On March 9, 1996, the legendary cigar-chomping performer George Burns dies at his home in Beverly Hills, California, just weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday.
Born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City, Burns was one of 12 children. As a young child, he sang for pennies on street corners and in saloons, and at age 13, he started a dance academy with a friend. In 1922, Burns was performing the latest in a string of song-and-dance acts in Newark, New Jersey, when he teamed up with a fellow performer, Gracie Allen. Though Allen began as the straight one in their partnership, her natural comedic ability prompted Burns to rewrite their material to give her most of the punch lines. From then on, Burns played the straight man to Allen’s ditz, with hilarious results.
By the time Burns and Allen married in 1926 (his brief first marriage, to the dancer Hannah Siegel, ended in divorce), they had already become known on the vaudeville circuit. The 1920s were a golden era for vaudeville performers, and Burns and Allen were only two of a number of greats—their peers included Milton Berle, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Bert Lahr and Jack Benny (Burns’ close friend)—who successfully made the transition to other forms of entertainment. After making their radio debut in 1929, the pair landed a regular show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which aired from 1932 to 1950 on the NBC network. In the late 1930s, the program’s audience numbered more than 40 million people and NBC paid Burns and Allen $10,000 per week, an enormous sum for the time. The couple also played themselves on the big screen in a number of films, including International House (1933), Many Happy Returns (1934), A Damsel in Distress (1937) and College Swing (1938).
In 1950, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show made a seamless transition to television, airing on CBS and becoming one of the top-ranked programs for the duration of the decade. The Burns-Allen team remained in the public eye until Allen’s retirement in 1959. She died of a heart attack in 1964, at the age of 58. Though Allen was a Roman Catholic, Burns buried her with Episcopal rites, explaining that as a Jewish man he couldn’t be buried in Catholic-consecrated ground, and he wanted to be buried beside her.
After Burns underwent major heart surgery in 1975 at the age of 79, his career got a second wind. That year, he played a retired vaudevillian in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys, co-starring Walter Matthau and Richard Benjamin. Burns won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role. After that, there was no shortage of movie parts for the octogenarian actor, who played God in Oh God! (1977) and its sequels, Oh God! Book II (1980) and Oh God! You Devil (1984), in which Burns was featured as both God and the Devil. He also starred in Just You and Me, Kid (1979), Going in Style (1979) and Eighteen Again (1988).
In 1988, Burns won an award for lifetime achievement from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He wrote two best-selling autobiographical works, including Gracie: A Love Story (1988) and All My Best Friends (1989), along with eight other books that earned him his well-deserved reputation as an invaluable first-hand observer of the history of 20th century entertainment.