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Sunday, March 10, 2013

George Burns Much Loved

BornNaftaly (Nathan) Birnbaum
(1896-01-20)January 20, 1896
New York City, New York, USA
DiedMarch 9, 1996(1996-03-09) (aged 100)
Beverly Hills, California, USA
Cause of deathCardiac arrest
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California
Other namesNattie
OccupationActor, comedian, writer
Years active1902–1996
Spouse(s)Hannah Siegal (divorced)
Gracie Allen (m. 1926 – w. 1964) «start: (1926)–end+1: (1965)»"Marriage: Gracie Allen to George Burns" Location: (linkback://
ChildrenSandra Jean Burns
(b. 1934-d. 2010)
Ronald Jon Burns
(b. 1935-d. 2007)
ParentsLouis Birnbaum,
Dorah (nèe Bluth)

George Burns (January 20, 1896 – March 9, 1996), born Naftaly (Nathan) Birnbaum, was an American comedian, actor, and writer.
He was one of the few entertainers whose career successfully spanned vaudeville, film, radio, and television. 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, in the film "The Sunshine Boys" for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, in 1975. He continued to work until shortly before his death, in 1996, at the age of 100.

Naftaly (Nathan) Birnbaum was born on January 20, 1896 in New York City, the ninth of 12 children born to Louis "Lippe" and Dorah (née Bluth) Birnbaum, Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States from Romania. Burns was also an active member of the First Roumanian-American congregation. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue but usually worked as a coat presser. During the influenza epidemic of 1903, Lippe Birnbaum contracted the flu and died at the age of 47. Nattie (as he was then called) went to work to help support the family, shining shoes, running errands, and selling newspapers.
When he landed a job as a syrup maker in a local candy shop at age seven, he was "discovered," as he recalled long after:
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 name 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."
His first wife was Hannah Siegel (stage name: Hermosa Jose), one of his dance partners. The marriage, never consummated, lasted 26 weeks and happened because her family would not let them go on tour unless they were married. They divorced at the end of the tour.

Burns and Allen got a start in motion pictures with a series of comic short films in the late 1930s. 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' 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 the fall of 1941 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.

George Burns and Gracie Allen, 1955.
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 return 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 children, Sandra and Ronald, began to make appearances: Sandy in an occasional voice-over or brief on-air part (often as a telephone operator), and Ronnie in various small roles throughout the 4th and 5th season. Ronnie joined the regular cast in season 6. Typical of the blurred line between reality and fiction in the show, Ronnie played George and Gracie's on-air son, showing up in the second episode of season 6 ("Ronnie Arrives") with no explanation offered as to where he had been for the past 5 years of the show. Originally his character was an aspiring dramatic actor who held his parents' comedy style in befuddled contempt and deemed it unsuitable to the "serious" drama student. When the show's characters moved back to California in season 7 after spending the prior year in New York City, Ronnie's character dropped all apparent acting aspirations and instead enrolled in USC, becoming an inveterate girl chaser.
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' 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 McCluskey, 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 Show

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.

 Wendy and Me

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, just as he would watch the Burns and Allen television show while it was unfolding to get a jump on what Gracie was up to in its final two seasons. Again as in the Burns and Allen television show, George frequently broke the fourth wall by 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 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 1994 comedy mystery Radioland Murders.

Burns was a bestselling author who wrote a total of 10 books:
  • Burns, George; Hobart Lindsay, Cynthia (1955). I Love Her, That's Why. Simon and Schuster.
  • Burns, George (1976). Living it up: Or, They Still Love Me in Altoona!. Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-11636-0.
  • Burns, George (1980). The Third Time Around. Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-12169-2.
  • Burns, George (1983). How To Live To Be 100 - Or More - The Ultimate Diet, Sex and Exercise Book. Robson Books. ISBN 978-0-399-12939-1.
  • Burns, George (1984). Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness: Buy Two Books and Call Me in the Morning. Putnam.
  • Burns, George (1985). Dear George. Putnam.
  • Burns, George (1988). Gracie : A Love Story. Putnam. ISBN 0-399-13384-4.
  • Burns, George; Fisher, David (1989). All My Best Friends. Putnam. ISBN 0-399-13483-2.
  • Burns, George; Goldman, Hal (1991). Wisdom of the 90's. Putnam.
  • Burns, George (1996). 100 Years 100 Stories. Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-14179-9.
Final years

