From the Archives: Milton Berle, 93; Legendary Comic Trouper Dies
Milton Berle, whose “anything for a laugh” ethos propelled him through a career that began in vaudeville, continued on radio, exploded on television and didn’t end until his doctors told him, finally, that he had to quit it with the jokes onstage, died Wednesday. He was 93.
Berle died in his sleep at his home on Los Angeles’ Westside surrounded by his wife, Lorna, and other family members.
The indefatigable comic had continued to work as he neared his 90th birthday, though he stayed offstage under doctors’ orders after suffering a mild stroke in December 1998. He was diagnosed with colon cancer last April and had been in failing health for some time.
Berle was the first of television’s great stars and its first and greatest salesman—of television and TV sets. There were fewer than 500,000 sets in use in America when Berle took to the air on the National Broadcasting Company’s “Texaco Star Theater” in 1948.
A year later, there were a million, and by the time the show finished its run in 1954, more than 26 million homes had television.
In an interview with The Times several years ago, Berle still had a trademark cigar by his side, though on that day it remained unlit. The stroke had left him “wobbly,” he said, but his sense of humor and fiery attitude—the egomania that friends could abide with a grin and enemies couldn’t forgive—were still sharp.
“Whatever you want, I’ll give you a joke on it. But to give it to you on the spur of the moment, that’s the trick. That means the noggin’s working,” he said over an afternoon snack in his condominium, during which he summoned his butler to retrieve one of his two encyclopedic joke books, “Milton Berle’s Private Joke File” and “More of the Best of Milton Berle’s Private Joke File.”
To the end, Berle was a fixture at the Friars Club of California in Beverly Hills, where he was a regular presence at lunchtime, often with longtime friend Buddy Arnold, who helped pen the theme to Berle’s seminal TV series “Texaco Star Theater.”
Honored at the Friars on his 91st birthday, Berle, the club’s abbot emeritus with roots going back to the original Friars Club in New York, stood at the end of a long evening of tributes and told the gathering: “I’ll be brief. And if you believe that, you believe there’ll be a Richard Simmons Jr.”
Friars Club of California President Irwin Schaeffer said Wednesday that Berle had been at the club as recently as three weeks ago. Schaeffer then gave the phone to Buddy Hackett, who remembered how Berle got him to become a Friar in 1947 and summed up his contribution to comedy this way: “Whatever you see on television, Milton did it first. We used to have a lot of variety shows on television. No one knew what they were doing, no one knew how to do it. He showed them how to do it.”
Arnold could not be reached at his home in Florida. In a statement released through his publicist, comedian Don Rickles said, “From the first days of my career, he was one of my comedic heroes. He was always a great mentor. His style of comedy will never be replaced.”
‘Holding Court’ Just Weeks Ago
Warren Cowan, Berle’s publicist for many years, said that he had been to Berle’s condo five weeks ago to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Berle’s marriage to his third wife, Lorna. More than 100 people were there, Cowan said, and Berle “was holding court and making everyone laugh, and he looked great. And that’s the last time I really saw Milton.”
Today, in an era when few if any comedians are able to cultivate an enduring image onstage, Berle was a larger-than-life personality whose voracious comedic appetite not only prompted his notorious joke-stealing but also his willingness to don a dress. In the process, he became unforgettable to viewers. It was a persona as memorable as Jack Benny’s skinflint or Bob Hope’s confident but ever-rejected lover.
It was essentially “caveman comedy,” said longtime comedy writer Larry Gelbart, whose credits range from TV’s “MASH” to the film “Tootsie.” “But, by God, you find yourself laughing at the silliness of it, the manic-ness.”
He was Milton Berlinger by birth. He became Milton Berle so the name could fit more easily on a marquee. Later, he would be Uncle Miltie and even “Mr. Television.”
