Milton Berle (born Milton Berlinger; July 12, 1908 – March 27, 2002) was an American comedian and actor. As the host of NBC's Texaco Star Theater (1948–55), he was the first major American television star and was known to millions of viewers as "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" duringTV's golden age.
Milton Berlinger was born into a Jewish family in a five-story walkup at 68 W. 118th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. He chose Milton Berle as his professional name when he was 16. His father, Moses Berlinger (1873–1938), was a paint and varnish salesman. His mother, Sarah (Sadie) Glantz Berlinger (1877–1954), eventually became stagestruck and changed her name to Sandra Berle when Milton became famous.
Berle entered show business at the age of five when he won an amateur talent contest. He appeared as a child actor in silent films, beginning withThe Perils of Pauline, filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The director told Berle that he would portray a little boy who would be thrown from a moving train. In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, he explained, "I was scared shitless, even when he went on to tell me that Pauline would save my life. Which is exactly what happened, except that at the crucial moment they threw a bundle of rags instead of me from the train. I bet there are a lot of comedians around today who are sorry about that."
By Berle's account, he continued to play child roles in other films: Bunny's Little Brother, Tess of the Storm Country, Birthright, Love's Penalty,Divorce Coupons and Ruth of the Range. Berle recalled, "There were even trips out to Hollywood—the studios paid—where I got parts in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, with Mary Pickford; The Mark of Zorro, with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Tillie's Punctured Romance, with Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler."
However, Berle's claims to have appeared in many of these films, particularly the 1914 Chaplin Keystone comedy Tillie's Punctured Romance, are hotly disputed by some, who cite the lack of supporting evidence that Berle even visited the West Coast until much later. The newsboy role often claimed by Berle in Tillie was unquestionably played by resident Keystone child actor Gordon Griffith. In 1916, Berle enrolled in the Professional Children's School.
Around 1920, at age 12, Berle made his stage debut in a revival of the musical comedy Florodora in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which later moved to Broadway. By the time he was 16, he was working as a Master of Ceremonies in vaudeville, intruding into everyone's act and creating the brash style that would become his trademark. By the early 1930s he was a successful stand-up comedian, patterning himself after one of vaudeville's top comics, Ted Healy.
In Poppin' the Cork, 1933
In 1933, he was hired by producer Jack White to star in the theatrical featurette Poppin' the Cork, a topical musical comedy concerning the repealing of Prohibition. Berle also co-wrote the score for this film, which was released by Educational Pictures. Berle continued to dabble in songwriting. With Ben Oakland and Milton Drake, Berle wrote the title song for the RKO Radio Pictures release Li'l Abner (1940), an adaptation of Al Capp's comic strip, featuring Buster Keaton as Lonesome Polecat. Berle wrote a Spike Jones B-side, "Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma."
In 1934–36, Berle was heard regularly on The Rudy Vallee Hour, and he attracted publicity as a regular on The Gillette Original Community Sing, a Sunday night comedy-variety program broadcast on CBS from September 6, 1936 to August 29, 1937. In 1939, he was the host of Stop Me If You've Heard This One with panelists spontaneously finishing jokes sent in by listeners.
In the late 1940s he canceled well-paying nightclub appearances to expand his radio career. Three Ring Time, a comedy-variety show sponsored byBallantine Ale, was followed by a 1943 program sponsored by Campbell's Soups. The audience participation show Let Yourself Go (1944–1945) could best be described as "slapstick radio" with studio audience members acting out long suppressed urges—often directed at host Berle.Kiss and Make Up, on CBS in 1946, featured the problems of contestants decided by a jury from the studio audience with Berle as the judge. Berle also made guest appearances on many comedy-variety radio programs during the 1930s and 1940s.
Berle would revive the structure and routines of his vaudeville shows for his debut on TV. Scripted by Hal Block and Martin Ragaway, The Milton Berle Show brought Berle together with Arnold Stang, later a familiar face as Berle's TV sidekick. Others in the cast were Pert Kelton, Mary Schipp,Jack Albertson, Arthur Q. Bryan, Ed Begley, Brazilian singer Dick Farney, and announcer Frank Gallop. Sponsored by Philip Morris, it aired on NBC from March 11, 1947 until April 13, 1948.
His last radio series was The Texaco Star Theater, which began September 22, 1948 on ABC and continued until June 15, 1949 with cast members Stang, Kelton and Gallop, along with Charles Irving, Kay Armen, and double-talk specialist Al Kelly. Writers included (Nat Hiken, brothers Danny and Neil Simon, Leo Fuld, and Aaron Ruben). Berle later described this series as "the best radio show I ever did ... a hell of a funny variety show". It served as a springboard for Berle's emergence as television's first major star.
