Hollywood legend Milton Berle dies at 93

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  March 27, 2002 at 9:33 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 27 (UPI) -- Legendary comedian Milton Berle -- known to fans as "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" since his pioneering days as a network TV performer -- died Wednesday. He was 93.

Berle, who was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, had been under hospice care for the past several weeks.

Comedian Don Rickles regarded Berle as a hero and a teacher.

"From the first days of my career, he was one of my comedic heroes," said Rickles in a statement. "He was always a great mentor. His style of comedy will never be replaced."

Other superlatives came from Bob and Dolores Hope who released a statement lauding Berle as an unrivaled entertainer who got his start as a child actor in silent movies.

"What a remarkable man. What a remarkable career -- 88 years in show business -- a brilliant comedian, an accomplished actor, a life-long friend and we are among a select few who called him 'kid.'"

Hope once said that Berle's career spanned every area of show business -- "television, film, radio, vaudeville ... the crusades."

Some of Bob's favorite mementos are telegrams Berle sent him from time to time. In 1934, when Hope opened in "Say When" at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, Berle wrote: "Hope you will keep that dressing room longer than I did."

"Our love and sympathy goes out to Lorna and Milt's family. He will be greatly missed and so fondly remembered."

Veteran entertainment industry publicist Jane Ayer recalled working with Berle in the mid-1980s on a publicity campaign for the home video release of one of the legendary comic's live performances in Las Vegas.

"He was very friendly and happy to do publicity," she said, "you know like the old school."

Ayer said Berle was as funny in real life as he was on TV.

"He was like a laugh a minute," she said. "He was so much fun. He was outrageous."

Berle was the personification of the smart aleck of post World War II America who became television's first major superstar.

His instant popularity on the infant medium made him "Mr. Television." He gained a second nickname one night when he signed off by telling children to "listen to your Uncle Miltie."

Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" was so popular that on Tuesday nights families and viewers across the country crowded in front of their TV sets to watch. Berle's television career emerged when most sets were a luxury afforded by only a few. But his popularity spurred the sale of TVs into working class homes.

Berle was born Milton Berlinger on July 12, 1908, in New York, N.Y., the fourth of five children of Moses and Sarah Berlinger.

He entered show business at 5, and worked at the old Biograph Studios movie lot at Fort Lee, N.J. He was the baby Marie Dressler clutched to her heart in his film debut, "Tillie's Punctured Romance," and the child tossed from the train by Pearl White in "The Perils of Pauline."

Berle appeared as a child actor in 50 silent films with such stars as Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Milton Sills, Mable Normand and Marion Davies.

He became a stand-up comic in 1931 vaudeville at the Palace Theater and was an instant hit. Thereafter he headlined in top nightclubs and theaters throughout the country and in several Broadway musicals.

Berle was the first major entertainer to accept the challenge of television, starring in the "Texaco Star Theater" in 1948. He made television history as the first entertainer to sign a multimillion dollar contract in 1951. The contract with NBC lasted until 1980 when Berle reached 72.

Berle married and divorced Joyce Mathews twice, then in 1953 married Ruth Cosgrove, one of the first women to break into entertainment publicity. They adopted a daughter, Vicki, and a son, Billy. Ruth Berle died from cancer on April 18, 1989, at 67.

Berle appeared in such films as "Tall, Dark and Handsome," 1941; "Sun Valley Serenade," 1941; "Over My Dead Body," 1942; "Margin for Error," 1943; "Always Leave Them Laughing," 1949; "Let's Make Love," 1960; "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," 1963; "The Loved One," 1965; "The Oscar," 1966; "The Happening," 1967; "Who's Minding the Mint," 1967; "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows," 1968; "Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?" 1969; "Lepke," 1975; "The Muppet Movie," 1979 and "Broadway Danny Rose," 1984.

In 2001, he appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards. In 1995, he provided the voice for the character Illuzor in the animated adventure "Storybook."

Milton Berle was one of the last of the burlesque comics to span the eras of vaudeville, movies, radio and television.

When he began on television, Berle wasn't the biggest star on the tube. He was the ONLY star -- shamelessly mugging, ribaldry, cross-dressing and theft of other comedians' material.

Fellow comedians called him "The Thief of Bad gags."

His hour-long capering was the forerunner of "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Red Skelton Show," "The Danny Kaye Show" and others of the genre that swamped TV in the '50s and '60s.

Berle filled his 60 minutes with stand-up routines, sketches and risqué blackouts, grabbing laughs, often old chestnuts from Joe Miller's Joke Book and other ancient sources, wherever he could find them.

