Few American comedians have had so aggressive a "stage mother" as did Milton Berle. Berle's mother Sarah dragged her son to New Jersey's Edison movie studios in 1914 to do extra work, then finessed the lad into supporting roles, including the part of a newsboy in the first-ever feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), which starred Charlie Chaplin. Under Sarah's powerhouse tutelage, Berle moved into vaudeville, making his debut at the prestigious Palace Theatre in 1921. Berle continued as a vaudeville headliner, with occasional stopovers on Broadway and in Hollywood, into the World War II years. His lengthy starring stint in the 1943 edition of Broadway's Ziegfeld Follies established Berle as a brash, broad, wisecracking comedian par excellence, whose carefully publicized propensity for "lifting" other comedians' material earned him the nickname "the Thief of Bad Gags." After only moderate success on radio and in films, Berle made a spectacular television debut as star of NBC's Texaco Star Theatre in 1948, which was the single most popular comedy/variety series of TV's earliest years and earned the comedian one of the industry's first Emmy Awards. So valuable was Berle to NBC that the network signed him to a 30-year "lifetime contract" in 1951, which paid him 100,000 dollars annually whether he performed or not (Berle managed to outlive the contract). Though his TV stardom waned in the late '50s, Berle was still very much in demand as an emcee, lecturer, author, TV guest star, motion picture character actor, and nightclub comedian -- still using essentially the same material and delivery which made him a star over 60 years ago. Berle died March 27, 2002 of colon cancer, he was 93.
photo credit: Getty Images/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
- Milton Berlinger
- 1930s - 1990s (music)
- 1914 - 2000 (film)
- July 12, 1908 in New York, NY
- March 27, 2002 in Los Angeles
by Hal Erickson biography