George Burns (January 20, 1896 – March 9, 1996), born Nathan Birnbaum, was an American comedian, actor, and writer.
His career spanned vaudeville, film, radio, and television, with and without his wife, Gracie Allen. His arched eyebrow and cigar smoke punctuation became familiar trademarks for over three quarters of a century. Beginning at the age of 79, Burns' career was resurrected as an amiable, beloved and unusually active old comedian, continuing to work until shortly before his death, in 1996, at the age of 100.
Nathan Birnbaum was the ninth of 12 children born to Louis and Dorothy (Bluth) Birnbaum in New York City. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue but did not work very often. During the influenza epidemic of 1903, Louis contracted the flu and died. Nattie (as he was known to his family) started working in 1903 after his father's death, shining shoes, running errands, and selling newspapers. When he landed a job as a syrup maker in a local candy shop at the age of seven, Nattie Birnbaum was discovered, as he recalled many years later:
“ We were all about the same age, six and seven, and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with, 'no more chocolate syrup. It's show business from now on'.
We called ourselves the Pee-Wee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats. ”
Burns quit school in the fourth grade to go into show business full-time. Like many performers of his generation, he tried practically anything he could to entertain, including working with a trained seal, trick roller skating, teaching dance, singing, and adagio dancing in small-time vaudeville. During these years, he began smoking cigars and later in his older years was characteristically known as doing shows and puffing on his cigar. He adopted the stage name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He claimed in a few interviews that the idea of the name originated from the fact that two star major league players (George H. Burns and George J. Burns, unrelated) were playing major league baseball at the time. Both men achieved over 2000 major league hits and hold some major league records. Burns also was reported to have taken the name George from his brother Izzy (who hated his own named so he changed it to "George"), and the Burns from the Burns Brothers Coal Company (he used to steal coal from their truck).
He normally partnered with a girl, sometimes in an adagio dance routine, sometimes comic patter. Though he had an apparent flair for comedy, he never quite clicked with any of his partners, until he met a young Irish Catholic lady in 1923. "And all of a sudden," he said famously in later years "the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent—and I was married to her for 38 years."
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born into an Irish Catholic show business family and educated at Star of the Sea Convent School in San Francisco, California in girlhood. She began in vaudeville around 1909, teamed as an Irish-dance act, "The Four Colleens", with her sisters, Bessie, Hazel, and Pearl.
She met George Burns and the two immediately launched a new partnership, with Gracie playing the role of the "straight man" and George delivering the punchlines as the comedian. Burns knew something was wrong when the audience ignored his jokes but snickered at Gracie's questions. Burns cannily flipped the act around: After a Hoboken, New Jersey performance in which they tested the new style for the first time, Burns's hunch proved right. Gracie was the better "laugh-getter," especially with the "illogical logic" that formed her responses to Burns's prompting comments or questions.
Allen's part was known in vaudeville as a "Dumb Dora" act, named after a very early film of the same name that featured a scatterbrained female protagonist, but her "illogical logic" style was several cuts above the Dumb Dora stereotype, as was Burns's understated straight man. The twosome worked the new style tirelessly on the road, building a following, as well as a reputation for being a reliable "disappointment act" (one that could fill in for another act on short notice). Burns and Allen were so consistently dependable that vaudeville bookers elevated them to the more secure "standard act" status, and finally to the vaudevillian's dream: the Palace Theatre in New York.
Burns wrote their early scripts, but was rarely credited with being such a brilliant comedy writer. He continued to write the act through vaudeville, films, radio, and, finally, television, first by himself, then with his brother Willie and a team of writers. The entire concept of the Burns and Allen characters, however, was one created and developed by Burns.
As the team toured in vaudeville, Burns found himself falling in love with Allen, who was engaged to another performer at the time, Benny Ryan. After several attempts to win her over, he finally succeeded (by accident) after making her cry at a Christmas party. She told a friend that "if George meant enough to her to make her cry she must be in love with him".
