Catching George Burns
In The Second Of A Three-Part Series, Two Entertainment Journalists Recount The Tale Of How They Managed To Secure An Interview With One Of The Grandest Kings Of Comedy
(Left)Tom Johnson of Reel to Real, (Center) Comedian George Burns, (Right) David Fantle of Reel to Real.
Comedian George Burns. Image provided by Tom Johnson and David Fantle of Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
July 27, 2015 — The unmistakable smell of cigar smoke hit us like a third-stage smog alert. The pungent odor is what greeted all visitors to George Burns’ Hollywood office.
The office itself was Spartan when we visited George the week he turned 99 in 1995 – just a few mementos from his 80-plus-year show business career. What was conspicuous was the framed photo on the wall of Burns’ late wife and performing partner, Gracie Allen.
Burns was seated in a director’s chair inscribed with his name and clutching his second favorite partner, a cigar. In between puffs, he sipped tea from a mug appropriately inscribed with the word “God” – a tongue-in-cheek reference to his starring role in the two Oh, God! films.
The day before our visit, Los Angeles – as it often is – was rocked by a small earthquake. We asked George if he had felt the tremor.
“I look forward to them,” he said without missing a beat. “They’re my form of aerobics.”
“Here boys, have a cigar,” he offered. We reminded him that it was the same 85-cent El Producto Queen he gave us when we first visited with him 16 years before.
“OK, good. Come back in another 16 years and I’ll give you another one,” he deadpanned. (Burns died the next year after reaching the century mark.)
At the time, the almost-centenarian still smoked at least half a dozen stogies a day – “more when I’m working,” he said between drags.
Although the air in Burns’ office was definitely stale, his outlook was amazingly fresh. In a rare serious moment, he explained his formula for staying young and offered a topical message for youth of any generation.
“Get out of bed, keep working and love what you’re doing. The most important thing is to fall in love with what you are doing. If kids focused on one thing that they would eventually like to do and just did it, they wouldn’t have to be turned on by drugs. Your future will turn you on. I get turned on by show business. I smoke cigars and drink martinis, but I don’t use any stuff. I don’t need it.”
Burns’ career spanned more than seven decades, from vaudeville and radio to movies and TV. The anchor for more than 40 of those years was Gracie Allen. She retired from the act in 1958 due to ill health and died in 1964.
Burns always was the first to credit Allen for the success of the team, but he said playing the role of the straight man was not as easy as it appeared.
“You think it's easy being a straight man?” he asked. “I just walked on stage and asked Gracie: ‘How’s your brother?’ She’d go off on a long comic routine and then I would say: ‘Is that so?’ I had seven or eight of those. To be a straight man you have to have good ears. When the audience laughs, you don’t talk. The minute they stop laughing, you say: ‘Is that so?’”
George Burns made performance art out of growing old. Retirement was never been part of his vocabulary.
“Listen boys,” he said. “You can’t help growing older, but you don’t have to get old.”
(Next week: George Burns on playing the “two-a-day” in vaudeville.)
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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