They don't bother with the name. They just play "Ain't Misbehavin'" and he walks out with his cigar and his mysterious wise smile, and the whole house stands up clapping and cheering, every single soul, all grinning as though they would never stop, their mouths turned up like Smile buttons.
Who else but George Burns could have played God in 1980 America?
People are always touching him. They try to give him cigars and flowers as he goes by. Grizzled men who think they met him once in Philadelphia grip his shoulder to tell their story. Bashful chambermaids, hiding behind their grins, shake his hand. Waitresses kiss him on the mouth.
George Burns is 84 years old. Life is sweet.
Not only did he play the title role in "Oh, God!" but he is doing an encore, "Oh, God! Book II," which opens here today. Recently, he stopped at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Warwick, R.I., south of Providence, to do his show with singer Connie Stevens at a nearby suburban theater is somehow combined with squash courts.
Piling out of the rented station wagon with his party, he steps into the motel office like any other tourist. He is not one of those stars who must be shielded from the public. He goes into the coffee shop for lunch (Bloody Mary and ham-and-cheese of which he slowly eats about half).
They find him quickly enough, coming up with tentative smiles and menus to sign. They want to have their pictures taken with him. He does whatever they ask. ("It's harder not to," mutters his manager and longtime friend, Irving Fein.) Someone has a video movie camera, aims it at him and his just-lit cigar.
"What do we do?" he says, in the famous scratchy voice that is all he has to show for a quarter-million cigars.
"You talk," the man says. His companions sidle around behind Burns.
"Okay," says Burns. "You talk." Pause. "I'll smoke."
Everyone laughs. Why is that funny? Everything he says comes out like a punch line.
That evening the party orders martinis in the hotel room. Howard Johnson doesn't do room service but makes an exception for him. The martinis arrive in Styrofoam cups. Wha-a-a-t? We watch "60 Minutes" and rattle our cups and listen to the ice cubes squeak. Burns argues mildly about some minor politicial incident. He doesn't have to show off his memory like many octogenarians. He is sharp as a quiz kid.
Later, dinner at the Red Coach Inn, more matinis. (Real glasses!) He has bluefish, eats half of it with some salad. Doesn't eat much meat.
"All that cutting and chewing." Pause. "I don't like to do that much work without getting paid for it."
One of the people at the table is Jesse Block, an old vaudeville pal whom he invited along on this month-long swing through New England. Block and his wife had a man-and-woman act, Block and Sully, like Burns and Allen, but have long since retired.
George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on Jan. 20, 1896, one of 12 children, raised on the lower East Side.His immigrant father pressed pants 12 hours a day in a sweatshop. One of his sisters married a window dresser at Leopold's Haberdashery on Second Avenue. In his latest book, "The Third Time Around," he writes:
"Every once in a while Charlie would bring me a suit that had been on display in the window at Leopold's. Being in the sun for so long, the suit was always faded in front. I remember one suit I had was dark brown in the back and gray in the front. I looked much better going than coming. From the side I looked like two people bumping into each other. . ."
After dinner Block says softly, "Come on, Nattie. You gonna watch TV?"
You have to go back a long time to get to call him Nattie. Joke, Pause, Smoke
He denies all that stuff about his great timing. Timing, he says, is nothing but listening.
"When the people laugh, I smoke. When they stop laughing, I stop smoking and start to talk. Now, if they're laughing and I'm talking, I should be put away."
"Benny Bernstein and myself used to have a dancing school, BB's College of Dancing. We taught foxtrot, two-step and the waltz for $5. I used to teach all these Polish guys to dance, and they couldn't dance with anybody but me." Pause. "So whenever they were invited to a wedding I had to go with 'em." Pause. "I didn't enjoy that." Pause. "Some of them dance pretty close." Practiced & Perfect
Burns and Connie Stevens give a press conference. The questions are so dumb it makes you ashamed to be a newspaperman. He does it best.
Q: "What kind of president do you think Reagan would make?"
A: "If he sings harmony, I'll vote for him."
Q: "What goals do you have for yourself now?"
A: "I'd like to be able to kick the back of my head."
