updated 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
"You gotta try to relax," says Milton Berle, taking his eyes off the road to examine his expensive cigar—one of a score that is destined for ignition that day. Drivers honk, pedestrians shout as the car wanders over the center line; then they recognize the driver and turn into children. "It's Uncle Miltie!" they cry. "We love you, Uncle Miltie!"
"Yeah, yeah," says Uncle Miltie impatiently, as he swings the car in a wide U-turn. "You know, in all my years of driving, I've never had an accident. Never even got a ticket."
Later, chez Berle, his wife, Ruth, asks the rattled passenger, "Who drove?"
"You let him?"
"The man's never had an accident. Never even got a ticket."
"He told you that?" She pauses. Not for nothing has she shared 34 years with the king of comic timing. "Milton has an accident every other day," she says. "Yesterday, backing out of the driveway he knocked down two innocent motorcycle drivers."
The old master removes the cigar and with that goofy grin adds, "Yeah, but it wasn't my fault!"
Milton Berle is still very much the mischievous postadolescent who brazenly leaped into our living rooms in 1948, hosting his Texaco Star Theater, the first nationwide TV smash. At 79, he shows no signs of diminished enthusiasm—and not just when he's playing at driving. His syndicated special, Milton Berle: The Second Time Around, airs on 209 channels in late January and early February; he has recently finished filming a CBS movie, Side by Side, in which he appears with Sid Caesar and Danny Thomas; his new book of gags and anecdotes, B.S. I Love You, is selling briskly. And, perhaps the best news for Berle fans, his old shows for Texaco—the ones that caused power drains on Tuesday nights four decades ago and earned him Walter Winchell's appellation "the Thief of Badgags"—are set for syndication next fall.
Berle lives carefully, almost quietly now in a Spanish-style home of modest proportions, by Hollywood standards. "We had a 17-room mansion," says his wife, Ruth, "but it was too much. This is 10 or 11 rooms. This is fine."
Located just off Sunset Boulevard, the house smells on most days of lush, roasting turkey, a family favorite. "We have a cook," says Milton. Just now down the staircase comes the cook: Sophie, Milton's mother-in-law.
"Eighty-six," says Milton as she descends. "Isn't she ugly?"
Sophie doesn't even look up. She waves a hand, swatting away the pesky wisecrack like a fly that has been buzzing in her ear for 30-odd years.
Despite a 1985 heart-bypass operation, some powerful engine still drives Milton Berle. "I could never retire," he says. "Retire to what?" Perhaps he is some rare plant that can thrive only in the spotlight.
This past summer, Berle prepared himself for a guest appearance on a Bob Hope special by doing an act at the Raleigh Hotel in the Catskills, where entertainers go to sharpen their routines. "Milton was sitting in the wings looking tired, very tired," recalls Lewis Jay Shron, a lawyer for the hotel. "I thought, 'This man can't perform. He can hardly walk.' But then it was his turn to go on and he stood up and he was straight, like a soldier. He walked out onto the stage and he had the bounce of a young man. Suddenly, he wasn't old and he wasn't tired. When that light hit him, he was young. Later, when he finished and came off the stage, he sagged and became a tired old man again."
It's the discipline of a trouper. "This is a man who's spent his whole life in show business," says Ruth, settling on her living room sofa. "His whole life. On the road. Sleeping in cheap hotels. Eating in bad diners. When we first got married, he was surprised that mashed potatoes didn't come out of an ice cream scoop with a little bowl of gravy pushed into the top."
Milton puts on an oversize raincoat and goes out on his lawn to clown for the fans in a tour bus. He makes faces and grins. Even the people who drive by his house get a show. But he tires easily, and after a few minutes he has to go inside and sit on the couch, where he takes long, deep breaths.
"You never think that life will turn out the way it does," he says reflectively. All his life, Milton Berle has avoided dwelling on the past. But now he is willing, almost eager, to remember it all. "I was born in Harlem, 68 West 118th Street," he says, proud of the remembered detail.
He was the youngest son of Sarah (later Sandra) and Moses Berlinger. His only surviving sibling, Phil, 87, handles the details of Berle's career. Phil is the last link to that abbreviated youth—cut short by Milton's need to become a breadwinner at the age of 5.
"When my parents married, it was some scandal," says Phil, who has dropped by the house to visit.
"Quiet. I'm in charge of the scandal," barks Milton. "It was some scandal." When Moses Berlinger married Sarah Glantz at the turn of the century, the Berlingers were horrified. She was a Polish Jew—considered too far down the social scale for a German Jew such as their son. The Berlinger family disowned Moses, who was a sometime salesman of paints and varnishes, a hapless Willy Loman who never held a steady job.
