George Burns takes a centenary bow bow after 100 years bow

TIM CORNWELL

Los Angeles

"I can't die," George Burns would say. "I'm booked." Older than the Model-T Ford, the comedian played off death and ageing like a stooge.

"I've been around for 1,000 years," he remarked in 1991, when he was only 95. "So I walk out on the stage and everybody stands up saying: 'How do you like that - he walks'!"

The man who entered vaudeville at eight in a boy's singing group called the Peewee Quartet and with his wife, Gracie Allen, moved from stage success to become a US comic institution in the early days of radio and television, is 100 on Saturday. For years Burns, who won an Oscar at the age of 80, has defied old age, and planned a series of centenary events. But after a decline in health after a fall 18 months ago, he will celebrate quietly at home, his manager said. He cancelled a birthday show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, a five-day run booked out two years ago.

Earlier he had called off a centenary appearance at the London Palladium. "The Brits wouldn't give me a three-year deal," he joked. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has named 20 January George Burns Day in honour of a "national treasure".

He will probably appear, but not perform, at one birthday party in Beverly Hills to honour his million-dollar donations to the local Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where two streets nearby are named for Burns and Allen. The couple made their radio debut in Britain in 1930, engaged by the BBC to do five short spots as they toured vaudeville stages. But Gracie concluded that the British "took us too seriously", and they never achieved the level of celebrity they enjoyed in the US, where their show ran on radio from 1932 to their last television appearance in 1958.

Born Nathan Birnbaum to Orthodox Jews who immigrated from eastern Europe, Burns was by his late 20s only a second-rate touring act when he met Gracie, then a 17-year-old actress. As their partnership took off, Burns played the straight man, the tolerant cigar-smoking husband, to Allen's dizzy, scatterbrained housewife. He directed, wrote, and developed their act, but she took the punch lines and drew the audiences. He adopted the cigar as a prop for something to do with his hands, according to George Burns and the Hundred Year Dash, a new biography by Martin Gottfried. But it became - with thick, black-rimmed glasses - his trademark.

When his wife died of cancer aged 58, after nearly 40 years of a what he called a 24-hour marriage on and off the stage, his visits to her crypts to talk aloud about work and their two children became legendary.

But his solo career made an extraordinary recovery with The Sunshine Boys in 1974, when he played an ageing vaudeville comedian coming out of retirement for a last show opposite Walter Matthau. It won him the Academy Award for best supporting actor, and he followed by playing God four years later with John Denver in the film "Oh God!" Around the time of a television special in 1993 to celebrate his eight decades in show business, though he sang "I wish I was 18 again", Burns began to worry about forgetting his lines.

In cancelling his birthday appearances he seemed to show the deference that marked his career. "No matter how funny you think the joke is," he once said. "If they don't laugh, take it out."

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