The Underrated George Burns
Today is the birthday of Nathan Birnbaum, a.k.a George Burns. For more on him and the legendary act he had with his wife Gracie Allen go here. I usually re-post it on Gracie’s birthday, but I did want to say a few words about him separately.
I actually got to see him live once a few years before he died, and I have a couple of his autographed books. The man did not stop plugging, right up until he died (soon after his 100th birthday.) In person he looked startling, sort of skeletal and chimp-like, about what you’d expect a 100 year old man to look like. They usually doctored his photos; above is one of the few I could find that convey the impression he made in person at that stage. But still, walking, talking, telling jokes, reminisicing and writing books.
I always feel like giving him props because he seemed to have an inferiority complex, a sort of loser psychology that had him living in the shadow of his “more talented” wife. Gracie was groundbreaking, and a huge star. If I were to make a list of the greatest and most influential comediennes of all time she’d definitely be in the top five, maybe even the verymost top of the list. In their day, she was the one who was in demand (in fact on occasion she was even asked to make appearances without Burns.)
Burns, on the other hand, was roughly equivalent to most of the other comedian/ perfomers of his generation…a George Jessel, a Benny Fields, a Lou Holtz. He struggled without success before he met Gracie. It was natural for him to think of her as the star, with himself as just a very lucky man. (Or, I sometimes wonder, was that just an act? Humility plays very well. And talking about Gracie after her death gave him material to dine out on for 30 years). Either way, he wasn’t a slouch. The idea for the act had been his. The idea to cast her was his. He wrote most of their material (and as a jokewriter he was one of the best in the business, up there with Al Boasberg, who also wrote for Burns and Allen). And he was one the best straight men in the business, a much under-rated skill). And he was very funny and charming as a solo act. As I said in my inital post, I (and I bet most people my own age) just knew him as the old guy in comedy movies the 1970s and early 80s — we had no idea Gracie even existed, until we saw him on talk shows reminiscing about her. If he wanted to, he could have gone ahead without ever mentioning her name and been just as popular, which leads me to believe his sentiments were genuine.
Here’s a nice little thing; George accepting his best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in The Sunshine Boys (1974) (surreally presented to him by Ben Johnson and Linda Blair):
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc