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Milton Berle RIP

03.27.2002

First Dudley Moore, now this news. Reuters' write-up follows:

"LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedian Milton Berle, whose zany, cross-dressing entrances on the variety show he hosted from 1948 to 1956 ushered in the age of television and made him the medium's first superstar, died on Wednesday, his spokesman said. 

Spokesman Warren Cowan said Berle, known to millions as "Uncle Miltie," died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. He was 93. Berle was the second prominent comedian to die on Wednesday -- earlier Dudley Moore passed away at age 66. 

Hailed as both "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" at the height of a career spanning nine decades, Berle had been in declining health since suffering a stroke in December 1998 and was diagnosed with colon cancer in April 2001. 

As one of the last of the great comedians -- among them Jack Benny, George Burns and Red Skelton -- who came of age in vaudeville, Berle's passing marked the end of an era. 

With a beaming, Cheshire Cat-like grin, withering stare, cigar (and a notorious reputation for stealing jokes), Berle riveted viewers at the dawn of the television age. 

Pushed into the limelight by his mother, he began as a child model for Buster Brown shoes in 1913 before working in dozens of silent movies. He then toiled on stage and radio for years to perfect his wisecracking, comic persona. 

Those three decades as a young performer served Berle well in preparing him for his biggest break -- his groundbreaking career in what was then the fledgling medium of television. 

INVENTED VARIETY SHOW FORMAT 

As the wildly comic host of NBC's "The Texaco Star Theater" (1948-53), which later became the top-rated "The Milton Berle" Show" (1954-56), Uncle Miltie ruled Tuesday nights, virtually inventing TV's variety show format along the way. 

Built like an old-fashioned vaudeville show, the original program opened with four Texaco Service Men singing "Oh, we're the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico ...," followed by a musical introduction of Berle, who came on dressed in women's clothes or in some other outlandish costume. 

Introduced as "the man with jokes from the Stone Age," Berle entered as a caveman. Announced as "the man who just paid his taxes," he came on wearing a barrel. The show closed each week with Berle singing his theme song, "Near You." 

As much as anyone, Berle established television as a form of popular entertainment. During his show's eight-year run, the number of TV sets in the United States jumped from 190,000 to 21 million, almost all of them tuned into Uncle Miltie. 

Other entertainment outlets felt the first sting of broadcasting competition as viewers stayed home to watch the man with the jug ears and overbite. 

"Berle turned a TV set into more than a piece of talking furniture," Robert Batscha, then-president of the Museum of Broadcasting, recalled at a 1985 tribute. 

Berle once described the success of his television program as "dizzying. ... I got a very big kick out of all the success, financially and everything, even though it was terribly hard work. Just murder." 

Without a budget for writers, Berle relied on sight gags and routines from his stage acts, and on guest entertainers ranging from singers to acrobats and ventriloquists. 

'INSTANT PARTY TIME' 

"Berle was instant party time," critic Lawrence Christon wrote. "He was the long-deferred birthday cake for a country beginning to feel chipper after a postwar convalescence, and he played that sense of giddy, goofy relief to the hilt, gussied up in those dumb costumes, chasing people in the audience, cracking up with his guests, forever charging into our living room tranquillity." 

Although Berle starred on the very first "Texaco Star Theater" broadcast on June 8, 1948, he rotated hosting chores with several other performers that summer -- including Henny Youngman, Morey Amsterdam and Jack Carter -- before ultimately becoming permanent emcee in September. 

With the rising popularity of TV westerns, detective shows and other dramas, Berle's show inevitably waned in the ratings. Two years after its final broadcast, Berle reappeared on NBC in October 1958 as host of the "Kraft Music Hall" variety series," which lasted just one season. Another comeback bid in 1966, as host of a more restrained version of "The Milton Berle Show" on ABC, was canceled after several months. 

Still, he remained a fixture on television through the 1960s with numerous specials -- some built around him -- and guest spots on the other shows. 

GREW UP ON SHOW BUSINESS 

He was born Mendel Berlinger to poor Jewish immigrants in New York on July 12, 1908. To help support the family, his mother, Sarah, took him to booking and modeling agencies and he became the boy in the Buster Brown shoe ads. 

At age six, he landed a role in "The Perils of Pauline" series of movie melodramas, filmed in New Jersey. That led to a part in "Tillie's Punctured Romance" with Charlie Chaplin. 

With his mother, Berle headed to Hollywood where his childhood film credits included "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." By his own count, Berle appeared in more than 50 silent films as a youngster. 

He made his Broadway debut at age 12 in a 1920 production of "Floradora." As a young man, he turned to comedy and by his early 20s was a star of vaudeville, leading to engagements in the "Earl Carroll Vanities" and the "Ziegfeld Follies." 

Wherever he performed, his mother attended every show. "It was a steel-cord story," Berle later said. "Umbilical. Couldn't cut it. Mama also loved the notoriety. Loved the spotlight. It was always Milton and his mother." She died in 1954. 

After his run on NBC ended, Berle made movies, playing himself as a comedy coach hired for a showgirl (Marilyn Monroe) in the 1960 film "Let's Make Love." He appeared three years later in the all-star comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and in a other features into the 1980s, including "The Muppet Movie" (1979) and "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984). 

LATER YEARS 

In 1989, Berle toured the country with Danny Thomas and Sid Caesar in a show billed "The Living Legends of Comedy." He also made guest stints on many shows and received an Emmy nomination for playing an Alzheimer's victim on "Beverly Hills, 90210." 

"Listen, a vacation for me is making people laugh," he said. 

But advancing years ultimately took their toll. A fall while performing a concert for his 90th birthday, followed by a stroke in December 1998, left Berle unsteady on his feet, and by the end of his life was using a wheelchair to get around. But he continued to show up regularly at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, where he presided as Abbott Emeritus. 

His later years brought kudos and ridicule. He received an American Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996, but a scathing memoir by his estranged son, William Berle, titled, "My Father, Uncle Miltie," landed with a thud in 1999. 

Berle is survived by his fourth wife, Lorna Adams, whom he married in 1992. His third wife, Ruth Cosgrove, a former press agent he married in 1953, died in 1989. She is the mother of William Berle. The comedian was previously twice married and twice divorced from former showgirl Joyce Matthews, with whom he had two children. His first marriage, to actress Beryl Wallace, ended in divorce."

Source: Reuters
Tags: Hollywood

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