Milton Berle, the first major star of the television era and whose career started in vaudeville and spanned more than 80 years, died Wednesday in his sleep at his home in West Los Angeles. He was 93.
Known by such sobriquets as “Mr. Television,” “The Thief of Bad Gags” and “Uncle Miltie,” the comic performer had a career that spanned much of the 20th century, reflecting audiences’ changing tastes in entertainment.
Berle worked in vaudeville, then early Charlie Chaplin silents, moving into Broadway, nightclubs and radio — and then the fledgling medium of TV, where he gained his greatest popularity. About the only area of showbiz he didn’t conquer was videogames.
In his last years, he was a Hollywood fixture making endless public appearances, always ready with the one-liner. From the mid-1980s, he chalked up a bunch of appearances in films (“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Broadway Danny Rose”) and TV shows, playing himself; one of his last appearances was in the 2001 “MTV Video Music Awards.”
TV start came in 1948
But his greatest success was in television, beginning in 1948 on “Texaco Star Theatre” on NBC. He virtually owned the growing medium over the next five years every Tuesday night, starring in 180 hours of live original comedy.
When the city of Detroit investigated why water levels dropped precipitously between 9 and 9:05 p.m. on Tuesdays, they discovered that people waited until Berle’s show was over to go to the bathroom. In 1951, NBC signed him to a “lifetime” contract of 30 years — which he outlasted — at $200,000 a year.
Mendel Berlinger was born in Harlem section of New York City on July 12, 1908, the fourth of five children, and by the age of 5 he was a street entertainer. Though he later claimed to have made his professional debut in the Chaplin comedy “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and then appeared in “The Perils of Pauline,” most accounts point to his first contact with show business as a winner of Chaplin look-alike contests — with his stage mom Sarah in the wings.
After winning local amateur contests, Berle came to the attention of producer E.W. Wolf, who booked acts on small vaudeville circuits. His first stage appearances were with his youngest sister, Rosalind. Soon after, Mrs. Berle registered her son with the Packard Theatrical Agency and he appeared in about 50 silent films.
In 1916 he was enrolled in the Professional Children’s School and in 1920 made his stage debut in “Floradora” at the Glove Theater in Atlantic City, moving with the show to New York.
Over the next several years he was a regular on the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit along with child actress Elizabeth Kennedy, which is when he began collecting jokes — believing that all material was public property. It led to his being dubbed “The Thief of Bad Gags” by columnist Walter Winchell.
Traveling on the road for up to 40 weeks a year helped him develop and refine his style. He called it a school for comedy: “If a joke died, you had three or four shows a day to try it different ways; if it still died, you threw it out. You had to play the small time, break in your act, get it so tight, so frozen that it was surefire. Then you could play the Palace.”
And play the Palace he did, becoming the youngest master of ceremonies on Broadway and setting attendance records in 1931-32. He was a featured comedian on “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” and in 1936 received star billing in “The Ziegfeld Follies.” Other Broadway appearances included “Life Begins at 8:40,” “Same Time Next Week” and “Spring in Brazil.”
Film career unsatisfying
Berle made his Hollywood motion picture debut in “New Faces of 1937” and appeared in such films as “Sun Valley Serenade,” “The Dolly Sisters” and “Tall, Dark and Handsome.” But film was the least satisfying aspect of his career. Berle complained: “They used me for everything but what I was suited for. I had to get out before they cast me as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner.”
From the late ’30s to the late ’40s, Berle was among the highest-paid nightclub comedians in the country, playing Billy Rose’s Casino de Paris for almost an entire year and New York’s Carnival nightclub for 54 weeks running. He made his first radio appearance in 1934 and was a regular guest and featured player on such programs as “The Rudy Vallee Hour,” “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Hard This One” and “The Milton Berle Show.”
Berle’s forte, however, was style and not material; when audiences couldn’t see him, his popularity suffered. Fortunately, television took care of that.
As master of ceremonies on “Texaco Star Theatre,” Berle shone. The sight of the 6-foot, 200-pound Berle in Carmen Miranda drag graced the cover of Newsweek in 1949, by which time he was the highest-paid comedian in show business. (He reportedly was earning $700,000 in 1946, before he hit it big in television.)
Also played at nightclubs
When he took to the air, there were about 500,000 TV sets in the U.S. By the time “Star Theatre” ended, there were 26 million. After that, Berle continued unabated as the whirling dervish of show business, earning $70,000 a week playing Las Vegas, Tahoe and Atlantic City. Besides working 40 weeks a year, Berle lent his talents to charity, doing approximately 50-70 benefit performances per annum.
Berle’s talents were not limited to comedy. He received an Emmy nomination for his dramatic performance in a 1961 episode of “The Dick Powell Show,” titled “Doyle Against the House” and appeared on Broadway in Herb Gardner’s “The Goodbye People.”
In the 1960s, he made more film appearances, including “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Oscar,” “Who’s Minding the Mint?” and “The Loved One.” From the 1970s through the 1990s, he made frequent guest appearances on TV series, including “CHiPs,” “The Love Boat,” “Murder, She Wrote,” The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Sister, Sister.”
Berle was one of the first members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame and president of the Friars Club for more than a decade as well as author of a bestselling biography and a collection of stories and anecdotes, “B.S. I Love You.”
‘Can’t lay off show business’
In 1985 he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. But when asked about retirement, he quipped: “I can’t lay off show business for more than two weeks. My nails fall off. It was the business I was born in. I know nothing else, but by making people happy, I make myself happy.”
In late 1998 he suffered a mild stroke. A month later, his oldest brother, Phil, a vaudeville business agent and later a producer-director, died at age 97. Berle was married to Broadway showgirl Joyce Mathews twice. Much later, his longtime wife Ruth died in April 1989.
On hearing of Berle’s death, fellow comedian Don Rickles said: “From the first days of my career, he was one of my comedic heroes. He was always a great mentor. His style of comedy will never be replaced.”
Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd spoke to Berle’s wife, Lorna, Tuesday night who sadly told him that Berle had been attended around the clock by nurses for weeks and on his last day was unable to speak or show any recognition.
It was a very sad parting for someone who had given so much happiness. At his 90th birthday party, he told Archerd, “We’ll celebrate my 100th birthday together,” and ironically autographed his tome “Milton Berle’s Private Joke File” “with health and love.”
He is survived by his wife of 10 years, Lorna, an adopted daughter, Victoria, and a son, Billy.
Services will be held at a later date at Hillside Memorial Park.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)