And so on. They insist on talking politics. They seem to be confusing him with George Bush. In spite of them, he cracks us all up. ("Once I had a dancing act, and I got a lot of laughs. Afterwards, I found out my fly was open. So I left it open again the next show . . ." Connie Stevens: "Oh George, you didn't!" Burns: "I tell a lotta lies.") He also feeds them some information:
His new picture features himself as God, and an 11-year-old girl. He's about to cut a country music record in Nashville. He's looking over two other movie scripts. He's doing a special with John Denver and has engagements all over the country. He loves to keep busy.
"You begin to hear the same practiced answers to the questions he's been asked a million times. "When I was with Gracie, I was retired. I did nothing. When she retired, I went into show business. . ." Gracie's Shadow
You have to search for the person inside George Burns, and you find him in the silences, in the questions he doesn't really answer.
When Gracie Allen died in 1964, they had been married 38 years. That same year he did one TV series with Connie Stevens, "Wendy and Me," and made a few other appearances. And then there was a long silence until "the Sunshine Boys" with Walter Matthau in 1975.
Gracie. He still talks about her all the time. All the time.
"I was nothing until I was 27 years old," he says. "I was in vaudevill, I did very, very bad acts. I started when I was 7, and for 20 years I was nothing. But I was in love with what I was doing, so I wasn't a failure."
At 7, it was the Peewee Quartet, four Jewish boys sponsored by a Presbyterian church and singing Mother Machree in saloons for pennies. Then he had a roller skating act, Brown and Williams ("Everybody on the East Side had a roller skating act, they were all the same, the trick is, your back wheels don't turn, so you can dance on 'em"), and singing and dancing acts with half the population of vauderville: Harry Pierce and Sid Gary and Billy Lorraine, the Fourth of July Kids, Smith and Garfield, Eva Hale -- "Some of those acts would last a week. They'd cancel you after one performance. The manager gave you back your pictures: You always carried your own pictures. I was always packing, always getting my pictures back."
There was the dog act, the yodeling juggler act, the seal act -- "With a seal, you do nothing. The seal does the trick and then applauds himself. You don't even need an audience." In small-time vaudeville in those days "you'd sit in the agent's office with your grip packed, there'd be a call for three acts in Ronconcoma, $5 a day plus fare, $10 if you were a two-act, so you'd take the bus out there, do three or four performances that same day, come home, and the next day you'd be sitting in the office again with your grip packed."
Or you'd go to Rochester for a three-day booking: big stuff. "In some theaters it was below zero but they wouldn't turn the heat on. The musicians had to walk around when they practiced, or they'd freeze. The violinist would rehearse with gloves on."
What happened when he was 27 was that he met Gracie Allen, then with an Irish clog dance group from San Francisco.
"She was awfully good. I was god too, but not on stage. I was good offstage, as a writer. I knew exits and entrances, I knew how to put it together, but I didn't know how to do it. And she knew how to do it."
In their first show, in 1923, he gave himself the gags, but she got more laughs with her high voice and giggle, so he switched. He became her straight man. As he has said so many times, "I do nothing. I smoke a cigar and she talks for 14 minutes.
The only thing he had to watch was the smoke. Gracie was dainty and petite, 95 pounds, blue-black hair, very Irish and very pretty. "You couldn't touch her, or the audience would resent it. Some great comediennes you can hit with a pie, and the audience would laugh. Touch Gracie, and they'd come up on the stage after you. So before I went on, I always made sure I knew which way the wind was blowing so smoke wouldn't get in her face." s
He still smokes 10 to 20 cigars a day, "any king that fits my holder," but mostly 20-cent El Productos, which he buys by the hundred. Lamb-Chop Legacy They called their act Lamb Chops. George: Do you like to love? Gracie: No. George: Do you like to kiss? Gracie: No. George: What do you like? Gracie: Lamb chops. George: A little girl your size, can you eat two big lamb chops alone? Gracie: No, but with potatoes I could. Eating jokes were big in those days.