They were married in Cleveland, Ohio on January 7, 1926, somewhat daring for those times, considering Burns's Jewish and Allen's Irish Catholic upbringing. They adopted their daughter, Sandra, in 1934 and son, Ronnie, in 1935. (For her part, Allen also endeared herself to her in-laws by adopting his mother's favorite phrase, used whenever the older woman needed to bring her son back down to earth: "Nattie, you're such a schmuck," using a diminutive of his given name. When Burns's mother died, Allen comforted her grief-stricken husband with the same phrase.)
In later years Burns admitted that, following an argument over a pricey silver table centerpiece Allen wanted, he had a very brief affair with a Las Vegas showgirl. Stricken by guilt, he phoned one of his best friends, Jack Benny, and told him about the indiscretion. However, Allen overheard the conversation and Burns quietly bought the expensive centerpiece and nothing more was said. Years later, he discovered that Allen had told one of her friends about the episode finishing with "You know, I really wish George would cheat on me again. I could use a new centerpiece."
Getting a start in motion pictures with a series of comic short films, their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s included The Big Broadcast; International House (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937, A Damsel in Distress (1937) in which they danced step for step with Fred Astaire, and College Swing (1938), in which Bob Hope made one of his early film appearances. Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby series of "Road" pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with Bing Crosby, who was then already an established star of radio, recordings and the movies. The story did not seem to fit the comedy team's style, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite the script to fit two male co-stars: Hope and Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore and it made motion picture history when it was released in 1940.
Burns and Allen first made it to radio as the comedy relief for bandleader Guy Lombardo, which did not always sit well with Lombardo's home audience. In his later memoir, The Third Time Around, Burns revealed a college fraternity's protest letter, complaining that they resented their weekly dance parties with their girl friends to "Thirty Minutes of the Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven" had to be broken into by the droll vaudeville team.
In time, though, Burns and Allen found their own show and radio audience, first airing on February 15, 1932 and concentrating on their classic stage routines plus sketch comedy in which the Burns and Allen style was woven into different little scenes, not unlike the short films they made in Hollywood. They were also good for a clever publicity stunt, none more so than the hunt for Gracie's missing brother, a hunt that included Gracie turning up on other radio shows searching for him as well.
The couple was portrayed at first as younger singles, with Allen the object of both Burns's and other cast members' affections. Most notably, bandleaders Ray Noble (known for his phrase, "Gracie, this is the first time we've ever been alone") and Artie Shaw played "love" interests to Gracie. In addition, singer Tony Martin played an unwilling love interest of Gracie's, in which Gracie "sexually harassed" him, by threatening to fire him if the romantic interest wasn't returned. In time, however, due to slipping ratings and the difficulty of being portrayed as singles in light of the audience's close familiarity with their real-life marriage, the show adapted in 1940 to present them as the married couple they actually were. For a time, Burns and Allen had a rather distinguished and popular musical director: Artie Shaw, who also appeared as a character in some of the show's sketches. A somewhat different Gracie also marked this era, as the Gracie character could often be found to be mean to George.
George Your mother cut my face out of the picture.
Gracie Oh, George, you're being sensitive.
George I am not! Look at my face! What happened to it?
Gracie I don't know. It looks like you fell on it.
Census Taker What do you make?
Gracie I make cookies and aprons and knit sweaters.
Census Taker No, I mean what do you earn?
Gracie George's salary.
As this format grew stale over the years, Burns and his fellow writers redeveloped the show as a situation comedy in the fall of 1941. The reformat focused on the couple's married life and life among various friends, including Elvia Allman as "Tootsie Sagwell," a man-hungry spinster in love with Bill Goodwin, and neighbors, until the characters of Harry and Blanche Morton entered the picture to stay. Like The Jack Benny Program, the new George Burns & Gracie Allen Show portrayed George and Gracie as entertainers with their own weekly radio show. Goodwin remained, his character as "girl-crazy" as ever, and the music was now handled by Meredith Willson (later to be better known for composing the Broadway musical The Music Man). Willson also played himself on the show as a naive, friendly, girl-shy fellow. The new format's success made it one of the few classic radio comedies to completely re-invent itself and regain major fame.
