Milton Berle made his acting debut in 1914, at the age of 6, as the little newsboy in Charles Chaplin's "Tillie's Punctured Romance." Since then, he has been in vaudeville, radio and the movies and in 1948 became television's first big star.
After a TV comeback in 1966 didn't take, he's done mostly theater, with time out for TV guest appearances, a few movies and an unusually frank autobiography.
He closes Sunday night at the Arlington Park Theater, where he's starring with Jack Gilford in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys." His next project will be 48 one-night stands as the headliner in a nostalgic tribute to vaudeville. After that, there's an offer to appear in a TV series based on "The Sunshine Boys."
At lunch in the Cliff Dwellers' Club, he was a brash, charming, nonstop talker with an uncanny ability to turn observations into jokes - and jokes into observations.
Q. "The Sunshine Boys" is about an aging, competitive vaudeville team. Since you and Gilford started out in vaudeville and even worked a lot together....
A. Yeah, it's a natural. Neil Simon is the best in the business, but I'll tell you something: He's harder to learn than Shakespeare. I've done "Macbeth," "Othello"...the dialog gives you cues and counterpoint. In Simon, not a chance. The characters are always thinking what's on their own minds. Half the time they're not even listening to the other guy. I'll give you an example. Here, I brought along the script. The two old guys are talking about what's funny. "Chicken is funny," one says. "Cucumber is funny," the other says. "I got a call from CBS," says the first one, "CBS?" says the second one. See what I mean? If you think only of your own part, you're lost. You gotta know all the dialog or you sink. Q. But the characters are pretty close to....
A. Oh, definitely. They're called Lewis and Clark. Maybe they're supposed to be Smith and Dale or a lot of other guys - but they're true to life. It's not so much what they say that makes them convincing, as the way they behave. That's the one thing I've learned in theater that I'm sure of: Character is based on behavior. Forget the messages. See how the character behaves in a situation.
Q. You've done every conceivable kind of show business...
A. Not every.
Q. ...how does legitimate theater compare with some of the other kinds of performing you've done?
A. Well, you're lucky enough to be in something by Simon, you know you're okay. I've been in some bombs. I was in a play in New York, I'll never forget it, it was called "The Good-by People." It was written by Herb Gardner, who also directed it. He also screwed it up. We knew we were in trouble. Opening night, we ran 40 minutes long. "The Good-by People" opens with a monologue that is 23 minutes long. I do the monologue. It held, but then the second act begins the same way. He takes out a line here, a line there. "Herb, you've got to take out chunks!" Well, make a long story short, we don't go to Sardi's that night. I couldn't stand the "Terrific! Terrific!" from everybody, and then the reviews are death. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon came in from the coast, we all went to El Morocco. Hell with the reviews. We'll have a party. Then the headwaiter, he has to make himself useful, he calls the Times and tells us Clive Barnes didn't like it. Thanks a lot. A silence falls, and my wife Ruth says: "Now can I take off my lucky dress?" I'll tell you something: The only thing wrong with that show was that the seats faced the stage.
Q. Was that...
A. Let me tell you about Ruth. She's a very funny lady. She gave me a line once, I used it at a dinner, it got a great laugh: "President Ford is sorry he couldn't be here tonight, but he had to go get a charisma bypass." Great line. She was one of the few who could get along with Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. One of the most hated men in Hollywood. He died, they held the funeral on Sound Stage 6 at Columbia, the crowd was so big. Red Skelton looks around, he says, "Well, it goes to show you - give the public what they want." But I was saying about Ruth. We're at a screening at Cohn's house one night, "The Caine Mutiny," before it was released. Up go the lights and he wants to know what everybody thinks. "Terrific! Terrific!" Not Ruth. She says it stinks. I'm shrinking in my chair. Harry is shouting at her, he'll bet $2,000 it outgrosses "From Here to Eternity." Ruth says a sea-faring picture should be in black and white, and, what's more, the picture also has too many weakling faces. Eight months later, she collects on the bet.
Q. The stories they tell about the old movie moguls, the Cohns and Mayers and...
A. I do a story, it looks funny, it doesn't sound funny. It's 1941. I'm at Fox doing "Sun Valley Serenade." Darryl Zanuck always liked to have a couple of comics around as court jesters. He calls in Phil Silvers and me to look at the screen test of a new girl he's considering. He smokes a cigar like this. Sticks it between his upper teeth and his upper lip, it sticks down like Bugs Bunny. How he inhales, don't ask me. We look at the screen test, the lights go up, he says the girl's okay but she gotta have her teeth fixed. I stick my cigar up like this, I say: "What's the matter with her teeth?" But it's not funny in print. Have a cigar?
