Obituary: George Burns

The first time Burns and Allen appeared together in vaudeville, Gracie was the "straight man" and George was the comedian, writes Dick Vosburgh. "The audience laughed at her questions instead of my answers," he remembered. "So from then on, I gave her all the jokes, I was never a jerk. I wanted to keep on smoking good cigars."

Certainly George Burns was no jerk. For 36 years he made every decision concerning the team's career and finances. It was George who persuaded Gracie to accept a Hollywood film contract. It was he who masterminded the famous radio publicity stunts: Gracie breaking into shows, asking for information about her "missing" brother . . . an equally ubiquitous Gracie urging listeners on all networks to vote for her in the 1940 presidential election. (She even received several thousand write-in votes.)

Despite such gimmicks, Burns and Allen's radio rating dipped dramatically in 1942. Burns analysed the decline: although they were widely known as a middle-aged married couple with children, they were still playing Boyfriend and Girlfriend. When they returned to the air, their roles were Husband and Wife, and the rating soared again; soon they were attracting a weekly 45 million listeners. Said Burns: "We were the only couple in radio history to get married because we had to."

In 1950 he talked Gracie into trying television. Theirs was the first sitcom in which a story developed from week to week. Also unique was the way Burns stepped out of the plot to speak directly to the audience after watching the action on his own secret tele- vision set. "I guess I invented closed-circuit TV," he brag-ged. His weekly monologues - studded with well-honed one-liners - revealed, at long last, George Burns, the consummate comedian.

When angina forced Gracie to retire in 1958 (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was then television's longest-running sitcom), her husband produced and starred in The George Burns Show, in which he played a frequently harassed producer called George Burns. The series had a solid supporting cast, famous guest stars and a fresh, lively script, but only lasted one season. Burns later wrote: "The show had everything it needed to be successful except Gracie."

He put together a night-club act. Supported by a singer called Bobby Darin, he first played Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, an engagement which led to many more appearances on the club circuit. Next he formed a very successful double act, in which he and Carol Channing performed old George and Gracie routines. "He rehears-ed right down to the last puff of the cigar," said Channing.

Burns put the same attention to detail into McCadden, his television production company. In addition to The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and The George Burns Show McCadden made The People's Choice (1955-58), in which Jackie Cooper played a small-town mayor who owned a talking basset- hound, and Mr Ed (1961-66), in which Alan Young played a suburbanite who owned a talking horse. Other McCadden productions included The Bob Cummings Show, Panic, No Time for Sergeants and Wendy and Me (1964), which co-starred Connie Stevens as a dizzy young housewife and Burns as an ex-Vaudevillian who owned the building where she lived. Two weeks before the series reached the air, Gracie died.

Devastated by her death, Burns plunged more furiously than ever into work; he produced television series for NBC and ABC-TV, lectured at universities, made television guest appearances, developed new night-club acts and wrote books before becoming, at the age of 79, a genuine movie star. "Al Lewis", his Oscar-winning role in The Sunshine Boys, originally had been slated for Jack Benny, his closest friend, who died shortly before the film began production.

In his book Gracie - A Love Story (1988) Burns revealed that Gracie was his second wife: in his early vaudeville days he formed a dancing act with an exotic-looking brunette named Hannah Siegel, whom he rechristened Hermosa Jose, after his favourite cigar. When the act was booked for a 26-week tour, Hannah's parents refused to allow her to travel the country with George unless he married her. The marriage lasted 26 weeks.

Once a month George visited Gracie's grave and spoke to her at length. "I don't know if she hears me, but I've got nothing to lose," he said. "And it gives me a chance to break in new material."

Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns), comedian, writer, producer: born New York City 20 January 1896; married first Hannah Siegel (marriage dissolved), 1926 Grace Allen (died 1964; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 9 March 1996.

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