a crew member. “For me,” says Burns, “two minutes is a long time.”

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So instead, he sits perched on the edge of his king-size bed, and when he says his lines for the camera, he hurls himself into it. He reads off the cue cards, injecting freshness into the words, just as Gracie taught him. And at the end, Burns adds a small improvisation, toppling backward on the powder-blue bedspread. Surprised, the crew bursts into a chorus of giggles. Mouth opened, eyes to the ceiling, George Burns laughs hard at his little joke, his pale, beautiful fingers clutching at his belly.


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