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George Burns Poster

Biography

Jump to: Overview (5)  | Mini Bio (1)  | Spouse (2)  | Trade Mark (4)  | Trivia (35)  | Personal Quotes (55)  | Salary (1)

Overview (5)

Born in New York City, New York, USA
Died in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California, USA  (natural causes)
Birth NameNathan Birnbaum
Nicknames Nattie
Smiling Frankie Davis
Willy Delight
Buddy Links
Captain Betts
Height 5' 7" (1.7 m)

Mini Bio (1)

George Burns was an American actor, comedian, singer, and published author. He formed a comedy duo with his wife Gracie Allen (1895-1964), and typically played the straight man to her zany roles. Following her death, Burns started appearing as a solo performer. He once won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and continued performing until his 90s. He lived to be a centenarian, was viewed as an "elder statesman" in the field of comedy.

Burns was born under the name "Nathan Birnbaum" in 1896, and was nicknamed "Nattie" by his family. His father was Eliezer "Louis" Birnbaum (1855-1903), a coat presser who also served a substitute cantor at a local synagogue in New York City. His mother was Hadassah "Dorah" Bluth (1857-1927), a homemaker. Both parents were Jewish immigrants, originally from the small town of Kolbuszowa in Austrian Galicia (currently part of Poland). Kolbuszowa had a large Jewish population until World War II, when the German occupation forces in Poland relocated the local Jews to a ghetto in Rzeszów.

The Birnbaums were a large family, and Burns had 11 siblings. He was the 9th eldest of the Birnbaum Children. In 1903, Louis Birnbaum caught influenza and died, during an ongoing influenza epidemic. Orphaned when 7-years-old, Burns had to work to financially support his family. He variously shined shoes, run errands, selling newspapers, and worked as a syrup maker in a local candy shop.

Burns liked to sing while working, and practiced singing harmony with three co-workers of similar age. They were discovered by letter carrier Lou Farley, who gave them the idea to perform singing in exchange for payment. The four children soon started performing as the "Pee-Wee Quartet", singing in brothels, ferryboats, saloons, and street corners. They put their hats down for donations from their audience, though their audience was not always generous. In Burns' words: "Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats."

Burns started smoking cigars c. 1910, when 14-years-old. It became a lifelong habit for him. Burns' performing career was briefly interrupted in 1917, when he was drafted for service in World I. He eventually failed his physical exams, due to his poor eyesight.

By the early 1920s, he adopted the stage name "George Burns", though he told several different stories of why he chose the name. He supposedly named himself after then-famous baseball player George Henry Burns (1897-1978), or the also famous baseball player George Joseph Burns (1889-1966). In another version, he named himself after his brother Izzy "George" Birnbaum, and took the last name "Burns" in honor of Burns Brothers Coal Company.

Burns performed dance routines with various female partners, until he eventually married his most recent partner Gracie Allen in 1926. Burns made his film debut in the comedy short film "Lambchops" (1929), which was distributed by Vitaphone. The film simply recorded one of Burns and Allen's comedy routines from vaudeville.

Burns made his feature film debut in a supporting role of the musical comedy "The Big Broadcast" (1932). He appeared regularly in films throughout the 1930s, with his last film role for several years appearing in the musical film "Honolulu" (1939). Burns was reportedly considered for leading role in "Road to Singapore" (1940), but the studio replaced him with Bob Hope (1903-2003).

Burns and Allen started appearing as comic relief for a radio show featuring bandleader Guy Lombardo (1902-1977). By February 1932, they received their own sketch comedy radio show. The couple portrayed younger singles, until the show was retooled in 1941 and started featuring them as a married couple. By the fall of 1941, the show had evolved into a situational comedy about married life. Burns and Allen's supporting cast included notable voice actors Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet, and Hal March.

The radio show finally ended in 1949, reworked into the popular television show "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" (1950-1958). Allen would typically play the "illogical" housewife, while Burns played the straight man and broke the fourth wall to speak to the audience. The couple formed the production company McCadden Corporation to help produce the show.

Allen developed heart problems during the 1950s, and by the late 1950s was unable to put up the energy needed for the show. She fully retired in 1958. The show was briefly retooled to "The George Burns Show" (1958-1959), but Burns comedic style was not as popular as that of his wife. The new show was canceled due to low ratings.

Following Allen's death in 1964, Burns attempted a television comeback by creating the sitcom "Wendy and Me" (1964-1965) about the life of a younger married couple. The lead roles were reserved for Ron Harper and Connie Stevens, while Burns had a supporting role as their landlord. He also performed as the show's narrator.