The supporting cast during this phase included Mel Blanc as the melancholy, ironically named "Happy Postman" (his catchphrase was "Remember, keep smiling!"); Bea Benaderet (later Cousin Pearl in The Beverly Hillbillies, Kate Bradley in Petticoat Junction and the voice of Betty Rubble in The Flintstones) and Hal March (later more famous as the host of The $64,000 Question) as neighbors Blanche and Harry Morton; and the various members of Gracie's ladies' club, the Beverly Hills Uplift Society. One running gag during this period, stretching into the television era, was Burns's questionable singing voice, as Gracie lovingly referred to her husband as "Sugar Throat." The show received and maintained a Top 10 rating for the rest of its radio life.
The couple took the show to CBS in the fall of 1949, after having spent virtually their entire radio career to date on NBC. Their good friend Jack Benny reached a negotiating impasse with NBC over the corporation he set up ("Amusement Enterprises") to package his show, the better to put more of his earnings on a capital-gains basis and avoid the 80 percent taxes slapped on very high earners in the World War II period. When CBS executive William S. Paley convinced Benny to move to CBS (Paley, among other things, impressed Benny with his attitude that the performers make the network, not the other way around as NBC chief David Sarnoff reputedly believed), Benny in turn convinced several NBC stars to join him, including Burns and Allen. Thus did CBS reap the benefits when Burns and Allen moved to television in 1950.
On television, The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show put faces to the radio characters audiences had come to love. A number of significant changes were seen in the show:
A parade of actors portrayed Harry Morton: Hal March, The Life Of Riley alumnus John Brown, veteran movie and television character actor Fred Clark, and future Mister Ed co-star Larry Keating.
Burns often broke the fourth wall, and chatted with the home audience, telling understated jokes and commenting wryly about what show characters were doing or undoing. In later shows, he would actually turn on a television and watch what the other characters were up to when he was off camera, then returned to foil the plot.
When announcer Bill Goodwin left after the first season, Burns hired veteran radio announcer Harry Von Zell to succeed him. Von Zell was cast as the good-natured, easily-confused Burns and Allen announcer and buddy. He also became one of the show's running gags, when his involvement in Gracie's harebrained ideas would get him fired at least once a week by Burns.
The first shows were simply a copy of the radio format, complete with lengthy and integrated commercials for sponsor Carnation Evaporated Milk by Goodwin. However, what worked well on radio appeared forced and plodding on television. The show was changed into the now-standard situation comedy format, with the commercials distinct from the plot.
Midway through the run of the television show the Burns' two adopted children, Sandra and Ronald, began to make appearances: Sandy as an occasional drama school classmate of Ronnie, and Ronnie himself as George and Gracie's son, who held his parents' comedy style in befuddled contempt and deemed it unsuitable to the "serious" drama student. In one episode, Ronnie and Sandy, in a plot centered around their school's staging a vaudeville-style show to raise money, performed a remarkable impersonation of their famous parents' stage and radio comedy routines.
Burns and Allen also took a cue from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions and formed a company of their own, McCadden Corporation (named after the street on which Burns's brother lived), headquartered on the General Service Studio lot in the heart of Hollywood, and set up to film television shows and commercials. Besides their own hit show (which made the transition from a bi-weekly live series to a weekly filmed version in the fall of 1952), the couple's company produced such television series as The Bob Cummings Show (subsequently syndicated and rerun as Love That Bob); The People's Choice, starring Jackie Cooper; Mona McClusky, starring Juliet Prowse; and Mister Ed, starring Alan Young and a talented "talking" horse. Several of their good friend Jack Benny's 1953-55 filmed episodes were also produced by McCadden for CBS.
The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show ran on CBS Television from 1950 through 1958, when Burns at last consented to Allen's retirement. The onset of heart trouble in the early 1950s had left her exhausted from full-time work and she had been anxious to stop but couldn't say no to Burns.
Burns attempted to continue the show (for new sponsor Colgate-Palmolive on NBC), but without Allen to provide the classic Gracie-isms, the show expired after a year.