Berle became an institution. The comic mania that made him an electric stage presence translated well to live TV. Restaurant business fell off sharply at 8 p.m. Tuesdays when the show went on. A graph of water usage in Detroit showed a peak from 9 to 9:05 p.m., when, after Berle’s hour was up, viewers dashed to the bathroom.
Despite the dresses and crazy antics, Berle, in reality, was something of a man about town in his prime. His private life, in the 1930s and 1940s, was grist for the gossip columnists.
Berle was born July 12, 1908, in Manhattan, the son of Moses Berlinger, a paint shop owner, and Sarah Berlinger, a department store detective who would later change her first name to Sandra and become a quintessential stage mother, hovering over Berle’s professional life for years.
“She wanted to be [in show business], but her parents wouldn’t allow her because they thought it was too racy,” Berle said. “When I started to make faces in the mirror at age 5, [my] Uncle Joe would say, ‘Get that damn kid away from the mirror, he’s going to turn out to be an idiot.’ So when I started to make money at age 15, 16, she said [to my uncle], ‘I want you to meet the idiot.’ ”
Because his parents had no money for a Halloween costume, the 5-year-old Milton put on one of his father’s suits, rolling up the sleeves and legs, and grabbed dad’s derby. He cut out a piece of his mother’s fur muff and pasted it under his nose. A paper chrysanthemum from the vase in the parlor went into Milton’s lapel—and he became a midget Charlie Chaplin.
Berle won a Chaplin look-alike contest for kids at a local vaudeville theater, worked for an agency as a model for Buster Brown children’s clothes and within months was playing kid parts in silent movies filmed in New York. His first bit job was in “The Perils of Pauline,” an adventure serial in which he was the child thrown from the train.
The studios paid his way to Hollywood for more work in “The Mark of Zorro” with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mack Sennett’s “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” starring Chaplin.
He played vaudeville theaters in New York and Philadelphia, appearing on the same bill with such stars as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson.
On the road almost constantly in his teenage years, Berle appeared in a vaudeville act with a child actress, living out of a trunk, always guided and sheltered by his mother.
He suffered dizziness and blackouts at one point, and Sandra Berle, in a pragmatic bow to the welfare of her son, started to bring girls backstage to meet her son after the show. He wrote about it later in his 1974 autobiography:
“God knows Mama loved me, and she was scared stiff about the blackouts. . . .
“I found out that when Mama took her seat for the show, she always picked it next to an attractive girl, always five or six years older than myself. She’d strike up a conversation with the girl during the show. If the girl said anything during or after my act to show she found me attractive, Mama offered to bring her back to meet me. What happened after that, Mama never wanted to know.”
Routines Had Roots in Vaudeville
It was as a vaudeville star that Berle, in the 1920s and early 1930s, began to develop the jokes, songs and comedy routines that were to serve him so well 20 years later on television. He also began working as a master of ceremonies, filling time between acts and the movies which, more and more, were dominating the shows at the expense of live entertainment.
“He always made things seem fresh, no matter how many times he’d done it in the past,” comedian Jan Murray said at Berle’s 91st birthday tribute. “I was amazed at how quick he was on his feet. He completely fooled me. You’d never know that it was a standard bit of business.”
That same night, Steve Allen noted that Berle had been his baby-sitter while Allen’s parents, vaudeville entertainers, were onstage performing.
Berle began to collect the jokes that he would use over the years--about 50,000 were in his repertoire by the late 1940s. As it happened, a lot of them belonged to other comedians. When columnist Walter Winchell labeled Berle “The Thief of Bad Gags,” Berle didn’t deny it.
“Like every comedian, if I heard a joke that I thought would work, I used it,” he once said. Still, the penchant for lifting any joke that came his way prompted Fred Allen to call him “a parrot with skin on.”
With his growing success in vaudeville and nightclubs, Berle got other offers. He made his first radio appearance in 1934, and in the following years did numerous guest appearances on radio, including Rudy Vallee’s coast-to-coast hour.
