Milton Berle

Active - 1914 - 2005  |   Born - Jul 12, 1908 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Mar 27, 2002   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

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.

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  • His 80+ years in show business began in 1913 at age 5 when he won a Charlie Chaplin imitator contest; the following year he appeared with Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance.
  • Made his first TV appearance on an experimental station in Chicago in 1929.
  • Widely regarded as the medium's first big star, he became permanent emcee on the variety show Texaco Star Theater on September 21, 1948. At its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s, his live show drew an astonishing 80 percent of the audience and sold countless TV sets.
  • Signed an exclusive 30-year, $6 million contract with NBC in 1951; it was renegotiated in 1966 and his annual salary was lowered to $120,000, but he could work on other networks.
  • Was said to have memorized between 100,000 and 150,000 jokes, and was often ribbed by other comics for stealing a good number of them. (Berle once said of another comic, "I laughed so hard I almost dropped my pencil.")
  • Was in the inaugural class inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984, along with Lucille Ball, Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Lear, Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley and David Sarnoff.
  • Was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2007.