Burns subsequently created Wendy and Me, a situation comedy in which he co-starred with Connie Stevens, Ron Harper, and J. Pat O'Malley. Burns acted primarily as the narrator, and secondarily as the advisor to Stevens' Gracie-like character. The first episode involved the middle-aged Burns watching with amusement the activities of his young upstairs neighbor on his television set, apparently via hidden cameras, then breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly to viewers. The series only lasted a year. In a promotion, Burns had joked that "Connie Stevens plays Wendy, and I play 'me'." After fighting a long battle with heart disease, Gracie Allen suffered a fatal heart attack in her home on August 27, 1964 at the age of 69. She was entombed in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. In his second book, They Still Love Me in Altoona, Burns wrote that he found it impossible to sleep after her death until he decided to sleep in the bed she used during her illness. He also visited her grave once a month, professing to talk to her about whatever he was doing at the time — including, he said, trying to decide whether he really should accept the Sunshine Boys role Jack Benny had to abandon because of his own failing health. He visited the tomb with Ed Bradley during a 60 Minutes interview on November 6, 1988. After Gracie's death George immersed himself in work. McCadden Productions co-produced the television series No Time for Sergeants, based on the hit Broadway play; George also produced Juliet Prowse's 1965-'66 NBC situation comedy, Mona McCluskey. At the same time, he toured the U.S. playing nightclub and theater engagements with such diverse partners as Carol Channing, Dorothy Provine, Jane Russell, Connie Haines, and Berle Davis. He also performed a series of solo concerts, playing university campuses, New York's Philharmonic Hall and winding up a successful season at Carnegie Hall, where he wowed a capacity audience with his show-stopping songs, dances, and jokes. In 1974, Jack Benny signed to play one of the lead roles in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (Red Skelton was originally the other). Benny's health had begun to fail, however, and he advised his manager Irving Fein to let longtime friend Burns fill in for him on a series of nightclub dates to which Benny had committed around the U.S.
Burns, who enjoyed working, accepted the job. As he recalled years later: "The happiest people I know are the ones that are still working. The saddest are the ones who are retired. Very few performers retire on their own. It's usually because no one wants them. Six years ago Sinatra announced his retirement. He's still working."
But Benny was never able to work on The Sunshine Boys, as he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, from which he died soon thereafter (December 26, 1974). Burns, heartbroken, said that the only time he ever wept in his life other than Gracie's death was when Benny died. He was chosen to give one of the eulogies at the funeral and said, "Jack was someone special to all of you but he was so special to me…I cannot imagine my life without Jack Benny and I will miss him so very much." Burns then broke down and had to be helped to his seat. People who knew George said that he never could really come to terms with his beloved friend's death.
Burns replaced Benny in the film as well as the club tour, a move that turned out to be one of the biggest breaks of his career; his wise performance as faded vaudevillian Al Lewis earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and secured his career resurgence for good. At the age of 80, Burns was the oldest Oscar winner in the history of the Academy Awards, a record that would remain until Jessica Tandy won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.
In 1977, Burns made another hit film, Oh, God!, playing the omnipotent title role opposite singer John Denver as an earnest but befuddled supermarket manager, whom God picks at random to revive His message. The image of Burns in a sailor's cap and light springtime jacket as the droll Almighty influenced his subsequent comedic work, as well as that of other comedians. At a celebrity roast in his honor, Dean Martin adapted a Burns crack: "When George was growing up, the Top Ten were the Ten Commandments."
Burns appeared in this character along with Vanessa Williams on the September 1984 cover of Penthouse magazine, the issue which contained the infamous nude photos of Williams, as well as the first appearance of underage pornographic film star Nora Kuzma, better known to the world as Traci Lords. A blurb on the cover even announced "Oh God, she's nude!"
Oh, God! inspired two sequels Oh, God! Book II (in which the Almighty engages a precocious schoolgirl (Louanne Sirota) to spread the word) and Oh, God! You Devil—in which Burns played a dual role as God and the Devil, with the soul of a would-be songwriter (Ted Wass) at stake.
Burns also provided the voice of God in John Denver's TV special Montana Christmas Skies.
After guest starring on The Muppet Show, Burns appeared in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film based on the Beatles' album of the same name.
Burns did a movie with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg in 1979 called Going in Style.
Burns continued to work well into his nineties, writing a number of books and appearing in television and films. One of his last films was 18 Again!, based on his half-novelty, country music based hit single, "I Wish I Was 18 Again." In this film, he played a self-made millionaire industrialist who switched bodies with his awkward, artistic, eighteen-year-old grandson (played by Charlie Schlatter).
