It is barely past noon and George Burns is (by actual count) on his seventh cigar of the day and (by modest estimate) his 150th joke.
He bought his first cigar when he was 14. "It was a seven-cent corona," he says. "You couldn't get it into this room. Big cigar. You had to wear a supporter to smoke it so you wouldn't hurt yourself. Took a week to finish it. But I thought it made me look like an actor, like I was doing well. I smoked a lot of cigars before I got my first show."
He's smoked a lot since. And cracked a lot of jokes. It's what the man does with his life -- smoke cigars and tell stories. Then when the sun goes down, he treats himself to a couple of martinis.
At 88, America's favorite octogenarian is on a roll. He's got a new book, "Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness," on The New York Times best-seller list. His latest movie "Oh, God! You Devil," in which he plays both God and the Devil battling for the soul of a rock musician, opens on Friday. He recently signed a five-year deal with Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He does an annual television special for CBS. And who do you think managed to turn up alongside Vanessa Williams on the cover of the now notorious edition of Penthouse that revealed the bare truth about Miss America?
"Yeah, that sold millions of copies," Burns says. "Didn't know I was so popular. Somebody asked me, 'Are you suing the magazine?' I said, 'What for?' I loved it. Pretty girl. She sings very good. She's going to be a big star. When I take my clothes off, I look bad. Even with makeup on. But it was great for her. What the hell, today people take their clothes off if they go to a restaurant for breakfast."
And looking ahead, which is something George Burns has also done every day of his life, he is booked to play the Palladium in London on his 100th birthday. "That doesn't mean I'll make it," he says. "But I think I will. 'Cause they're paying me enough."
By the way, he's got a new girlfriend.
Show business is Burns' life. Ask him what he's learned in nearly nine decades on the planet, and he instinctively replies, "I found out that the straight line is more important than the punch line. Let me tell you something else. It's very important to know what's wrong with your material, even if you can't fix it. You can always pay somebody else to make it better. I've got that talent: I know what doesn't work for me, what's out of character, what doesn't fit my mouth."
You were expecting philosophy, perhaps?
"The only thing I know about is show business," he says. "I've had a very successful life, and I expect the second half to be just as successful. I'm working. I'm doing something I love. That makes you live a long time. At 7 years old I fell in love with show business. I wanted to sing. I wasn't very good at it, but I thought I was. From 7 to 27, I was a complete failure. Couldn't get a job. But I loved what I wasn't doing. Never got discouraged. I just thought the audience didn't understand good singing. Whenever I was canceled, I'd think, 'Poor audience. Missed a lot.'
"Imagine, getting up every day hating what you have to do. That's what shortens your life. It's better to be a failure at something you enjoy than a success at something you hate. And I don't think anyone should retire. Ridiculous. Retire to what? Sit there and fool around with your cuticles? There's no money in that. Get out of bed. Do something. Talk to people."
And if, God forbid, Burns' engagements should ever dry up?
"I'm certainly not going to start making felt hats for a living. I have enough money. I have my piano player. I'll sing to my help," he says, eyes atwinkle.
Sitting in his suite at the Sherry Netherland Hotel, Burns hardly budges, save for his right hand, which he holds pretty much at chin level, the more easily to guide his cigar in and out of his mouth at regular intervals. He dresses for success, rather like the race-track tipster or the small-town mortician does when the money begins rolling in. This afternoon, that means a dapper pin-striped suit and a discreet paisley tie, perfectly knotted.
Where'd he get the suit? "I make all my own clothes," he says. "No, I don't. This suit cost $30,000."
Chunky gold cuff links peek out from the cuffs of his jacket. "You like 'em?" he can't help asking. "I'll give you one."
The silver toupee is neatly parted and convincingly anchored in place. "You slap it on with reversible tape," he says. "I have trunks full of hair at home."
Only the eyes give him away for the eternal elf he is. And maybe the large scalloped ears, so large as to make it seem unlikely Burns would ever require a hearing device. He looks you right in the face when he talks -- and the look is both eager and sly. He wants to see how his material is going over. Like an auto-shop mechanic fine-tuning a foreign car, Burns is forever honing his stories, even though by this time he could probably reel them off in his sleep. He knows how they work -- or what you have to do to get them to work -- but when they provoke the expected laugh, even from an audience of one, his eyes crinkle up with not-so-secret satisfaction. A silent chuckle sometimes escapes from his mouth.
"I think when humor has a basic honesty, you can use it all your life," he says. "If it's got a phony foundation, you can use it that season. I'm not a jokesmith. I tell humorous anecdotes, things that happened in my career. Everything I talk about is basically true. It doesn't finish that way. You gotta exaggerate it, you gotta lie about it, make it funny. I'm not Lincoln. Or was it Washington, who always told the truth? Washington never lied. Lincoln never pressed his pants.
"Anyway, for years, I did a vaudeville act called Jose and Smith. I was Smith. We did a cakewalk. And one night my partner was changing into her dress and she forgot to put her hand into the sleeve, so she came out with one of her . . . things . . . flapping against her chest. Naturally, they canceled the act. Well that isn't funny. Tell that to an audience! So you augment it, add to it. Now I say, 'She came out with one of her things flapping . . . I thought it was the audience applauding . . . I kept taking bows.' But it really happened. It's basically honest. So it's a story you can tell all the time."
Burns has been a comedian for so long that when he talks about the young guys in the business, he means Steve Allen, Danny Thomas and Red Buttons. "They'll make it eventually," he says. "Milton Berle has a good chance." He steers clear of political humor, but does allow himself to say of President Reagan, "Hell, he's only 73 years old. He's just a kid. When I was 73, I had pimples. What the hell was that? Anyway, we stay away from one another's material. I don't get into politics and he doesn't sing 'Red Rose Rag.' That's one of my songs."
Burns' ambition to be a singer is one of the long-running gags of his career -- sort of like Jack Benny's violin playing. "I think I'm a helluva singer," he says. "That's why I love my ears. I love to listen to myself. Nothing wrong with my ears."
If you ask him who was the greatest performer of all time, he doesn't think twice. "Al Jolson. A great singer and a great monologist. But he was such a great singer people forgot how funny he was. How about this little Jewish guy from Washington, singing 'I've Got a Mammie in Alabamie,' and the audience believed him! He made it when there were no microphones and 35 musicians in the pit, and you heard him when he sang. But he had a trick. He didn't sing when the orchestra played. He sang in the cracks. The orchestra would play 'dah dah dah dah-dah.' And then they'd stop and he'd sing 'When April showers . . .' And the orchestra would go, 'dah dah dah dah.' And then he'd sing 'May come your way.' Best entertainer I've ever seen. He wasn't just a singer. He was an inventor. He found a style. That's why you still talk about him."
Burns makes no such claims for himself, although it could be argued that his laconic, laid-back manner at a time when no one knew laid-back from a sprained back was as much an innovation in comedy. Burns credits all his success to his partner and wife of 38 years, Gracie Allen. They met in 1923. He had already been through dozens of flop vaudeville acts -- including one on roller skates, another with a trained seal -- under dozens of aliases. She was an unemployed 17-year-old Irish American dramatic actress. Together, they were a smash.
"Meeting Gracie was my break in life. That was the great moment," he says. "I had an act that I'd written with jokes I'd taken from Whiz Bang. In the first show, I was the comedian in a funny tie and little coat and Gracie was the straight woman. The audience didn't laugh. But they loved Gracie, you could feel it. So when I came offstage, I put on my regular suit, switched the jokes around and gave Gracie some funny lines. The audience didn't laugh at the sarcastic ones, but whenever she said something silly, they did. The audience found her character for her, which they do anyway. The audience finds everything. They make you a star, and they make you a flop.
"Gracie didn't play it dumb, don't you see. Offstage, she was very bright, smarter than me, well educated. She was able to spell. I didn't get past fourth grade. These dumb dames I see today, they all know they're dumb. Gracie didn't. When she said those strange, scatterbrained things and you didn't understand, she felt sorry for you. She never told a joke. She explained a joke. Like she would say, 'My sister Hazel woke up in the middle of the night, there was a scream and we all ran into her room. And we noticed that her feet had turned black.' I'd say, 'And what did you do?' 'We sent for the doctor.' I'd say, 'What did the doctor do?' She'd say, 'He took off her stockings and we all went back to sleep.' She was the talent, I wasn't. I smoked a cigar. When we were on stage together, my lines were 'You don't say?' 'Your brother?' 'Oh, is that so?' Gracie taught me how to listen.