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' 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 in the heart of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Burns suffered a head injury after falling in his bathtub in July 1994 and never fully recovered from it. He had to undergo an operation to remove fluid in his skull and all performances celebrating his 100th birthday were canceled. In January 1995, when he turned 99, Burns made one of his final 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 too weak 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 to be "a night with Sharon Stone".

On March 9, 1996, 49 days after his centenary, 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. Burns was buried in his best dark blue suit, light blue shirt and red tie, along with three cigars in his coat pocket, his toupee, the wristwatch that Gracie had given him, and his wedding ring. In his pocket were his house keys and his wallet with $1,008 in cash (ten $100 bills, a five and three ones).

As much as he looked forward to reaching the age of 100, Burns also stated, about a year before he died, that he also looked forward to death, saying that on the day he would die, 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.


  • Burns has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for TV (South side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard), for Live Performance (South side of the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard) and for Film (West side of the 1600 block of Vine Street).[12]
  • Burns is the subject of Rupert Holmes' one-actor play Say Goodnight Gracie. It played Broadway during the 2002-03 season with Frank Gorshin (Gorshin died in 2005), and continues to tour North America with Alan Safier as George Burns.
  • In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the two humpback whales are named George and Gracie after Burns and Allen.
  • Hooters restaurants had signs which, prior to George's death, read, "We even card George Burns;" following his death, they were changed to say, "We even carded George Burns."
  • The Simpsons referenced Burns in the Season 5 episode titled "Rosebud". In the show, Burns is the younger brother of Montgomery Burns. The character of Mr. Burns, as a child, leaves his family to live with a rich man (who is actually his paternal grandfather). His father makes the comment, "Oh well. At least we still have his little brother George." The camera flashes to a young George Burns, who sings a line in his style and then says, "Trust me, it'll be funny when I'm an old man."
  • In an episode of Boy Meets World, Corey Mathews claims an old educational puberty film starred George Burns.
  • In the film For the Boys, the characters played by Bette Midler and James Caan talk about how their comedy act will be "bigger than Burns and Allen, bigger than Hope and Crosby".
  • In an episode of Mad About You, Paul Reiser's character is working on a documentary on the history of television. In one scene he is reviewing classic television shows, and the viewer can hear Gracie saying, "Well, if we were married they'd call me Mrs. Burns."
  • In Eminem's duel rap song "Guilty Conscience", there is a reference to George Burns: "Think about it before you walk in the door; First, look at the store clerk. she's older than George Burns!"
  • In a Far Side cartoon, a futuristic city is shown with flying cars and a theater billboard stating, "APPEARING TONIGHT: GEORGE BURNS"
  • In The X-Files Season 2, Episode 19: "Dod Kalm" Mulder says he looks like George Burns as he rapidly ages.
  • In the animated movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Kenny encounters George Burns while falling through the fiery vortexes of hell who asks him, "Hey fuckface, have you seen Gracie?".

  • Filmography

    Short Subjects
    • Lambchops (1929)
    • Fit to Be Tied (1930)
    • Pulling a Bone (1931)
    • The Antique Shop (1931)
    • Once Over, Light (1931)
    • 100% Service (1931)
    • Oh, My Operation (1932)
    • The Babbling Book (1932)
    • Your Hat (1932)
    • Let's Dance (1933)
    • Hollywood on Parade No. A-9 (1933)
    • Walking the Baby (1933)
    • Screen Snapshots: Famous Fathers and Sons (1946)
    • Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Grows Up (1954)
    • Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Beauty (1955)
    • All About People (1967) (narrator)
    • A Look at the World of Soylent Green (1973)
    • The Lion Roars Again (1975)