American comedian George Burns had a taste for show business from his youth on New York's Lower East Side, and by the time he was seven he and his buddies had formed a singing group called the Pee Wee Quartet. Amateur shows led to small-time vaudeville, where Burns faced rejection time and again, often gaining jobs from people who had fired him earlier through the simple expedient of constantly changing his professional name. Usually working as part of a song-and-snappy-patter team, he was in the process of breaking up with his latest partner Billy Lorraine in 1922 when he met a pretty young singer/dancer named Gracie Allen. The game plan for this new team was to have Gracie play the "straight man" and George the comic, but so ingenuous and lightheaded was Gracie's delivery that the audience laughed at her questions and not at George's answers. Burns realized he'd have to reverse the roles and become the straight man for the act to succeed, and within a few years Burns and Allen was one of the hottest acts in vaudeville, with George writing the material and Gracie garnering the laughs. George and Gracie married in 1926; thereafter the team worked on stage, in radio, in movies (first in a series of one-reel comedies, then making their feature debut in 1932's The Big Broadcast) and ultimately in television, seldom failing to bring down the house with their basic "dizzy lady, long-suffering man" routine. Though the public at large believed that Gracie had all the talent, show business insiders knew that the act would have been nothing without George's brilliant comic input; indeed, George was often referred to by his peers as "The Comedian's Comedian". Gracie decided to retire in 1958, after which George went out on his own in television and in nightclubs, to less than spectacular success. After Gracie's death in 1964, George concentrated on television production (he had vested interests in several series, among them Mr. Ed) and for a nervous few years tried using other comic actresses in the "Gracie" role for his club appearances. But it wasn't the same; George Burns would be first to admit there was only one Gracie Allen. Though he never retired, Burns was more or less out of the consciousness of moviegoers until he was hired at the last minute to replace his late friend Jack Benny in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1975). His performance as a cantankerous old vaudeville comic won him an Oscar, and launched a whole new career for the octogenarian entertainer as a solo movie star. Perhaps his most conspicuous achievement in the late 1970s was his portrayal of the Almighty Spirit - with distinct Palace Theatre undertones - in Oh, God! (1977). Even after reaching his centennial year, Burns remained as sharp-witted as ever. Less than three months after his 100th birthday Burns passed away. But fans can take comfort because Burns has gone beyond the realm of Show Business Legend; he is practically an immortal.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Ninth of 12 children.
- His father, a part-time cantor, died when George was 7.
- Left school in the fourth grade to go into show business.
- Met Gracie Allen in 1923 and began performing with her.
- Originally played the comedian to Gracie's "straight man," but changed the routine around once it was clear Gracie was getting the bigger laughs.
- The duo starred in a weekly radio show from 1932 until '50, then starred in TV's The Burns and Allen Show from 1950 until '58, when she retired.
- Immersed himself in work after Gracie died in 1964.
- He was 80 when he won a supporting-actor Oscar for The Sunshine Boys.
- Inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1988; was a Kennedy Center honoree that same year.