Caricature of Milton Berle by Sam Berman from 1947 NBC promotional book
In 1948 NBC brought Texaco Star Theater to TV. The show began with Berle rotating hosting duties with three other comedians, but in October he became the permanent host. Berle's highly visual style, characterized by vaudeville slapstick and outlandish costumes, proved ideal for the new medium. Berle modeled the show's structure and skits directly from his vaudeville shows, and hired writer Hal Collins to revive his old routines.
The show dominated Tuesday night television for the next several years, reaching the number one slot in the Nielsen ratings with as much as an 80% share of the viewing audience. Berle and the show each won Emmy Awards after the first season. Fewer movie tickets were sold on Tuesdays. Some theaters, restaurants and other businesses shut down for the hour or closed for the evening so their customers would not miss Berle's antics. Berle's autobiography notes that in Detroit, "an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theater before going to the bathroom."
Television set sales more than doubled after Texaco Star Theater's debut, reaching two million in 1949. Berle's stature as the medium's first superstar earned him the sobriquet "Mr. Television". He also earned another nickname after ending a 1949 broadcast with a brief ad-libbed remark to children watching the show: "Listen to your Uncle Miltie and go to bed." Francis Craig and Kermit Goell's Near You became the theme song that closed Berle's TV shows.
Berle risked his newfound TV stardom at its zenith to challenge Texaco when the sponsor tried to prevent black performers from appearing on his show:
Berle's mother Sadie was often in the audience for his broadcasts; she had long served as a "plant" to encourage laughter from his stage show audiences. Her unique, "piercing, roof-shaking laugh" would stand out, especially when Berle made an entrance in an outrageous costume. After feigning surprise he would "ad lib" a response; for example: "Lady, you've got all night to make a fool of yourself. I've only got an hour!"
Berle asked NBC to switch from live broadcasts to film, which would have made possible reruns (and residual income from them); he was angered when the network refused. NBC did consent to make a kinescope of each show, however. Later, Berle was offered 25% ownership of a company manufacturing the teleprompter by its inventor, Irving Berlin Kahn, if he would simply use the new gadget on his program. He turned the offer down.
Berle's TV decline
NBC signed him to an exclusive, unprecedented 30-year television contract in 1951. The problem with Berle's 30-year deal was that NBC could not have realized the relatively short lifespan of a comedian on television, compared to radio, where some careers had thrived for two decades. In part, this was due to the more ephemeral nature of visual comedy (those who do not adapt quickly do not survive), and a single television appearance could equal years of exposure on the nightclub circuit. It has also been said that Berle had less appeal with audiences outside the Borscht Belt as television expanded from big East Coast markets to smaller cities. It is also possible that the positioning of the television set itself was a factor. When Berle's program first hit the airwaves, so few people owned the apparatus that many audiences watched it in public places such as bars, clubs and even in appliance store windows; these were perfect venues for Berle's out-sized personality. However, as more and more people acquired their own televisions, they may have adjusted their tastes to suit the privacy of home.
Texaco pulled out of sponsorship of the show in 1953. Buick picked it up, prompting a renaming to The Buick-Berle Show, and the program's format was changed to show the backstage preparations to put on a variety show. Critics generally approved of the changes, but Berle's ratings continued to fall, and Buick pulled out after two seasons. By the time the again-renamedMilton Berle Show finished its only full season, Berle was already becoming history—though his final season was host to two of Elvis Presley's earliest television appearances, April 3 and June 5, 1956. The final straw during that last season may have come from CBS scheduling The Phil Silvers Show (aka You'll Never Get Rich and Sergeant Bilko) opposite Berle. Ironically, Silvers was one of Berle's best friends in show business and had come to CBS's attention in an appearance on Berle's program. Bilko's creator-producer, Nat Hiken, had been one of Berle's radio writers.
Berle knew that NBC had already decided to cancel his show before Presley appeared. Berle later appeared in the Kraft Music Hall series from 1958 to 1959, but NBC was finding increasingly fewer showcases for its one-time superstar. By 1960, he was reduced to hosting a bowling program, Jackpot Bowling, delivering his quips between the efforts of bowling contestants.
Life after The Milton Berle Show
In Las Vegas, Berle played to packed showrooms at Caesars Palace, the Sands, the Desert Inn and other casino hotels. Berle had appeared at the El Rancho, one of the first Vegas hotels, in the late 1940s. In addition to constant club appearances, Berle performed on Broadway in Herb Gardner's The Goodbye People in 1968. He also became a commercial spokesman for the thrivingLums restaurant chain.
He appeared in numerous films, including Always Leave Them Laughing (Released in 1949, shortly after his TV debute) with Virginia Mayo and Bert Lahr, Let's Make Love with Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Loved One, The Oscar, Who's Minding the Mint?,Lepke, Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose and Driving Me Crazy.