His last feature film role was the cameo role of Milt Lackey, a 100 year old stand-up comedian, in the comedy mystery Radioland Murders.
When Burns turned 90 in 1986, the city of Los Angeles, California renamed the northern end of Hamel Road "George Burns Road." City regulations prohibited naming a city street after a living person, but an exception was made for Burns. In celebration of Burns's 99th birthday in January 1995, Los Angeles, California renamed the eastern end of Alden Drive "Gracie Allen Drive." Burns was present at the unveiling ceremony (one of his last public appearances) where he quipped, "It's good to be here at the corner of Burns & Allen. At my age, it's good to be anywhere!" George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive cross just a few blocks west of the Beverly Center mall.
George Burns' patter in his nightclub routine poked humor at his age. Burns would say, "I was born when Grover Cleveland was President." The girl replied, "I know him—he managed a baseball team." Burns would say, "I will now sing a modern patriotic song," singing, "I'll be waitin' for you Bill when you get back from San Juan Hill; because Bill McKinley sent you on your way." By this time, Burns fans knew of President McKinley, President Cleveland and the Spanish-American War only from history books.
Burns's stage persona in his final phase of professional life was that of an amorous senior citizen, which became a running gag for the rest of his career. In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Honors and had booked himself to play the London Palladium and Caesars Palace for his 100th birthday, even joking that "I can't die, I'm booked".
In 1990 Mr. Burns appeared at a fundraiser at the Myerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore with Eartha Kitt and impressionist Jimmy James. He quipped to Scott Sherman, agent from the Atlantic Entertainment Group; "I was here in 1945...they liked me so much they decided to have me back.." In July 1994, Burns fell in his bathtub and had to undergo surgery to remove fluid that had collected on his brain. His health began to decline afterward. All performances celebrating his 100th birthday were canceled. In January 1995, 99 year old Burns made one of his last public appearances at the unveiling of a street named in his honor, and in December of that year, Burns was well enough to attend a Christmas party hosted by Frank Sinatra, where he reportedly caught the flu, which weakened him further. On January 20, 1996, he celebrated his 100th birthday, but was no longer mobile enough to perform or even attend a birthday party taking place that night and instead spent the evening at home. He did release a statement joking how he would love for his 100th birthday, "a night with Sharon Stone."
On March 9, 1996, just forty-nine days after his milestone birthday, Burns died in his Beverly Hills home of cardiac arrest. His funeral was held three days later at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather church in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale. George Burns was buried in his best dark blue suit, light blue shirt and red tie along with three cigars in his pocket, his toupee, his watch that Gracie had given him, his ring, and in his pocket, his keys and his wallet with 10 $100 bills, a five and three ones.
As much as he looked forward to reaching the age of 100, Burns also stated that he looked forward to death, saying that the day he died, he would be with Gracie again in heaven. Upon being interred with Gracie, the crypt's marker was changed to, "Gracie Allen & George Burns—Together Again." George had said that he wanted Gracie to have top billing.
As a child, he attended P.S. 22 and left after the fourth grade due to economic reasons.
Interred along with his wife Gracie Allen at Forest Lawn (Glendale), Glendale, California, USA, in the Freedom Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Heritage.
Uncle of Lou Weiss, chairman emeritus of William Morris Agency, who got his mail-room start in 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, he was the oldest recipient of an Oscar. He was 80 when he won the 1976 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The Sunshine Boys (1975/I). This record was surpassed by Jessica Tandy in 1990. However, as of 2007 he still is the oldest recipient of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
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/I).
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 dad 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.
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 the movie 18 Again! (1988) Burns' character celebrates his 81st birthday, although Burns himself was already 92 years old.
In the early 1940s, during the height of their popularity, Burns had a brief extra-marital 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 3 months in 1970.).
He was awarded 3 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Live Theatre at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard; for Motion Pictures at 1639 Vine Street; and for Television at 6510 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
Brother of William Burns.
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).
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.
[commenting 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."
[when 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 a hundred, you have it made, because very few people die past the age of a hundred.
[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 though of Mary Pickford] I never slept with her.
(When 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.