As a television producer, Burns produced the military comedy "No Time for Sergeants", and the sitcom "Mona McCluskey". As an actor, he mostly appeared in theaters and nightclubs. Burns had a career comeback with the comedy film "The Sunshine Boys" (1975), his first film appearance since World War II. He played faded vaudevillian Al Lewis, who has a difficult relationship with his former partner Willy Clark (played by Walter Matthau). The role was met with critical success, and Burns won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. At age 80, Burns was the oldest Oscar winner at the time. His record was broken by Jessica Tandy in 1989.

Burns had his greatest film success playing God in the comedy film "Oh, God!" (1977). The film 51 million dollars at the domestic box office, and was one of the greatest hits of 1977. Burns returned to the role in the sequels "Oh, God! Book II" (1980) and "Oh, God! You Devil" (1984). He had a double role as both God and the Devil in the last film.

Burns had several other film roles until the 1990s. His most notable films in this period were the musical comedy "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978), the comedy film "Just You and Me, Kid" (1979), the caper film "Going in Style" (1979), and the fantasy-comedy "18 Again!" (1988). The last of the four featured him as a grandfather who exchanges souls with his grandson.

Burns' last film role was a bit part in the mystery film "Radioland Murders" (1994), which was a box office flop. In July 1994, Burns fell in his bathtub and underwent surgery to remove fluid in his skull. He survived, but his health never fully recovered. He was forced to retire from acting and stand-up comedy.

On January 20, 1996, Burns celebrated his 100th birthday, but was in poor health and had to cancel a pre-arranged comeback performance. In March 1996, he suffered from cardiac arrest and died. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, next to Gracie Allen.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Dimos I

Spouse (2)

Gracie Allen (7 January 1926 - 27 August 1964) ( her death) ( 2 children)
Hannah Siegel (5 September 1917 - 1918) ( divorced)

Trade Mark (4)

His ever present cigar
Played the straight man to his wife, Gracie Allen. After her death and his retirement period, he created a new image as an remarkably active amiable old comedian.
Wearing glasses in his later years.
Deep, scratchy voice.

Trivia (35)