Q. Thanks, I don't smoke.
A. I belong to the Hillcrest Country Club, you know. Great crowd of people. Speaking of the great movie moguls. One day we're sitting there. George Burns, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, I think Jack's manager, Irving Fein, and myself. An old man comes in, he's 99 years old, he eats like a horse. He has ox-tail soup, he breaks the bones with his teeth. Herring all over his forehead. It's Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures. "Irving," I said, "is he really 99 years old?" Irving looks at me. "He gets to 100," he says, "they're gonna split him, two for one." We're laughing, he looks over. Benny speaks up. "Hello, Mr. Zukor," he says. "Jack Benny?" says Zukor. "Are you still living?" You get to be 99, just seeing somebody you know is a triumph...
Q. You sort of contributed to the end of that big studio era. Television came along, and you were Mr. Television.
A. I got a break in '48, I was hot overnight. The Texaco Show. My wife Ruth said it took me 35 years in show business to become a star overnight. Not everyone would have had the patience. They said I sold a lot of sets, people bought one to see the Texaco Show. I remember Joe E. Lewis, he agreed: "Berle sold a lot of sets," he said. "He was on TV, and I sold mine, my uncle sold his..." But in 1951 - and this will give you an idea how far ahead they didn't think - I went to L. B. Mayer, I went to Zanuck, I wanted to originate the show from the coast, from one of their sound stages. They wouldn't listen. They were in the motion picture business. TV wasn't here to stay.
Q. Those years are still known as the golden age of TV. A. I'll tell you why that is. It was the spontaneity that's why, today, people love sports and political conventions on TV. You never know what's gonna happen. When TV shows were live, you stood there, and if a joke bombed, there was silence. Then you had to dig back in your memory to see what you did when you bombed at the State-Lake. I remember when Ted Lewis did his TV debut on my show. His wife convinces him to wear his toupee on the show. He didn't think so, but she insisted. He does his "Is Everybody Happy?" He sings "When My Baby Smiles at Me." At the end of the song, he puts out his hand, his top hat runs right down his arm, and his toupee runs right down after it. That was spontaneity.
Q. You were working in front of live audiences, too. More like vaudeville...
A. Exactly. I'm doing these 48 one-night stands. Vaudeville, just like it was. I'm going out with the Ink Spots, the Harmonica Rascals, Donald O'Connor, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Haymes, Georgie Jessel...Jessel, what a guy, he still chases the girls, only now when he catches them he can't remember why he was chasing them.
Q. You going to do all the big Cities?
A. Naw. The hinterlands. Harrisburg. Bethlehem. Skokie. Q. And then the TV series based on "Sunshine Boys?" A. Well, I don't know. After the first six episodes, where they gonna go from there? You can't do a situation comedy set in the old actors' home. There'd have to be a supporting cast. Nephews and nieces. Still, it would be nice to have a show about older people for a change. All the people on TV shows all seem to be the same age. The networks say they want the 16-to-25 viewers. Hell with them. They're 16 to 25, they ought to be out having a good time, not watching television. My son Billy, he's only 14, he's too busy with his radio-controlled plane and thinking of the chicks already. Q. You also do a lot of benefits and roasts.
A. I love to. I was at a roast a couple months ago, Frank Sinatra. I look out into the audience and say: "It's a great thrill to be here with so many of Frank's friends. I'll bet three-fourths of you know where Jimmy Hoffa is." Big laugh. Sinatra, nobody knows how generous this man is, he gives the money to build a hospital.
Q. It's like you have a joke for every situation.
A. I do. I walk into the Hillcrest Country Club, here's Burns, there's Groucho, I'm the youngest guy there. "Berle!" they say. "Who did the joke so-and-so?" I tell them. I have a file of 5 million jokes, cross-indexed by subject, by comic, who did them first, and where. There's no such thing as an old joke. Just an old audience that heard the joke before. That's a joke. But I'll tell something, I'll never get tired of this business. All I can lay off is two weeks. Then I get nervous, the nails go. How much golf can I play?