Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
George Burns had two distinct careers, one an outgrowth of the other. After the death of his beloved wife and partner for 40 years, Gracie Allen, George Burns went back to work in show business as a single. This wasn't the first time, as Burns had a checkered career pre-Burns & Allen when he first started in vaudeville, doing any kind of an act that would keep him in front of audiences. "Show business had a lot of appeal to me," Burns once said, "you got to wear nice clothes, you got to travel, sometimes you got paid, and it didn't require heavy lifting. You didn't really need much talent to get started in vaudeville, and if there was one thing I had, it wasn't much talent." He worked as Glide in "Goldie, Fields, and Glide," Jose of "Jose and Dolores," Eddie Delight, Jed Jackson of "Jackson and Malone," Harris of "Harris and Dunlop," Maurice Valentine of "Maurice Valentine and His Trained Dog," Captain Betts of "Captain Betts and His Trained Seal," and -- at various times -- both Brown and Williams of "Brown and Williams." This kind of non-stop nom de plume action would dismay most performers, but as Burns -- born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896 -- so saliently pointed out, "The only things all of my acts had in common is that they weren't very good. I only had one rule: I only worked with people who would work with me. It was tough, but I loved every minute of it. I was in show business and that was all I cared about. There was always another theater, or a new act, or a new name. I never cared what name I was working under, as long as I working. And why should I have felt bad about changing my name? Even my real name wasn't my real name." But now -- almost 60 years after he started singing with the Pee Wee Quartet for street corner change in New York -- he was on his own again, this time as George Burns, former straight man to one of the most revered comediennes in show business history. This would normally start the descent of most any performer, starting from square one in their seventies. But the single most amazing fact of this story is not only did Burns take those odds, but ended up ultimately becoming the longest-running act in show business with a solo career that even eclipsed his 40 years feeding straight lines to Gracie Allen.
Of course all that time spent in the trenches, both pre- and post-success, had informed Burns with a show business savvy second to no one. He was the behind-the-scenes brains behind Burns & Allen, writing all of their early material, working on Gracie's character until he had honed the act into a well-oiled and incredibly successful machine. He knew what worked and what didn't and had his phalanx of writers groove all their material in a singular direction that never varied, but only embellished, the public's perception of their characters. Burns kept the machine up and running, scoring major successes in vaudeville, the movies, and radio for the next 20 years. When that machine landed on television in the early '50s, Burns started his own company, producing other shows besides his own. The first of these was The People's Choice, a sitcom starring former child star Jackie Cooper, who worked with a talking basset hound as a co-star. This talking animal gimmick reached its television apogee with another show Burns' company later produced, Mister Ed.
After Gracie put an end to the act, announcing her retirement in 1958 (see Burns & Allen entry), George was quickly back on the air appearing with Connie Stevens in the half-hour comedy, Wendy and Me. He also started working live again, teaming up with both Stevens and Carol Channing as well as giving newcomer Ann-Margret her first big break as a featured performer in his Vegas act. He appeared on or starred in television specials like there was no tomorrow, among them, George Burns in Nashville?, George Burns' Early, Early, Early Christmas Special, and the funny and touching A Love Letter to Jack Benny. Burns suddenly became the darling of the late-night talk show circuit (Johnny Carson in particular), regaling audiences with one great show business story and old song -- which he would deliberately never finish -- after another. He had achieved legendary status, a true show biz veteran who could still get in there and mix it up. But unlike many an old vaudevillian who could only dredge up former glories, George was smart enough to update his act to keep current with the times, and always making sure his material -- like his toupees -- fit his age. He started appearing in movies again, doing everything from inane guest shots in the execrable Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band (making him certainly the only performer in show business history to work with both Al Jolson and Aerosmith), to playing God in two hit movies. He cut hit records ("I Wish I Eighteen Again," "It's the Only Way to Go"), he did one-man shows to packed houses. The older he got, the better his act got.
Approaching his eighties, he suddenly decided to start putting his wit and wisdom down on the printed page. With a ghost writer taking it all down, the man who barely finished the fourth grade ended up writing eight books -- all of them best-sellers -- including a marvelous tome on the love of his life, entitled Gracie: A Love Story. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys at the age of 79. He was one of the pioneers who helped invent modern show business, there at the dawn of recordings, movies, radio, and television. He lived to be 100 and then some, his career spanning almost the entire 20th century. George Burns was truly one of the all-time greats and it is safe to say that we will never see his likes again.