As a child, he attended P.S. 22 and left after the fourth grade due to economic reasons.
Interred along with wife Gracie Allen at Forest Lawn, Glendale, CA, in the Freedom Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Heritage.
Uncle of Lou Weiss, chairman emeritus of William Morris Agency, who got his mailroom start in the agency business with help of "Uncle Nate".
Was a regular on the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts". He was even a guest of honor in 1978.
"The Burns & Allen Show" (on CBS and NBC from 1934 to 1950) was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.
At the time of his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor for The Sunshine Boys (1975) at 80 years old, he was the oldest recipient of an Academy Award. This record was surpassed by Jessica Tandy in 1990 and later by Christopher Plummer in 2012, who received his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at age 82.
Best friends with fellow comedian Jack Benny, who also served as best man at his and Gracie Allen's wedding. Burns loved playing jokes on Benny, almost as much as watching him laugh (and pound the floor) afterward.
Actually wore a hairpiece for most of his performing career; appears briefly without it in The Sunshine Boys (1975) and in Two of a Kind (1982).
He and Gracie Allen continued to play single, even years after they were married; declining ratings prompted George to "update" the act on-air. He said later, "We were the only couple on radio who got married because we had to".
Took the name "Burns" from the Burns Brothers Coal Company, whose trucks he'd stolen lumps from growing up, to help heat the family home. "George" was a sobriquet his brother occasionally used.
Until his death, he smoked as many as ten cigars a day.
Biography in: "Who's Who in Comedy" by Ronald L. Smith. Pg. 78-80. New York: Facts on File, 1992. ISBN 0816023387
His first marriage was in name only. In the early 1920s he was doing a ballroom dancing act with Hannah Siegal, and they were offered a 36-week contract to go out on the road. When her father objected to her traveling with a young man outside the bonds of matrimony, George and Hannah got married so as not to turn down the offer. When they returned from their three-month engagement, they divorced.
In the beginning of their partnership Gracie Allen played the straight character and Burns had the funny lines. When he realized Gracie got more laughs, he switched their roles.
Daughter Sandra Burns adopted 1934, son Ronnie Burns adopted 1935.
Discovered Ann-Margret and made her his opening act in Las Vegas, Nevada.
He was in very fragile health and could not attend his 100th birthday celebration in person.
Biography in: "American National Biography". Supplement 1, pp. 82-84. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Was originally supposed to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend Jack Benny, but he was so overcome with emotion after trying that he let someone else do it.
In 18 Again! (1988) his character celebrates his 81st birthday, although Burns himself was already 92 years old.
In the early 1940s, during the height of their popularity, he had a brief extramarital affair. He apologized to Gracie Allen by giving her a new coffee table, and nothing more was said about it. However, years later, when Gracie was serving coffee to a friend in their living room, George overheard her say, "You know, I wish George would have another affair. I really need a new coffee table".
Interviewed around the time of the death of wife Gracie Allen in the summer of 1964, he described her as being his "next breath".
The whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) were named George and Gracie after Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen.
Although Gracie Allen was in love with another man when they first met, he carried a ring in his pocket until she finally agreed to marry him.
According to Phyllis Diller's autobiography "Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse", in the late 1960s Broadway producer David Merrick approached Burns with the idea of him playing Horace Vandergelder in "Hello, Dolly!" with his good friend Jack Benny in drag as Dolly Levi. The intention was to turn Broadway on its ear and revive flagging interest in the show, which had been running since 1964, originally with Carol Channing as Dolly Levi. This idea never came to fruition (Diller did appear in the show for three months in 1970).
He was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Live Theatre at 6672 Hollywood Blvd., for Motion Pictures at 1639 Vine St. and for Television at 6510 Hollywood Blvd.
Pictured with wife Gracie Allen on a 44¢ USA commemorative postage stamp, issued 11 August 2009, in the Early TV Memories issue honoring The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950).
Brother of William Burns.
At age 13 he charged immigrants coming by boat from Ellis Island $5 for dance lessons, telling his clients that this was a necessary prerequisite for becoming a U.S. citizen.
Was a struggling vaudevillian in his early youth, often appearing as a trick roller skater and in ballroom dance acts. Some of his acts were pretty bad and work was hard to come by, so he was forced to frequently change his stage name, appearing variously as Willy Delight, Captain Betts and Buddy Links.
Interviewed in "The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy" by Larry Wilde. [1968]
His father was an Austrian Jewish immigrant and his mother was a Polish Jewish immigrant.
Along with Bob Hope and Señor Wences, he is one of three The Muppet Show (1976) guest stars to live to be 100 years old.
During Oldsmobile's 90th anniversary (1987) he appeared in two commercials for the automobile manufacturer.
Died on Emmanuel Lewis' 25 birthday. The Notorious B.I.G. died exactly one year later.

Personal Quotes (55)

