Biography of George Burns

Eight Decades as a Comedy Star

George Burns
Photo by Paul Natkin / WireImage

George Burns (born Nathan Birnbaum; January 20, 1896 - March 9, 1996) was one of a select few performers who found success both on the vaudeville stage and on screen. With his wife and collaborator Grace Allen, he developed a trademark straight man style, playing the foil to Allen's comedic "illogic logic" persona. Burns set a new standard for older performers when he won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role at age 80.

Early Life

Nathan Birnbaum, the ninth of twelve children, grew up in a Jewish immigrant household in New York City. Burns' parents came to the U.S. from Galicia, a region in Europe that today straddles the border between Poland and Ukraine. When Birnbaum was seven years old, his father died of influenza. Burns' mother went to work to support the family, and Birnbaum himself found a job at a candy shop. 

His show business career began at the candy shop, where he sang with other child employees. The group began performing locally as the Pee-Wee Quartet, and Birnbaum soon adopted the stage name George Burns in an effort to conceal his Jewish heritage. Multiple stories exist about the origins of the name. Some claim that Burns borrowed it from contemporary baseball stars, while others contend that the name "Burns" came from a local coal company. 

Burns struggled with dyslexia, which went undiagnosed for most of his life. He left school after the fourth grade and did not return to formal education. 

Vaudeville Marriages

In 1923, Burns married Hannah Siegel, a dancer from the vaudeville circuit, because her parents would not let her tour with him unless the pair married. The marriage was brief: Siegel and Burns divorced after the twenty-six week tour.

Shortly after his divorce from Hannah Siegel, George Burns met Gracie Allen. Burns and Allen formed a comedy act, with George acting as the straight man to Gracie's silly, off-kilter perspective. Their act originated out of the "Dumb Dora" tradition, characterized by a a frivolous, absent-minded female in dialogue with a straight man. However, Burns and Allen's humor became quickly evolved beyond the "Dumb Dora" act, and the pair became one of the most successful comedy acts on the vaudeville circuit. They married in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, and adopted two children, Sandra and Ronnie.

Radio and Screen Career

As the popularity of vaudeville began to fade, Burns and Allen transitioned to a career on the radio and on screen. In the early 1930s, they appeared in a series of comic shorts and variety show films like The Big Broadcast of 1936. One of their most memorable appearances was in the 1937 feature Damsel in Distress. In the film, Allen and Burns danced with Fred Astaire in the "Stiff Upper Lip" segment—a scene that won the choreographer, Hermes Pan, an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction.

Burns' and Allen's radio show began to sink in ratings by the end of the 1930s. In 1941, the pair ultimately settled on a situation comedy approach that featured Burns and Allen as a married couple. The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show became one of the biggest radio hits of the 1940s. Among the supporting cast was Mel Blanc, the voice of cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat, and Bea Benaderet, the voice of Betty Rubble in The Flintstones.

Television Stardom

In 1950, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show moved to the relatively new medium of television. During its eight-year run, the show received eleven Emmy Award nominations. As part of the show's formula, George Burns frequently broke the fourth wall by speaking to the viewing audience about the events taking place in the episode. Following the example of another famous television couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, George Burns and Gracie Allen created their own production company, McCadden Corporation. McCadden Corporation created several of television's most successful shows, including Mister Ed and The Bob Cummings Show.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ended in 1958, when Gracie Allen's health began to decline. In 1964, Allen died of a heart attack. George Burns attempted to carry on solo with The George Burns Show, but it folded after just one year. He also created the situation comedy Wendy and Me, but the show lasted only one season due to stiff competition in its time slot.

Movie Success

In 1974, Burns agreed to replace his good friend Jack Benny in the film production The Sunshine Boys. Burns' role as an aging vaudeville star in the film earned critical kudos and an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. At the age of 80, he was the oldest winner of an acting Oscar. His record stood until 81-year-old Jessica Tandy won Best Actress for her appearance in 1989's Driving Miss Daisy.

Three years later, George Burns appeared as God in the hit movie Oh, God! with singer John Denver. The film earned more than $50 million at the box office, making it one of the top ten money-making hits of 1977. George Burns appeared in two sequels: 1980's Oh God! Book II and 1984's Oh God! You Devil.

Burns' co-starring role in the 1979 hit film Going In Style with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg cemented his status as one of the most unlikely movie stars of the late 1970s. He also appeared as Mr. Kite in the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, inspired by the Beatles album of the same name.

Later Life

One of Burns' final film appearances was a co-starring role in 1988's 18 Again, inspired by his 1980 country music hit single I Wish I Was 18 Again. His final movie role was a cameo as a 100-year-old comedian in 1994's Radioland Murders.

George Burns was healthy and active for the duration of his life, working until just weeks before his death at age 100. He made one of his last public appearances at a Christmas party hosted by Frank Sinatra in December 1995. He caught influenza shortly after the event. The illness rendered him too weak to give a planned stand-up comedy performance on his 100th birthday. George Burns died at home on March 9, 1996.

Legacy

George Burns is best remembered as a comedian whose successful career spanned nearly eight decades. He was one of a few rare performers who found success in vaudeville, radio, television, and movies. For nearly a decade, he held the record for oldest winner of an acting Oscar. In addition to his career success, Burns' devotion to his wife and collaborator Gracie Allen is regarded as one of the all-time great show business love stories.

Fast Facts

Full Name: George Burns 

Given Name: Nathan Birnbaum

Occupation: Comedian and actor

Born: January 20, 1896 in New York City, USA

Died: March 9, 1996 in Beverly Hills, California, USA

Education: Burns left school after the fourth grade.

Memorable Films: A Damsel In Distress (1937), The Sunshine Boys (1975). Oh, God! (1977). Going In Style (1979), 18 Again! (1988)

Key Accomplishments: 

  • Academy Award, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (The Sunshine Boys1975)
  • Grammy Award, Best Spoken Word Album (Gracie: A Love Story, 1991)

Spouse Name: Hannah Siegel, Gracie Allen

Children's names: Sandra Burns, Ronnie Burns

Famous quotes: 

  • "Retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous. When I was sixty-five, I still had pimples."
  • "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city."

Resources and Further Reading 

  • Burns, George. Gracie: A Love Story. Putnam, 1988.
  • Gottfried, Martin. George Burns. Simon & Schuster, 1996.