Radio was not Berle’s strong point, however, because it failed to exploit his great physical energy. Nor did the movies prove an ideal match.
“Milton was the comedic equivalent of Ethel Merman,” Gelbart said. “He was just a little too big for the screen. And in those days film moguls were a little sensitive about Jews on the screen. Milton’s Eastern [European] origins didn’t help him.”
“His pushy attitude was just too much for film,” added Howard Morris, who directed Berle in the 1967 comedy “Who’s Minding the Mint?” It was Morris’ first feature as a director, and he was warned about Berle’s tyrannical ways. “Everybody said . . . he’ll kill you,” Morris remembers. “He not only didn’t kill me, he was wonderful,” Morris said, adding that Berle did have one caveat—asking Morris not to give him directions in front of the cast and crew, but to point up if he wanted more of Berle, and down if he wanted less.
If Berle never became a film star, his suitability for television would prove to be another matter.
His first brush with the new medium was in Chicago in 1929—an experimental closed-circuit system, one of the earliest.
“Of the actual broadcast, all I can remember is a small room and fierce heat from the lights and the heavy makeup we had to wear,” Berle said in his autobiography. “We were a part of history. . . . The broadcast was sent out to maybe 12 people . . . who had sets.”
Berle was more interested in Hollywood at the time. Despite his desire to make it big in films, he didn’t. In 1937, he signed a two-year contract with RKO Pictures for $3,000 a week and made two films—"New Faces of 1937" and “Radio City Revels.” Both bombed at the box office.
Settling Into Married Life
By December 1941, Berle had become perhaps the nation’s best-known nightclub performer. He married a chorus girl, Joyce Matthews—after years of dating many of the most beautiful ones around—and settled into married life after taking his mother along on the honeymoon.
The often-stormy marriage to Matthews ended in divorce in 1947, by which time they had adopted a child. They would remarry two years later, then divorce again.
In 1948, Berle signed to do a radio show—"Texaco Star Theater.” It quickly spawned a television offshoot—and the first big hit for a medium that, thanks to Berle, would never be looked at the same. Indeed, “Texaco” would earn Berle the nickname “Mr. Television.”
The first “Texaco Star Theater” television broadcast went out live from New York City—on Sept. 21, 1948—from Studio 6B in the RCA building in Rockefeller Center. Less than two months later, the show was so popular that it was the only program not preempted on election night for the returns of the Truman-Dewey presidential race.
The program dominated the ratings for several years, under Berle’s hard-driving, enemy-making control. Berle was a perfectionist, and he blew a referee’s whistle to control rehearsals. He wanted to save his voice, of course, but the whistle just added to his reputation as a driving, tyrannical director.
The show was live, and years later Berle had vivid memories of the fiascoes of unedited television. One night, the train of Berle’s gown—he was in drag—got caught in a rising backdrop and the comedian was lifted off the stage, screaming and in some danger of injury. The audience thought it was terrifically funny.
Berle’s sister, Rosalind, designed many of his outlandish costumes. Among those who wrote for the show were Nat Hiken, Aaron Ruben and two brothers—Danny and Neil Simon.
“No single star permeated television like he did,” said pianist Roger Williams, who performed regularly on Berle’s show in the 1950s. “And let me tell you, an appearance on his show was pure gold. The power he had. Every performer would kill to be on the ‘Texaco Star Theater.’ Each time I did his show, the next day my record would go to the top of the charts.”
Over the years, Berle also published more than 400 songs.
But just as Berle was the first of television’s great stars, he was one of its first great victims. The ratings began to slip, especially after Berle abandoned the vaudeville format for something more akin to a situation comedy approach, and the competition in Berle’s Tuesday night time slot grew increasingly tough—first Gene Autry and Red Skelton, and finally, Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. Texaco dropped its sponsorship of his program and was replaced by Buick, which in 1953 presented the “Buick-Berle Hour.”
