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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

Comedian George Burns was born 121 years ago today. It seems unfathomable to me that I can have so many distinct memories of a guy who was born well over a century ago but that’s what happens if you live to be 100 years old as Burns did – you transcend multiple generations.

Like most of the old stars, I remember George Burns primarily from the variety shows and talk shows of the 1960s – 1980s. However, George Burns, who had been working as a performer since the first decade of the twentieth century, also became a full-fledged movie star in the seventh decade of the century with movies like The Sunshine Boys, Oh God!, and Just You and Me, Kid. By that time, I was entering my teenage years and so I was able to see all of his movies at the theater or on television.

It’s a well-known story by now but George Burns’ best friend Jack Benny had been cast in the part of Al Lewis for the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys. They had started preliminary work on the film when Benny fell sick. He died soon after of stomach cancer. Burns was distraught over his friend’s death. For many years, Irving Fein had been an agent with one client – Jack Benny. Then, no doubt because of their close relationship, Fein took on George Burns as well. When Benny died, Fein suggested Burns for the role of Al Lewis despite the fact that Burns hadn’t appeared in a film in over 30 years. Burns won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Sunshine Boys and  a whole new career opened up for him.

In this clip from a Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1989, George Burns comes on to plug his new book, All My Best Friends. I have stated on more than one occasion that this is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it through every year or two just to brighten my spirits. It is filled with anecdotes of Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, and more. It is one of the great histories of our early show biz giants.

Happy Birthday Georgie. I hope you’re enjoying a cigar and a martini right now.

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