He introduced guest stars, many of whom were making their TV debuts, jugglers, clowns, singers, acrobats and ventriloquists. Frequently Berle impudently joined a guest's act with hysterical results.

The brash, cigar-chomping Berle was a booming success when the only alternative was professional wrestling.

Most Americans had never seen an entertainer like Berle. He spewed jokes and one-liners, most of them outrageous or insulting, in a rapid-fire delivery, often making himself the butt of his raillery.

"The Texaco Star Theater" soon became "The Milton Berle Show," which ran on NBC for more than a decade.

It was said that Berle sold more TV sets than any advertising campaign. His show was so popular for a time that on Tuesday nights movie theaters were half filled and restaurants empty because people stayed home to watch Uncle Miltie.

There were an estimated 500,000 TV sets in use when Berle made his debut. A year later there were 1 million.

Contributing to his later ratings problems was the half-hour series "Life Is Worth Living," a religious show slotted opposite him hosted by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a Roman Catholic prelate.

Typically, Berle fired off a string of gags about a nice Jewish boy being undone by a priest.

Berle was the youngest and last of the country's (mostly New York's) legendary Jewish comedians: Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, George Jessel, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice and George Burns.

All were members of the famed New York Friars Club where entertainers gathered at lunch to gossip, rib and needle one another, which led to the Friars' infamous roasts.

Berle -- who frequented the Friars almost daily and was roasted more than six dozen times -- helped found the Friars Hollywood branch. He once said, "Without the Friars I would have to go out and rent an audience somewhere."

Typical of Friars humor was Berle's posthumous reflection on fellow comic Joe E. Lewis: "The day he died, bookmakers, pit bosses, loan sharks, hookers, and the night shift at Cutty Sark died."

One of Berle's favorite roast observations was made by gangster Al Capone who said, "My brother Ralph is so dumb he'd freeze to death outside a whorehouse waiting for the light to change."

Berle was pushed into children's amateur talent contests and neighborhood shows by his mother, Sarah, from the time he was a toddler.

Sarah attended all his theatrical performances, shouting for encores for her son, badgering casting agents, fighting for billing. Even after Milton hit the vaudeville circuit, Sarah Berle continued to be the ultimate stage mother and his No. 1 fan. She often played the foil for him from her seat in the audience.

As a young adult he appeared in Earl Carrol's "Vanities" and "The Ziegfeld Follies."

Although television was Berle's forte, he also starred in nightclubs and became an early headliner in Las Vegas casinos. He appeared in more than 30 feature movies in adult roles.

The comedian had become such a familiar face that he frequently appeared in cameo roles playing himself.

He made his feature film debut as a 6-year-old in the first full-length feature comedy film, "Tillie's Punctured Romance," a silent 1914 Mack Sennett epic starring Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, Mable Normand, Chester Conklin and the Keystone Kops.

Among Berle's many TV movies were "Family Business," "Off Your Rocker," "The Legend of Valentino," "Doyle Against the House," "Evil Roy Slade," "Side by Side" and "Seven in Darkness."

Berle's career as a major TV comedian tapered off as he increased his nightclub appearances and movie work.

He returned to weekly TV in 1960 as the host of "Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle," a show that survived only a year.

Berle also was a prolific author. He wrote: "Milton Berle: An Autobiography," "Earthquake," "Laughingly Yours," "Out of My Trunk," and "Milton Berle's Private Joke File: Over 10,000 of His Best Gags, Anecdotes, and One-Liners."

His 1988 book, "B.S. I Love You," subtitled "Sixty Funny Years with the Famous and the Infamous," is a collection of anecdotes and satire, mostly taken from rowdy Friars roasts down through the years.

During his lifetime, Berle took pride in being the consummate ham, willing at any time to face a camera or a room full of friends, or in arenas holding 50,000. He said he preferred working with a live audience, claiming the laughter and applause made him the happiest man in show business.

Berle understood the importance of developing new talent. He gave Elvis Presley one of his most important breaks, introducing the young rock 'n' roller to a nationwide audience on a TV special aboard an aircraft carrier in San Diego in early 1956.

In recent years Berle lived quietly in his Beverly Hills home with his second wife, Lorna. But he remained active in the show business community, visiting the Friars Club and frequently attending parties. He performed his act on stage in Atlantic City and Florida in the fall of 1997.

In the spring of 1997 Berle published a new coffee table magazine MILTON. At a cocktail party to introduce the publication in a fashionable Beverly Hills restaurant, Berle handed out cigars and copies of the quarterly periodical based on gaming in Las Vegas.

He was approaching his 89th birthday and said, "Our theme is 'We Drink, We Smoke, We Gamble,' Throw in a lotta laughs and that's not a bad formula for longevity is it?"

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