“I Love Lucy” on CBS became the most popular show on television in 1953. Berle’s last show was broadcast on June 14, 1955. Toward the end, another TV funnyman, rising star Jackie Gleason, said this to an interviewer about Berle:
“This guy was up there for seven long years. . . . That’s a couple of lifetimes in this TV racket. How many guys you think there are now . . . who will be up there, blasting away with the funny stuff and holding onto the top like Berle did?
“Tell you something else. Wasn’t for Berle, a lot of us wouldn’t have got a break. When he became Mr. Television, those network guys began saying, ‘We gotta get comics. They want funny stuff. Let’s get funnymen.’ Whatever else you say about Berle, don’t forget that. And don’t count him out, don’t ever count him out. He’ll be in there pitching for a long time.”
And he was. With a 30-year contract from NBC that paid him $200,000 a year, Berle tried several relatively short-lived shows from California: “The Milton Berle Show” (1955-56), “Kraft Music Hall” (1958-59) and “Jackpot Bowling” (1960-61).
In his book “So Far, So Funny,” Hal Kanter recounted the year he spent producing “Kraft Music Hall,” alternately trying to tame the meddling, egomaniacal Berle and giving in to his demands. This included Berle’s insistence that Kanter use a laugh track “to augment” the response Berle was certain to get from his studio audience.
Nevertheless, Kanter wrote, Berle was “the Thomas Edison of our comedy theater, and every comedian working in his giant shadow owes him an enormous debt.”
In the years after his television series, Berle remained busy—playing nightclubs and Las Vegas, doing both serious and comedic character roles in movies and on television. On the road, he made a habit of pinning the drapes in his hotel room shut to keep out the light.
“Going up in an elevator, he’d make fun of a lady’s dress, and she’d thank him,” said Glenn Schwartz, Berle’s publicist when the comedian was in his 80s and still on the road.
After his second divorce from Matthews, Berle married movie studio publicist Ruth Cosgrove in 1953 and adopted another child. This marriage lasted until Cosgrove’s death in 1989. Berle married his third wife, Lorna, a 50-year-old fashion designer, in 1992.
Though he toured extensively, Berle was arguably never more in his milieu than at the Friars Club, the famed fraternity for comedians and ribald humor.
A fixture on the dais when a celebrity was being “roasted” in typical foulmouthed fashion, Berle pounded away. “What a crowd!” he said at Frank Sinatra’s roast. “I would say mob, but you know how sensitive Frank is.”
In later years, as he grew older and comedy changed before his eyes, Berle led the occasional workshop at the Friars for young comics, hoping to impart his hard-bitten wisdom.
His pupils, of a sort, included Arnold Schwarzenegger, who met Berle in the mid-1980s. The two shared numerous interests, including cigars, fitness and comedy.
At the time, Schwarzenegger was a budding action lead but still looking to become a bigger movie star. Berle, said Schwarzenegger, helped him navigate his way through celebrity using humor as a vehicle, even writing jokes Schwarzenegger could use at functions and with the media.
“When you’re in my position, where your life is so obvious, it lends itself to great comedy,” Schwarzenegger said.
Berle often bemoaned the lazy approach of his comedic successors.
“Whatever happened to ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen?’ ” he said in his 1999 interview with The Times, bemoaning the slapdash manner with which some contemporary comics greeted an audience. Though he had admiration for younger comedians, Berle steadfastly maintained that the giants of his craft were Henny Youngman, Groucho Marx and Jack Benny.
Berle sued NBC in the spring of 2000, claiming that the network had lost nearly 130 kinescope film reels of his early shows. He later dropped the suit.
“Retire?” he said when asked
about that possibility, smiling that familiar grin of his and flicking ashes from his ever-present cigar. “Retire to what?”
Berle is survived by his wife, Lorna; a daughter, Victoria; a son, William; and two stepdaughters, Susan and Leslie.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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