"What made us a good combination was that I knew entrances and exits and how to switch a joke around. I was able to do it offstage and Gracie did it on stage. And I was always careful the cigar smoke didn't go into her face. I'd be sure to notice which way the wind was blowing when we walked out on a stage. Because you couldn't touch Gracie. The audience would have hated me. With Lucille Ball you can do anything. You want to throw a pie at her, okay. She'll throw one back. But, no, you couldn't touch Gracie. Something about her . . ."
He is lost in a moment's reverie. "Something about her . . ." he repeats.
Burns and Allen went on to become one of the great vaudeville teams, played themselves in more than a dozen movies, had one of the top 10 rated radio shows from 1932 to 1950, and then found even greater popularity on television with "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show." They were always too busy, Burns says, to have children, but they adopted a son and a daughter, who have since given him six grandchildren. When Allen retired from show business in 1958, Burns went solo using "my cigar as a straight man." Allen died four years later.
"I'll never have a relationship like that," Burns says. "I think people work too hard at being married. We didn't. We might have had a few disagreements about show business, but never about marriage. We had a wonderful life. The audience loved Gracie. We were getting laughs, making money. And if the audience was great, I was a great lover. If it wasn't, Gracie wouldn't applaud me.
"For a while after her death, it was awful. Then I did something that really worked. The last 15 years Gracie and I were married, we slept in twin beds. Three or four months after she died, I went and slept in her bed. That helped a lot. You know, I still talk to her. Every month I go see her at Forest Lawn and talk to her. People may think I'm out of my skull, but I'm not. I enjoy it. I might tell her that I was interviewed today. Or that I was at a party and Danny Thomas said a very funny thing. And I'll say, 'I hope you haven't heard it before.' You see, Gracie has never left me. She was a great lady. She made everything possible."
Burns' career took another leap forward in 1975, when he appeared in the movie version of "The Sunshine Boys," as an aging ex-vaudevillian, Al Lewis. The role was to have been played by his close friend Jack Benny, who died suddenly just before filming began. "I'd never played a part before in my life," Burns says. "I was always George Burns of Burns and Allen. But I read four or five pages of the script for Neil Simon and director Herb Ross, and they said, 'That's it.' So I played somebody else and it worked. I found out that making people cry is a lot easier than making them laugh. Hell, it's easy to make people cry. I used to make 'em cry when I told jokes."
Burns' performance won him an Oscar for best supporting actor. He followed it up by playing God in "Oh, God!," opposite John Denver, and was an even bigger hit. "Well, the casting was good," Burns says. "If God really came down and looked for a good man, he'd pick John Denver. Of course, I was a little nervous at first about playing God. We're both the same age, but we grew up in different neighborhoods."
The sequel, "Oh, God!, Book II" didn't fare so well, but Burns has good feelings in his bones about "Oh, God! You Devil," which gives him two juicy roles. "As the devil," he says, "I smoke cigars, drink martinis and chase after women. And God is, well, God. There are a lot of good actors in the film, but don't ask me who. I've got a good memory when they're paying me. But when I'm not being paid, I can't remember my own name. And they're not paying me today."
Gracie may be the great love of Burns' life, but she is not the only one. There is also Cathy Carr, the 40-year-old Dallas socialite, who pops her head in the door of his suite to remind him that it is time for his nap. She is an attractive woman, who looks younger than her age, probably because she is wearing her flaxen hair in a single long braid.
"I've been going around with Cathy for the last four years," Burns says. "She's a lovely girl. If I was younger, I'd marry her, but I don't think I'll ever get married again. I'm almost 50 years older than she is. But I love her and she loves me. We're very good friends. More than friends. We dance together."
