He is getting his wish to live in the 21st century -- by proxy -- in an amazing performance by Frank Gorshin as George Burns in the new Broadway production, "Say Goodnight Gracie," a celebration of the life of one of America's most beloved stars of vaudeville, radio, television, and motion pictures.
The title of the show at the Helen Hayes Theater is a reference to Burns' roguishly insistent command to his ditsy comic partner (and wife), Gracie Allen, at the end of each of their radio and television shows.
The biographical one-man show is the creation of Tony Award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes who fashioned a successful one-man show, "Solitary Confinement" for actor Stacy Keach several seasons ago.
Holmes had help from Burns' reminiscences in telling the comic's life from cradle to grave, as though the centenarian Burns was relating his career to God (whom he played in the top-grossing film, "Oh, God!") in hope of being allowed to join his beloved Gracie in heaven, which he calls "the Big Time."
Gracie is just as much a part of the show as Burns although she never makes an appearance. Gorshin as Burns replays many of their comic routines together, with actress Didi Conn imitating Gracey's purling voice from the wings, and occasionally a blown-up portrait of Gracie dominates a screen at the back of the stage onto which many other photographic images of people and places are projected.
Gorshin looks enough like Burns in late middle age to be the real McCoy, helped only by the horn-rim glasses Burns always wore and the comic's ever-present but rarely puffed cigar. His voice has Burns' special gravelly bark, and he has mastered all of Burns' bodily mannerisms and shuffling gait. It is simply the best showbiz impersonation, bar none, in living memory.
Gorshin is best known for the character of The Riddler in the "Batman" television series of the 1960s, but in the course of his career he has given impressions of James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando. He first assayed George Burns in a night club act, setting in motion an idea that gave birth to "Say Goodnight Gracie," which had its premiere at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., two years ago.
Gorshin said in an interview that he never knew Burns or saw him perform but had studied his television and film performances, including "The Sunshine Boys." Gorshin had played in that show on the road, taking the Walter Matthau part rather than the Burns part. But it helped him get so close to the man that some people seeing "Say Goodnight Gracie" thought Burns was trying to channel back to earth through Gorshin.
"People ask me how I do it, and I have to explain that I wish I could tell you Step 1, Step 2, but it's not so," Gorshin said. "With George Burns, I just did it by watching him, thinking him, and eventually it was there."
Gorshin is Burns for 90 intermissionless minutes, every one of them a joy to the audience. His Burns tells with pride how pulled himself up by own bootstraps by going to work as a paper deliverer on New York's lower East side at the age of seven to help his widowed immigrant mother. He came to vaudeville as a kid, changing his name from Nathan Birnbaum to suit the prejudices of the era.
After 15 years as a song and dance man in second-rate vaudeville theaters, he met Gracie, an Irish Catholic girl doing an act with her sister. They teamed up as Burns and Allen, with George as the straightman and Gracie getting the laughs all the way to New York's Palace Theater. Burns wrote their material but he credits Gracie's "magic" as the mistress of illogical logic for their success.
"Gracie was an actress," Burns tells the audience. "The same line was always different with every performance. I never knew what to expect."
When vaudeville was dying, their friend Eddie Cantor introduced them to radio, and soon they had their own "The Burns and Allen Show." They made short subjects for Paramount Pictures and later starred in feature films. When television was born, they took their radio show to the tube.
Along the way, Jack Benny became their best friend and sometime collaborator. They adopted two children and lived in a big white house in the suburbs almost like normal people, happy until Gracie's death from a heart ailment ended their 42-year partnership. George lived on, kept busy by as new career as a leading man in film that would round out his 93 years as an entertainer.
John Tillinger has directed the show imaginatively on a stage with only a few basic props with help from scenic consultant John Lee Beatty, multi-media designers Howard Werner and Peter Nigrini, and sound designer Kevin Lacy.
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