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George Burns, Comedy's Elder Statesman, Dies

Hollywood: An American institution whose career spanned vaudeville, radio, TV and the movies, he was 100.

March 10, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Burns--the indefatigable entertainer whose staying power became the last, most endearing gag in a graceful, laugh-filled career--died Saturday morning at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 100 years and 49 days old.

The comedian, actor, singer and author apparently died of heart failure a few hours after his nurse found him shaking and breathing shallowly in his bed. His son, Ronnie, was with him at the end.

There were no last-second one-liners or pithy sign-offs, said Burns' longtime manager and friend, Irving Fein. But for years, Burns had insisted in a gravelly monotone: "I don't believe in dying. . . . It's been done."

Condolences poured into the Burns home from around the nation, recalling the comedian's many incarnations--as the vaudevillian, the hit radio and television act with his beloved wife, Gracie Allen, and the irascible elder statesman of comedy.

In a statement, President Clinton called Burns "one of the great entertainers of all time," adding: "George Burns' sense of timing and captivating smile touched the hearts and funny bones of more than three generations. He enabled us to see humor in the toughest of times and laugh together as a nation."

Burns' friend of nearly eight decades, comedian Milton Berle said: "He's up there in heaven with Gracie, doing their act. And if I know George, he'll be throwing one-liners at St. Peter."

Burns had been in ill health since July 1994, when he slipped and fell in the shower at his home in Las Vegas. His frailty caused him to cancel performances celebrating

his centenary at the London Palladium and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He was also too ill with the flu to attend his 100th birthday bash in January.

Burns will be interred alongside Allen at a private funeral service Tuesday at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, Fein said. A public memorial may be scheduled later.

In the raw and cynical world of many of today's performers, Burns was a cheerful and reassuring anachronism--whose silly songs and arid one-liners often targeted his own foibles and his legendary affinity for a pretty girl, a stiff drink and a good cigar.

Into his final days, Burns was still attending his regular bridge game at Hillcrest Country Club near Beverly Hills and talking vaguely with Fein about another comeback. He was tickled that his last of several books--"100 Years, 100 Stories"--was atop the bestseller list.

'Love What You Do'

As much as he became an institution in his final decades, there are few who recall that Burns had come up as a struggling performer on the vaudeville circuit. He began the century singing for pennies on New York street corners. He nearly ended the century wisecracking on compact disc and playing, by satellite, to audiences worldwide.

"It's been hard to imagine show business before George Burns," said Bob Hope, who now, at 92, becomes comedy's elder statesman. "Now, it's difficult to imagine show business without him. . . . This is once when 100 years seems so short a time."

Burns often said none of his success would have been possible without Allen, even though his career took on even greater dimensions after her death in 1964.

With his raspish voice, thick glasses and ever-present cigar, he joked about his age and his singing--often interspersing the gags among lines of some obscure song such as "If You Talk in Your Sleep, Don't Mention My Name."

When 1,500 people attended his 85th birthday party in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 20, 1981, Burns repeated one of his familiar observations: "I'm asked how I lived to be 85 and all I can say is: I drink martinis, smoke cigars and dance very close."

His 90th birthday party in January 1986 featured President Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra and, of course, Burns, who told a national television audience: "I'm gonna stay in show business until I'm the only one left."

Burns seemed bent on that goal. At 95, he signed a five-year contract to continue his popular appearances at the Las Vegas Riviera; his planned 100th birthday shows were sold out a decade in advance. At 98, while recovering from surgery to drain fluid from his brain, he was reportedly asked what his doctor thought of his drinking and smoking.

"He's dead," Burns quipped from his hospital bed.

He was always busy, noting that the older he got the more he seemed to do. "The main thing," he advised, "is to get a job and love what you do. That keeps you young. I was old at 27, because I wasn't working. Now I'm young."

Even in his 90s, Burns spent a couple of hours every morning working with his secretary and a writer at his office on Las Palmas Avenue. Then he drove to Hillcrest for lunch at the "Round Table" of comedians and actors. These often included Berle and--until they died--Danny Thomas, Groucho Marx, George Jessel and Burns' close friend of more than half a century, Jack Benny.

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