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A Chat With Uncle Miltie

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David Fantle (left), Milton Berle, Tom Johnson.
The Man Who Many Credit As The First True Television Star Discusses Life, Humor, How He Got His Most Famous Moniker, And Other Things That Go Funny In The Night

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
 
Jan. 26, 2015 — He was known as the “thief of bad gags,” for his proclivity to lift jokes from other comics. While now basically a blip on the pop culture radar, buck-toothed comedian Milton Berle deserves his due as the father of modern network television.

In June 1948, Berle entered the newfangled world of television and Tuesday nights would never be the same again. He became, literally, an overnight sensation and his Texaco Star Theater soon was responsible for selling more televisions than the collective sales effort of Philco, Admiral and Zenith (editor’s note: For those born after 1980, Philco, Admiral and Zenith are brands of televisions).

TV proved the perfect medium for Berle’s no-holds-barred style of physical comedy and sight gags. He admitted during a 1995 interview in the aptly named “Milton Berle Room” at the Beverly Hills Friars Club that the Texaco show was, in effect, a televised vaudeville show, where he acquired much of his comic chops during the 1930s.

Early in the run of the program, Berle was dubbed “Mr. Television.” Another nickname “Uncle Miltie,” came about by accident.

“I received a lot of complaints from parents who wrote and told me their kids wouldn’t go to sleep until our show was over,” said Berle. “So I went on the air and told all the children watching to ‘listen to their Uncle Miltie’ and go to bed right after the show. Shortly after that spot I was in a parade in Boston and a couple of workmen in hard hats yelled, ‘Hi, Uncle Miltie.’ I had no idea when I first used it that the name would stick.”

Berle was one of five children born to Moses and Sarah Berlinger in 1908. With his trademark Bugs Bunny jowls, Berle played “the kid” in dozens of silent films starring the biggest names of the day – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand.

But when growing pains cut short his cute kid status in films, Berle began a slow, but steady climb to vaudeville stardom. He made his feature film debut in a comedy, New Faces of 1937, now available on DVD from Warner Archive, where he played one-half of a team of Broadway producers who hatch a scheme to bilk investors by staging an over-subscribed flop. Sounds a bit like an earlier version of The Producers. Berle was a casual participant in films, topping off his career with cameos in Broadway Danny Rose, The Muppet Movie and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as well as numerous TV guest appearances.

Berle, always with cigar in hand, took his final curtain call in 2002 at age 93.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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