Smartness runs in my family. When I went to school I was so smart my teacher was in my class for five years.
I've been a straight man for so many years that from force of habit I repeat everything. I went out fishing with a fellow the other day and he fell overboard. He yelled, "Help! Help! Help!" so I said, "Help? Help? Help?" And while I was waiting for him to get his laugh, he drowned.
Fall in love with what you do for a living. I don't care what it is. It works.
Retire? I'm going to stay in show business until I'm the only one left.
[on appearance] Take care not to wear stripes that are out of sync with your wrinkles.
I did go to school--my kind of school. When I was a kid I went out . . . and you meet people. You talk to them. Anybody says something that makes sense, it stays with you, rubs off on you. That kind of school.
You know, lots of times people have asked me what [Gracie Allen] and I did to make our marriage work. It's simple--we didn't do anything. I think the trouble with a lot of people is that they work too hard at staying married. They make a business out of it. When you work too hard at a business you get tired, and when you get tired you get grouchy, you start fighting, and when you start fighting you're out of business.
Well, anybody can be a straight man if he hears well. You just have to wait for laughs. A straight man just repeats the questions and the comedian gets the laughs and you just wait for them and don't let them die completely at the tail end of the laugh.
[on his age] I get a standing ovation just standing.
Nice to be here? At my age it's nice to be anywhere.
In what other business can a guy my age drink martinis, smoke cigars and sing? I think all people who retire ought to go into show business. I've been retired all my life.
[on gravity] Everything that goes up must come down. But there comes a time when not everything that's down can come up.
I would go out with women my age, but there are no women my age.
Bridge is a game that separates the men from the boys. It also separates husbands and wives.
A young mind in a healthy body is a wonderful thing. Especially for an old man with an open night.
If you stay in the business long enough and get to be old enough, you get to be new again.
I use the cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a joke, I smoke as long as they laugh and when they stop laughing I take the cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke.
I don't believe in dying . . . it's been done.
There are many ways to die in bed, but the best way is not alone.
I can't afford to die; I'd lose too much money.
[on winning the Oscar at age 80] It couldn't have happened to an older guy.
[at 87 years old] I was brought up to respect my elders and now I don't have to respect ANYBODY.
[on adultery] If you were married to Marilyn Monroe, you'd cheat with some ugly girl.
Happiness is: A good martini, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman . . . or a bad woman, depending on how much happiness you can stand.
[interviewed in his old age about sex scenes] What actresses do today when they appear on the screen is what they did once upon a time for getting to appear on the screen.
I'd rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.
At my age, the only thing hot waiting for me in my dressing room is a bowl of soup.
[discussing his role in Going in Style (1979)] I had to learn how to act old.
[asked how he got the title role in Oh, God! (1977)] I was the closest to Him in age.
The most important thing to succeed in show business is sincerity. And if you can fake that, you've got it made.
If you live to the age of 100, you have it made, because very few people die past the age of 100.
[during Dean Martin's roast for Frank Sinatra] We singers aren't worried about getting laughs . . . see, nobody's laughing, and I'm not worried.
Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.
[on Carol Channing] She never just enters a room. Even when she comes out of the bathroom, her husband applauds.
[on Al Jolson] It was easy enough to make Jolson happy at home. You just had to cheer him for breakfast, applaud wildly for lunch and give him a standing ovation for dinner.
[on how his act with Gracie Allen got started in vaudeville] Gracie was supposed to be the straight woman. The first night we had 40 people out front and they didn't laugh at one of my jokes, but every time Gracie asked me a question they fell out of their seats. So I made her the comic and the act was a hit from that moment on. That was the beginning of Burns and Allen.
[about his relationship with wife Gracie Allen] The only thing I ever felt guilty about was a telegram we got in vaudeville. It was from [Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.] and he was out front and that was one of the nights I blew smoke in Gracie's face and he hated my guts. So he sends a cable saying, "I'll pay $200 for the dame, $100 for the act". I never read it to her. I told her it was from some of the boys at the Friars Club. Before she died I said, "Gracie, I got a confession to make. Remember that cable we got that time in vaudeville?" and she said, "You mean the one from Ziegfeld?"
[on W.C. Fields] When he was 22 he played England with his young wife, who was 20. His trick was juggling cigar boxes. The star of the show was an old geezer who had a funny voice. The wife fell in love with the old man. Fields stole his accent and delivery, and the old guy stole Fields' wife. I think Fields got the best of the deal.
[sitting in an empty movie theater] The first movie I ever saw was the first movie I was ever in. I was sitting alone in the theater then like I am now.
[asked what he thought of Mary Pickford] I never slept with her.
[as he was about to sing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" during the 1983 All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago] I not only sang this song at the first All-Star Game, I also sang it at the first ballgame.
ng his wife, [Gracie Allen] "I never wanted to play [William Shakespeare (I)]", a statement she had proved by becoming my partner. Instead we played Cleveland.
It's one of the old show business axioms. No matter how successful you've been, there's always a younger and sexier seal coming along.
[on his wedding] The justice of the peace spoke so fast I didn't know if [Gracie Allen] and I had gotten married or had bought land in Florida.
[on meeting Gracie Allen] I remember looking down at her, looking right into her green eye and her blue eye, and thinking what a pretty little girl she is. I was hoping she'd work with me.
[on vaudeville] When we played the back end of a horse we always knew that if we worked hard and did a good job we could become the front end.
Yale men do not like to be told anything by people who didn't go to Yale. The closest I came to Yale was once I had one of their padlocks.
At home we ate fish every Friday, as Catholics were then supposed to do. Being Jewish, I compromised. I wore a hat when I ate fish, out of respect for my own religion and the fish's family.
I'd announce that I was going to sing, and all our guests would make a ring around the piano. But somehow I managed to fight my way through the ring and sing anyway.
[on his act with Gracie Allen] The only rule we followed was that we would only use jokes that were funny. If people wanted jokes that weren't funny they could listen to our competitors.
You know you're getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you're down there.
If you asked me to get up and stand up for an hour I couldn't do it, but in front of an audience I can stand for two hours. That vitality comes over the floodlights.
Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65 I still had pimples.
People think that all I do is stand up and tell a few jokes. The jokes are easy. It's the standing up that's hard.
[on Al Jolson] It was easy enough to make Jolson happy at home. You just had to cheer him for breakfast, applaud wildly for lunch, and give him a standing ovation for dinner.

Salary (1)

Lambchops (1929) $850

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