Freed in part from the obligations of his NBC contract, Berle was signed in 1966 to a new, weekly variety series on ABC. The show failed to capture a large audience and was cancelled after one season. He later appeared as guest villain Louie the Lilac on ABC's Batman series. Other memorable guest appearances included stints on The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Lucy Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Get Smart, Laugh-In, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Hollywood Palace, Ironside, F Troop, Fantasy Island, and The Jack Benny Program.
Like his contemporary Jackie Gleason, Berle proved a solid dramatic actor and was acclaimed for several such performances, most notably his lead role in "Doyle Against The House" on The Dick Powell Show in 1961, a role for which he later received an Emmy nomination. He also played the part of a blind survivor of an airplane crash in Seven in Darkness, the first in ABC's popular Movie of the Week series. (He also played it straight as an agent inThe Oscar (1966), and was one of the few actors in that infamous flop to get good notices from critics.)
During this period, Berle was named to the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of charity performances made by a show-business performer. Unlike the high-profile shows done by Bob Hope to entertain the troops, Berle did more shows, over a period of 50 years, on a lower-profile basis. Berle received an award for entertaining at stateside military bases in World War I as a child performer, in addition to traveling to foreign bases inWorld War II and Vietnam. The first charity telethon (for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation) was hosted by Berle in 1949. A permanent fixture at charity benefits in the Hollywood area, he was instrumental in raising millions for charitable causes.
On April 14, 1979, Berle guest-hosted NBC's Saturday Night Live. Berle's long reputation for taking control of an entire television production—whether invited to do so or not—was a cause of stress on the set. One of the show's writers, Rosie Shuster, described the rehearsals for the Berle SNL show and the telecast as "watching a comedy train accident in slow motion on a loop." Upstaging, camera mugging, inserting old comedy bits, and climaxing the show with a maudlin performance of "September Song" complete with pre-arranged standing ovation (something producer Lorne Michaels had never sanctioned), resulted in Berle being banned from the show.
As a guest star on The Muppet Show, Berle was memorably upstaged by the heckling theatre critics Statler and Waldorf. The Statler and Waldorf puppets were inspired by a character named Sidney Spritzer, played by comedian Irving Benson, who regularly heckled Berle from a box seat during episodes of the 1960s ABC series. Milton Berle also made a cameo appearance in "The Muppet Movie" as a used car dealer, taking Fozzie Bear's 1951 Studebaker in trade for a station wagon.
Berle at the 41st Primetime Emmy Awardsin 1989
Another well-known incident of upstaging occurred during the 1982 Emmy Awards, when Berle and Martha Raye were the presenters of the Emmy for Outstanding Writing. Berle was reluctant to give up the microphone to the award's recipients, from Second City Television, and interrupted actor Joe Flaherty's acceptance speech several times. After Flaherty would make a joke, Berle would reply sarcastically "Oh, that's funny". However, the kindly, smiling Flaherty's response of "Go to sleep, Uncle Miltie" flustered Berle, who could only reply with a stunned "What...?" SCTV later created a parody sketch of the incident, in which Flaherty beats up a Berle look-alike, shouting, "You'll never ruin another acceptance speech, Uncle Miltie!"
One of his most popular performances in his later years was guest starring in 1992 in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as womanizing, wise-cracking patient Max Jakey. Most of his dialogue was improvised and he shocked the studio audience by mistakenly blurting out a curse word. He also appeared in an acclaimed and Emmy-nominated turn on Beverly Hills, 90210 as an aging comedian befriended by Steve Sanders, who idolizes him but is troubled by his bouts of senility due to Alzheimer's Disease. He also appeared in 1995 as a guest star in an episode of The Nanny in the part of her lawyer and great uncle.
Berle appeared in drag in the video for "Round and Round" by the 1980s metal band Ratt (his nephew Marshall Berle was then their manager).
As "Mr. Television," Berle was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. The following year, he appeared on NBC's Amazing Stories (created by Steven Spielberg) in an episode called "Fine Tuning". In this episode, friendly aliens from space receive TV signals from the Earth of the 1950s and travel to Hollywood in search of their idols, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, The Three Stooges, Burns and Allen—and Milton Berle. (When he realizes the aliens are doing his old material, Uncle Miltie is thunderstruck: "Stealing from Berle? Is that even possible?") Speaking gibberish, Berle is the only person able to communicate directly with the aliens.
Berle was again on the receiving end of an onstage jibe at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards where RuPaul responded to Berle's reference of having once worn dresses himself (during his old television days) with the quip that Berle now wore diapers. A surprised Berle replied by recycling a line he had delivered to Henny Youngman on his Hollywood Palace show in 1966: "Oh, we're going to ad lib? I'll check my brain and we'll start even".
