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Hunting George Burns,

Comedy’s Elder Statesman

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(Left)Tom Johnson of Reel to Real, (Center) Comedian George Burns, (Right) David Fantle of Reel to Real.
The Iconic Leader Of The First Wave Of Comedy In The Electronic Age Is Pursued By A Pair Of Entertainment Journalists In The First Part Of A Series About How They Secured An Interview With The Legend

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

July 20, 2015 — Our first meeting with George Burns came in a roundabout way, to put it mildly.

In the summer of 1978 we were waiting one night outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles after seeing a show. We’d just put in a call to the Beverly Hills Cab Company for a lift back to our hotel. After what seemed an interminable amount of time (taxis weren’t and aren’t exactly ubiquitous in L.A.), a paint-chipped cab pulled up. Our cabby introduced himself – immodestly perhaps – as Seymour Barish: “God’s gift to West Coast public transportation.”

He was a bewhiskered old coot (maybe in his late 60s) dressed in Converse “Jack Purcell” sneakers, a grimy knit stocking cap and blue jeans that were so streaked with motor oil they looked as if they had seen service as his dipstick wipe rag. We asked to be driven to our hotel in West Hollywood. Barish flipped the meter, raced the engine and we were off.

Seymour’s cab had to be one of the dirtiest in Southern California. Besides the absence of one door handle, there has a gaping hole the size of a basketball in the passenger floor of his taxi through which we could view the passing of each white stripe of highway divider as he drove. We worriedly asked Seymour if the opening was to be used as a passenger foot brake. “No,” he replied, “it’s the emergency exit in case of fire, but no one gets outta here without payin’ first.”

We could understand the need for an emergency exit; the back seat was littered with every kind of combustible detritus imaginable, including empty Coca-Cola bottles, cigarette butts and candy wrappers all amid a generous padding of yellowing back issues of the Los Angeles Times.

One of the articles, we noticed, contained an article about Barish. It said that he had recovered more than $1 million in stolen government bonds. Seymour explained to us that when driving home from work one night, he stopped his cab because he saw an abandoned wooden box that he thought he would convert into a “dandy breakfast table for the kitchen nook.” But after discovering the amount of money inside, he took it down to the police station where he was promptly arrested.

“It seemed L.A.’s finest thought I had stolen the money,” Barish said incredulously. “But what really burned me was that after the whole mess blew over, I wasn’t even offered a reward.”

Seymour also mentioned with a sly twinkle in his bloodshot eye that he knew our hotel intimately, having lived there briefly two years before. He said he had driven “clientele” of some of the young ladies to it. This was startling news to us, especially since we were paying $29.50 a night for our rooms and thought we deserved better than a brothel. When we voiced our outrage to Barish, he suggested we double up with a couple of the ladies.

“Problem solved,” he said. Or just begun, we thought.

We wondered if Barish had driven any movie stars around town. (This was a question we methodically asked of all our L.A. cabbies.) He pulled out an autograph book – we had thought it was his dispatch book – that contained such names as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Groucho Marx and George Burns. After 35 years of driving the Beverly Hills beat, Seymour said it might be more appropriate to ask which film stars he hadn’t driven.

We were particularly interested in Burns’ signature. Barish said that he and Burns were the best of friends and that if we wanted to meet him, he could drive us to George’s house right away. We thought Barish was putting us on – and dared him to prove he wasn’t joking.

As we cruised down Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, we began to squirm, and when we turned up Burns’ driveway, we realized Barish wasn’t bluffing. We had an acute case of stage fright and decided we couldn’t just knock on Burns’ front door unaccompanied and unwelcome; Seymour would have to come with us.

The three of us then trooped up the sidewalk and rang the doorbell. It was then that Barish, with the sudden spring of a bullfrog leaping off a dock, disappeared into a flower bush just off the front landing

We suddenly saw less of Seymour.

A drowsy houseboy answered and tersely informed us that Mr. Burns usually slept in the evening. We shot a glance at our watches; it was 10 p.m. Taking pity on a couple of flummoxed rubes, the houseboy gave us the number to Burns’ office.

Embarrassed, and with a haste prompted by the long leash of Burns’ pissed-off Doberman, we returned to the car. Barish, acting as if everything was status quo and that we hadn’t noticed his reenactment of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, asked if we wanted to go anywhere else.

“To the hotel,” we huffed.

“The bordello it is,” Seymour said.

Upon arriving, we saw the meter had been run up to around $60. We paid Seymour and watched as he gleefully drove off in the direction of Sunset Boulevard rhythmically tooting his horn. We both figured it was probably a set-up and that in due course he’d double back and pay off his co-conspirator, the houseboy.

Next day …

After putting in a call to Burns’ office located not far from out hotel, a place called Hollywood General Studios, we met with some initial resistance from Burns’ longtime assistant and all-around Man Friday, Jack Langdon.

“You want to interview George? Well, he’s pretty busy these days, and besides, he happens to be out of town right now,” Langdon said dismissively.

“That’s not what George’s houseboy told us last night when we knocked on the door. We could practically hear Mr. Burns snoring upstairs (a tad impertinent perhaps, but what did we have to lose?).

“Damn, you caught me!” Langdon said. “If you can get your butts over here pronto, I’ll work you in … but you gotta move fast!”

To say we made tracks is an understatement. We appeared at Burns’ office faster than Seymour had disappeared off Burns’ landing the night before.

(Next week: Meeting George and learning his secret for staying young.)

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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