ON A JETLINER HEADED FROM Reno to Los Angeles, George Burns is reading a Newsweek cover story about the troubled life of the late John Lennon. "Drugs?" Burns suddenly blurts out, his voice rat tling like a loose muffler. "Why did John Lennon want to take drugs? He was at the top; he had everything."
It's suggested that perhaps the pressure of overwhelming fame was too much for Lennon. "What pressures?" Burns wants to know. He dismisses the suggestion with a little flip of his hand.
He pauses and takes a sip of his Bloody Mary. A look of confusion flickers in his dark blue eyes. "Listen," he says, "if you're a dress cutter and you cut women's dresses all day long and you don't make any money and you can't feed your family . . . then you take drugs. But John Lennon, he was at the top."
But couldn't Lennon's emotionally disrupted childhood have been a factor? "No," says Burns, sounding mystified by such psychobabble. "You get beyond those things, leave them behind you. You grow up."
It's inconceivable to Burns that Lennon surrendered to his own demons in the face of critical acclaim; Burns has suffered more than a few of his own traumas, yet managed to survive and conquer them. Even though he never mentions it without wry humor, he experienced some bleak days growing up in a poor Jewish neighborhood on New York's Lower East Side. From the age of 7 until his late 20s, Burns was a bottom-of-the-bill song-and-dance man. Then, he paired up with Gracie Allen, and suddenly, he was half of a husband-and-wife comedy team on a 38-year winning streak. In 1964, the luck ran out: Allen died of heart failure, and Burns experienced the indignity of a decade-long downward slide as he worked on developing a one-man act. "After Gracie died," says Mort Lachman, a veteran comedy writer and executive producer of such sitcoms as "All in the Family" and "Kate and Allie," "George had to learn from scratch, start all over again. It took him 10 years to do it. Anybody else would have tried it and quit. But George stayed with it. And he got better and better and better."
In 1976, when Burns won the Academy Award for his role in "The Sunshine Boys," it was more than just the end of Burns' career slump, Lachman says. "It was like the phenomenal rebirth of a human being. To me, that's the unusual part about George. He became a major part of the entertainment world. Twice."
Today, George Burns may be the most beloved man in Hollywood. Wherever he goes, people stick to him like static cling. Among comedians, he currently holds the sixth-highest "Q" rating (a measure of audience appeal and familiarity widely used in the entertainment industry), one notch below Eddie Murphy's. His latest book, "Gracie: A Love Story," co-authored by David Fisher, flew to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List only three weeks after publication. Last month, Burns received the Kennedy Center's prestigious lifetime achievement award. Tonight, he will be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in a ceremony to be broadcast Jan. 23, three days after his 93rd birthday.
Burns' popularity reflects the rare choice in our culture to accept age over youth. He projects an optimistic attitude about the inevitability of aging. But his appeal goes beyond that. There is a sweetness that radiates from him, a quality that "Sunshine Boys" producer Ray Stark describes as "a tremendous inner truth. Acting, in my opinion, is secondary as far as movies are concerned. The first thing an audience wants is to believe and like someone. George has a wonderful, endearing honesty about him."
IT'S 9 ON AFriday night. Tomorrow evening, Burns will perform at Washington State University's Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum in Pull man. But tonight he is eating dinner with Irving Fein, his 77-year-old manager, and Morty Jacobs, his pianist of 23 years, at a noisy hotel steakhouse called the Broiler Room.
"Watch this," Fein stage-whispers. Like anyone who's grown up poor, Burns loathes wasting food. So when he can't finish his outsize brandy snifter of pink bay shrimp, he tries to trick Jacobs into eating it. "Try a couple forkfuls, Morty, it's good," coos Burns. Pause. "Here, Morty, have another bite." Pause. When Jacobs ultimately confesses that he's allergic to shellfish, Burns says: "Eat the shrimp and die, Morty. I've never seen anyone die right at the dinner table." This is a typical Burns joke; it's naughty-boy funny. At his age, he knows he can say whatever he wants and get away with it. Even in an interview, where Burns tends to rely heavily on ritualized anecdotes, he'll occasionally let loose. He loves the shock value, that gasp of recognition that comes when his audience realizes that underneath that stiff, gray hairpiece is a mind that is always ticking.