He quickly perceived that she did best with silly lines, not the wisecracking popular at the time. Her character wasn't like the other "dumb dame" characters because "she thought she was very, very smart and everyone else was stupid."
Any time something went wrong, if they lost a page from the script or he brought the wrong reading glasses, all he had to do was ask her, "How's your brother?"
She'd say, "Which one, the one who's in love or the one who sleeps on the floor?" and off she'd go for five minutes. Everybody thought it was ad lib, and some of it was. But the thing Burns doesn't tell you is that he wrote most of their stuff, at least in the days before he had his three writers.
She used to worry that she was getting too old for her character, but he said no, if you're silly, you're born silly, you die silly. They just changed the gags. At age 20 Gracie would say, "Kiss me and I blow this whistle." He would kiss her anyway and say, "Okay, so blow the whistle," Gracie; "Well, it's broken from last night."
At 35 it would be a gag about her putting two roasts in the oven, a small one and a big one, and he'd say, "Why, Gracie, why?" And she'd say, in her most patient manner, as if talking to a moron, "Well, when the little one burns you know the big one is done."
After nine years in vaudeville, bigtime vaudeville now, the biggest, they broke into radio in England with BBC and in 1932 made a guest appearance on the Eddie Cantor show. That is, Gracie did. Burns wasn't invited. He told Cantor anyone could do his part, so long as they used his lines. Then they visited the Rudy Vallee show and the Guy Lombardo show, taking over the latter when Lombardo moved to another spot. The same year they made their first movie, "The Big Broadcast." They had become part of the national landscape.
Switching from radio to TV in 1950, they played another eight years before Gracie retired.
All their 38 years together he never knew exactly how old she was. He told her his age, but when she didn't tell him hers in return, he didn't ask. She was 58 when she died of a heart attack. They had two children by adoption, Sandra and Ronald. Burns always said he had a harder time getting married than staying married. He still visits her grave every month.
Gracie: "All great singers have their trials. Look at Caruso -- 30 years on a desert island with all those cannibals."
George: "You got the wrong man, Gracie."
Gracie, meltingly: "No, you're the one for me."
George Burns is very likely the funniest straight man in the world -- straight man for himself, now. It's a dry humor, never barbed, but laconic, quiet, true. It lacks only the wildness. (Oh, that Gracie, with her sister Bessie who had to stay home because the canary was hatching an ostrich egg except the canary wasn't big enough so Bessie had to sit on the egg and hold the canary on her lap . . .) Bridge and Martinis
These days, living in the same Beverly Hills home he has had for 45 years, Burns gets up early, does his exercises (he has had a bad back for years, walks slightly bent over, never mentions that pain), goes to his office at 10 to spend precisely two hours with his writers. Then off to the Hillcrest Country Club for lunch, bridge from 1:30 to 3:30 (with cronies so old that "we hire 12 guys to stand behind our chairs and pick up the cards when we drop them"), home for a nap, couple of martinis and then plans for the evening.
His acting career, starting with "The Sunshine Boys," based on the old vaudeville team of Smith and Dale, was the easiest thing he ever did, he says. The final scene, which was cut, was shot in the New Jersey rest home where Joe Smith still lives "It's easier to make 'em cry than laugh. It's very easy to make people cry especially if you get paid for it." Pause. "If I don't get paid, then I cry."
He is 5-feet-6. He used to be 5-8. He's thinking of changing his theme song. "When I'm 92, it's gonna be, "I Wish I Was 18 Again. "It was always "Love Nest" when he was with Gracie.
If you haven't learned to roll with the times by 84, you're never going to learn. The 'Oh, God!" sequel promises to be a departure. The orignial, with John Denver, was a tremendous hit (after a slow boxoffice start because some were misled by the corny title), and in playing God as a little old man in one of those awful plastic billed caps, George Burns revealed a mellow kindliness, a sweetness many had never realized was there.
At the end, God is leaving, and John Denver asks what will become of us all, and won't He please stick around and tell us what to do? God smiles behind His horn rim glasses and taps His cigar. "You talk." Pause. "I'll listen."
God as straight man . . . Well, it's better than the Oblong Blur.