The joke doesn't entirely conceal what is, to put it mildly, an unusual relationship. It started when Carr, a divorce' with two children, wrote Burns a fan letter. "I always wanted a sense of humor in the house," she says, "so I would read Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr to my kids. Even when they were in diapers -- like age 9 months -- I'd put books in their hands and read them the jokes and die laughing. Anyway, about the time we were running out of things to read, I found George's book, 'Living It Up.' I had such fun sharing it with my children that I wrote him a fan letter. He wrote me back, and then I wrote him back. Finally, he sent me a letter and at the bottom of it, it said, 'If you're ever in L.A., here's my telephone number. Let me buy you a drink.' Well, I don't drink and I'm never in L.A."
The two remained pen pals for three years, in fact, before Carr found herself on the coast and capitulated to Burns' invitations. She and her parents had dinner with him. And as Carr puts it, "that was it." She continues to live in Dallas, but flies to Los Angeles to see Burns at least once a month. Whenever he goes on the road, she accompanies him.
Theirs is, she says with a sunny smile, a romantic relationship. "I respect him, I admire him, I love him. My children adore him. There isn't anything I wouldn't tell him and don't." To the outside world, suspicious of May-December unions, it may sound like Erin Fleming and Groucho Marx all over again. "Well, I certainly don't want an acting career, for one thing," replies Carr, with a peal of laughter. "And for another, I have more money than he does."
She seems as surprised by the relationship as anyone else. "My parents took me to Las Vegas when I was 21 and I remember seeing these sugar daddies and these young girls with minks. And I was horrified. I thought, 'How can they do it?' Maybe that's what people think of me. Of course, I hate the difference in our ages. I come from a very Christian background. I attend church regularly and I wrestle with the fact that our relationship is not, quote, legally contracted in the eyes of God. That's difficult. But I've never met anyone like him in my life before.
"George says something about this man who sings songs . . . Jolson . . . Al Jolson. He says he's the best entertainer there is. He says he sings in the cracks. The orchestra plays and then he sings. Well, that's the way George lives. He's just different, and it's fascinating. Whatever you don't expect is what is going to happen. For instance, he may give me a nice present on April 3rd. And then for Christmas I'll get roses. Nothing is ever normal. Everything is always change and surprise."
Last month they celebrated their fourth "anniversary." Carr flew to L.A. and "we visited all weekend. Saturday night we went to the Polo Lounge with some friends. And Sunday I got up and went to church. But mostly we were just together. No one else around."
"What's wrong with going around with a young girl?" says Burns. "It's better than sliced tomatoes. Maybe some of Cathy might rub off on me and maybe some of what I've got will rub off on Cathy. If it doesn't drop off first."
In his sunset years, when many senior citizens find their world shrinking and their spirit atrophying, Burns seems to have it all. The previous night, he appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman" and the audience gave him a standing ovation before he'd opened his mouth.
"I guess they were glad to see me," Burns says. "They probably said to themselves, 'How do you like that! And he walks, too!' You know, if you told me to stand up now for two hours, I couldn't do it. But I can do it on the stage because of the love that comes over the footlights. I'm an accepted commodity. I'm making old age fashionable. You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old.
"Let me tell you something. I went to a doctor when I was 70 years old. And he said, 'George, you got a bad back. And the older you get, the worse it's gonna be.' And he's right! But who cares if I've got a bad back. So you live with it. There's nothing else you can do. I ran into Jack Benny once and he said, 'I didn't sleep well last night.' So I said, 'How did you sleep the night before, Jack?' He said, 'Great.' I said, 'Then sleep every other night.' What the hell is that? Who cares how Jack Benny slept? I don't ask anyone how they feel. I've eliminated that from my life. I say, 'I'm glad to see you, and you look good.' That's it. I'm not interested in looking at scars."
Burns is hitting his stride now. The eyes are penny bright, and the patter pours forth effortlessly between puffs of blue cigar smoke. You couldn't stop him with a steamroller.
"Supposing the coffee is cold," he is saying, "You drink cold coffee. If the food is no good, send for ketchup. Don't worry about little things. It's little things that upset you the most. I never go to bed with trifles. And if I do, I kick her out before 3 a.m."