George Burns with wife and comedy partner, Gracie Allen
"I honestly believe that its better to be an total failure doing something you love than be a huge success doing something you hate."
— George Burns
An honored comedian who became even more famous as the original Hollywood Cool Old Guy
Burns (1896-1996) played in Vaudeville
and eventually started a double act with a young woman, Gracie Allen. However, Burns soon found that while she was his comic foil
, she was getting more laughs with her comments than his best jokes. Being humble enough to bow to reality, Burns flipped the act and became the Straight Man
and Grace Allen carried the heavy comedic lifting as the team, Burns and Allen, went on to great success on stage, radio and television
The basic act was Gracie seemingly playing The Ditz
while Burns regularly broke the Fourth Wall
with side glances and comments to the audience. However, Allen's character was somewhat different in that she wasn't so much stupid, she just saw the world in such an idiosyncratic way that no one but George could function effectively around her.
When TV shifted to color, Allen retired; her eyes had different colored irises, and she felt that it was too distracting/embarrassing to work in color. (She also had a mild heart attack at the time, which may have been the real reason.) The classic "Say good night, Gracie" "Good night, Gracie" was never actually a part of the act
, but Burns did say he wished he'd come up with it.
After Allen died in the 1960s, Burns worked on a lower level until 1974 when he got a de facto starring role in The Sunshine Boys
as a old comedian coming out of retirement to work for a partner he can't stand and with whom the feeling is mutual. That role got him the Academy Award
for Best Supporting Actor, which made him the oldest male winner in the Actor division (he was 80) until Christopher Plummer
won at age 82.
After that splash, Burns reshaped his image as a beloved old comedian who could hold the spotlight against any young rival with ease. He further buttressed his fame with his Oh, God!
film series where his playing of God further played on his incredible longevity as a performer and sex symbol.
Until his death a few months after hitting 100, Burns had a secure public image as a pop star who had been around forever.