Uncle Miltie offstage
In 1947, Milton Berle founded the Friars Club of Beverly Hills at the old Savoy Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Other founding members included Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Robert Taylor, andBing Crosby. In 1961, the club moved to Beverly Hills. The club is a private show business club famous for its celebrity members and roasts, where a member is mocked by his club friends in good fun.
Unlike many of his peers, Berle's off-stage lifestyle did not include drugs or drinking, but did include cigars, a "who's who" list of beautiful women, and a lifelong addiction to gambling, primarilyhorse racing. Some felt his obsession with "the ponies" was responsible for Berle never amassing the wealth or business success of others in his position.
Berle was also famous within show business for the rumored size of his penis. Phil Silvers once told a story about standing next to Berle at a urinal, glancing down, and quipping, "You'd better feed that thing, or it's liable to turn on you!" In the short story 'A Beautiful Child', Truman Capote wrote Marilyn Monroe as saying: "Christ! Everybody says Milton Berle has the biggest schlong in Hollywood." At a memorial service for Berle at the New York Friars' Club, Freddie Roman solemnly announced, "On May 1st and May 2nd, his penis will be buried." Radio shock jock Howard Stern also barraged Berle with an endless array of penis questions when the comedian appeared on Stern's morning talk show on Aug 5, 1988 (Berle was also a guest on the Stern show on Oct 30, 1996). In Berle's 1988 appearance, when fielding phone calls, Stern purposely asked his producer to only air callers whose questions dealt with Berle's penis.
Berle was known to have a colorful vocabulary and few limits on when it was used. Surprisingly, however, he "worked clean" for his entire onstage career, except for the infamous Friars Club all-male, private celebrity roasts. Berle often criticized younger comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin about their X-rated humor, and challenged them to be just as funny without the four-letter words.
Hundreds of younger comics, including several comedy superstars, were encouraged and guided by Berle. Despite some less than flattering stories told about Berle being difficult to work with, his son, Bill, maintains that Berle was a source of encouragement and technical assistance for many new comics. Berle's son Bob backs up his brother's statement. He was present many times during Berle's Las Vegas shows and television guest appearances. Milton aided Fred Travalena, Ruth Buzzi, John Ritter, Marla Gibbs, Lily Tomlin, Dick Shawn and Will Smith. At a taping of aDonny & Marie, for example, Donny and Marie Osmond recited a scripted joke routine to a studio audience, to little response. The director asked for a retake, and the Osmonds repeated the act, word for word, to even less response. A third attempt, with no variation, proved dismal—until Milton Berle, off-camera, went into the audience, pantomiming funny faces and gestures. Ever the professional, Berle timed each gesture to coincide with an Osmond punchline, so the dialogue seemed to be getting the maximum laughs.
After twice marrying and divorcing Joyce Mathews, a showgirl, Berle married Ruth Cosgrove, a onetime publicist on December 9, 1953; she died in 1989. In 1989, Berle stated that his mother was behind the breakup of his marriage to Mathews. He also said that she managed to damage his previous relationships: "My mother never resented me going out with a girl, but if I had more than three dates with one girl, Mama found some way to break it up." He was married for a fourth time in 1992 to Lorna Adams, a fashion designer 30 years younger than he was, whom he credited for 'keeping him young'. He had two children, Victoria (adopted by Berle and Mathews) and William (adopted by Berle and Cosgrove). Berle also had two stepdaughters from his marriage to Lorna Adams—Leslie and Susan Brown, who is married to actor Richard Moll. He also had three grandsons, James and Mathew, the sons of his daughter, Vicki, and Sgt. Tyler Roe (US Army Iraq/Afghanistan wars), the son of his son, William.
In later life, Berle found solace in Christian Science and called himself a Jew and a Christian Scientist. Oscar Levant, commenting to Jack Paar about Berle's conversion, quipped, "Our loss is their loss."
In 2000, Berle guest starred in the Kenan & Kel special "Two Heads are Better than None" as Uncle Leo, a grandfather traveling with his grandchildren. This TV special would be his last in his acting career.
In April 2001, Berle announced that he was suffering from a cancerous tumor in his colon, but would not undergo surgery. At the time of the announcement, Berle's wife said the tumor was growing so slowly that it would take ten to twelve years to affect him in any significant or life-threatening way. Less than one year after the announcement, Berle died on March 27, 2002 in Los Angeles, California from colon cancer.
Berle left detailed arrangements to be buried with his second wife, Ruth, at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Burbank. However, his last wife, Lorna Adams, altered the plan so that he wascremated and interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. In addition to his wife, Berle was survived by a daughter, Victoria, born in 1945. Berle was predeceased by his son, William, born in 1961 who died in 1989.