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Interview with George Burns

HOLLYWOOD - It could be any office in a bungalow on a Hollywood back lot, but three things say it belongs to George Burns. There is a photograph of Gracie Allen on the wall, a large cigar humidor on the desk and a coffee mug that says "God."

"I'm gonna play God again," Burns says. "They're making a sequel. What it's about is a secret. In the meantime, my next picture, I'm playing a guy 76 years old."

He pauses to draw on his cigar. Irving Fein, his agent, takes the cue. "George is playing a guy 76," Fein says, "and they're telling him he doesn't look old enough. George is 83 years old."

Burns removes the cigar, smiles, leaves a wisp of cigar smoke in the air. He's been using a cigar to punctuate his conversation for most of this century, and he has gotten to be very good at it. He does not look 83, or 76: He looks like an ageless, wise, old cherub, with round glasses and a sly smile and a voice that sneaks up on a sentence as his listeners eavesdrop.

"I told them it's not gonna be easy for me to play a man 76. 1 won't use makeup. I'll get older glasses. I'll buy an older-looking toupee."

He chuckles. Fein chuckles, and across the room, a secretary smiles and writes shorthand in a notebook. This dialog will perhaps go into "The Third Time Around," an autobiography he's working on. Bums works on something every day, he explains: "You don't mind if these people stay here during the interview? Something good might come up, and I'll put it in the book. I work here every morning, from 10 until noon. Then I drive over to the Hillcrest Country Club and play bridge. Then I take a nap."

"What's your secret, George?" asks Fein, who should know. Fein was Jack Benny's lifelong agent, and after Benny's death just before "The Sunshine Boys" was scheduled to start filming in 1975, it was Fein's idea to hire Burns for the role. That was the beginning of big things for Bums, who won an Academy Award and has, as they say in show business, been working ever since. "Oh, God!," with Burns in the title role, has grossed about $40 million.

Burns studies the cigar. "What's my secret? Drinking martinis, smoking cigars, going out with young girls and eating everything you want to eat providing you don't have to cut it with a knife. Why young girls? I'd go out with women my own age, but there are no women my age. Did you hear about my new picture?"

"The title," says Fein, "is 'Just You and Me, Kid.' Tell about it, George."

"I made it with Brooke Shields. It's a hell of a good picture. It comes out this summer. She's just a little girl, I think she just turned 14, she plays an orphan kid who's running away from some guy, and she turns up naked in the trunk of my car. But don't get me wrong: This isn't a 'Pretty Baby.' It's a comedy. I play myself. A lonely ex-vaudevillian. I hang around with a gang of guys, they call themselves the No-Shirt Gang, because they're all former professional magicians, and when they play poker they have to take off their shirts, or otherwise cards could be coming from anywhere. The No-Shirt Gang includes Ray Bolger, Leon Ames...a great cast. We hide the girl from the guys who are chasing her."

How'd you get along, working with a 14-year-old actress?

"When I was 14, I was arrested for trying to break into show business. Actually, Brooke has been acting since she was 4. That's nothing. I was acting when I was 2. When I was 7, I was in the Pee Wee Quartet. So I told her I started young so I had more experience...She's a good kid, she sent me a pair of roller skates. How did she know I needed another pair of roller skates?"

"Tell about the book, George," says Fein.

"It's a sequel to the book I wrote a year and a half ago, called 'Living It Up!' It's going to deal with what happened after Gracie retired, and then after she left...I'll put in some stuff about vaudeville, about motion pictures, radio, television, starting all over again in my late 70s on a new career.

"Some people thought I started all over. I never retired. I couldn't retire. I read where Robert Redford, he makes a million a picture, he wants to retire. So what's he gonna do, make felt hats? There was a guy in vaudeville, Eddie Leonard, he'd come out and make a farewell speech, this was his last performance - except for that great performance up in the sky, he'd be looking down from heaven at the audience, and so on. Great speech. He gave it for 18 years.

"Well, at least I worked. I worked in theaters sometimes where there were four people in the audience. If you were good, you didn't know it. You got to be philosophical. You learned little tricks of the trade. I was advised once, for example, that it was a good policy to follow the elephant act.

"It's easy to follow the elephants, they told me, because the elephants don't make any noise. They're very silent, so the audience is all tuned up to listen to you. The very worst thing you can do, they said, is follow someone like Madame Burkhardt and Her Trained Cockatoos. After all those birds are finished singing, the audience is going crazy from the noise. They want quiet. Not so after the elephants."

A pause. "Well, I followed an elephant act once." Another pause, as he regarded his cigar. "Four elephants came out and did the Charleston. Bump, bump, bump! You never heard such a noise. Not to mention that there were other reasons why you were better off coming on after the cockatoos."

A sly smile. "Every guy had his own theory. Professor Fink and His Trained Mules...Fink used to say, 'Every mule has his own personality. You just have to get to know them.' I told Fink I don't want to know his mules. 'Just so,' says Fink, 'and how will you ever learn to tell apart their personalities that way?'"

"George talks in his book about the art of taking bows," Fein said.

"Bows. There were tricks in vaudeville. You used to see who could get the most bows, because the theater manager would wire back to the home office how many bows an act took. This was before Neilsen. You took six bows, you're big, you get a raise. So you'd milk the applause. Come out first and bow. Then come out with a ukulele. Then come out with a saxophone. You never played, but you looked like a versatile musician. Come out with the American flag. Fred Allen did that. Anything for applause."

Another slow draw on the cigar. "There was a guy, a tramp comedian named Joe Jackson. He was famous for how he handled the curtain. He had these big, floppy shoes, and he'd stand onstage just where the curtain fell, so his toes would be sticking out under the curtain. So the audience knows he's still there. They go crazy, applauding. Meanwhile, Jackson slips out of the shoes. He waits until the applause is dying down, and then he steps out from the side of the stage in his stocking feet. That brought the house down."

Burns regarded his cigar solemnly, looked up, shook his head in sorrow. "One night," he said, "the curtain comes down. Jackson steps out of his shoes. Then he dies backstage. Drops dead. The audience knows the gag, see, and so they're cheering, applauding....the greatest ovation Joe Jackson ever got, and he didn't live to hear it."

"When I tell that story," George Burns said, "People sometimes burst into tears. I hate to break the news to them that I made it up."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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