There is, among all the images of Milton Berle's youth, one indelible memory. When he was 5, the family was evicted from a New York railroad flat. In his first book, Milton Berle: An Autobiography, published in 1974, he describes the shame of having all his family's possessions "vomited out onto the street...while the landlord stood like a dark cloud...watching." His father, Moses, stands on the sidewalk, indecisive, as he watches his family losing their home. Finally, Milton's mother takes charge, "spreading us boys around our possessions...'Moe, you stay with them,' " she orders her husband. Then she turns to her son. " 'I want no crying, Milton, you hear me?' "
And there was no crying, not in front of that powerful mother, who found another apartment in a matter of hours. After that humiliating moment, Sarah—or, as she later came to be known, "the Queen"—took charge of the family. She got a job as a store detective, working in Saks, Wanamakers, Macy's. "My father became the mother and my mother became the father," Berle recalls. "He stayed home and she went out to work." She also had Milton go out to work. Though he was barely past toddlerhood, she towed him to stage, film and advertising casting calls—vicariously satisfying her own frustrated show business ambitions in the process—and set about launching his career. Eventually, he landed some small parts in movies—his first role, at age 5, was as a child rescued from the train tracks in The Perils of Pauline with Pearl White—and he developed a stage act of singing and jokes for vaudeville.
Sarah went out on the road full-time with Milton, eating off forbidden hot plates in stark rooming houses from Steubenville, Ohio, to Boston, always giving him the lion's share of the dinner because he was a growing boy and had to perform. "My mother had the drive," says Berle. "You see, she wanted to be in show business, but it wasn't possible. Not in those years. A woman would be a harlot. So she pushed me into it."
Not that it took much pushing. Berle had an affinity for the limelight, and it is still obvious, nearly three-quarters of a century later, as he sits backstage with Jack Carter at a Hollywood theater where they're taping a Bob Hope special. They discuss bits and timing and throw insults back and forth like kids playing catch. "Some things are funny and some things are not," Berle says with a shrug. "I always got a laugh dressing like a girl. I was the Boy George of my day."
"Yes," agrees Carter, "but you were never funny."
Danny Thomas comes by and tells Berle that he looks terrible. It is a sign of respect. Tony Randall walks in, does a little tap dance, raises his eyebrows and says Milton was "brilliant" in rehearsal. Pretty dancers flirt with Milton, but that is one light that seems to have gone out of his eyes. For years, he was a kind of Borsht Belt Errol Flynn. His sexual capacity and appeal to women were legendary.
"In this business, you meet the most beautiful, the most desirable women," he says. "And I met them all. Mama tried to stop it, but she saw that she couldn't, so she made it easier. She got me dates. As long as it was one date. As long as it wasn't serious." Berle dallied with film stars from Pola Negri to Marilyn Monroe; he dated Lucille Ball; he even had a brief encounter with evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. There was a mob of molls and more than one line from more than one chorus.
And then he met Joyce Mathews, a gorgeous show girl. His mother kept trying to come along on their dates, but finally Berle put his foot down. He and Mathews got married. Twice. And divorced. Twice. They parted friends. "It just didn't work out," says Berle. (He often visits their adopted daughter, Vicki, a housewife, and her two children in Washington state.) He married Ruth, a former press agent, in 1953. Their adopted son, Billy, 26, is a glider pilot and free-lance aviation writer.
As Berle, in an old robe that seems several sizes too big, waits for his turn to perform at the Hope show, Rudy Horbitch, the man who has been doing his face for 20 years, begins to work. "You try to catch the light and blend it out when it hits the makeup," explains Berle. "It loses the wrinkles." Horbitch draws lines of white and black in the hair, thickening the look. Finally, Berle is ready.
While Hope and the cast are busy blocking shots and making technical adjustments, Berle steps in front of the audience as Jack Carter comes by carrying a ladder he has grabbed from a stagehand. "Where are you going?" asks Berle.
"I'm taking my case to a higher court," replies Carter. The audience erupts at the wheezy old gag.
"I don't really like taped shows," says Berle afterward at a restaurant with Carter. "I don't like applause signs and I don't like canned laughs. I like the spontaneity of live television. You never knew what was gonna happen. There was a show in 1951. I had a scene with Red Buttons. I said, 'Take off your clothes,' and he says he doesn't want to, and I'm supposed to pull on his jacket and it's a breakaway outfit. He's supposed to be left there with his underwear. I reach in and I grab his collar and his underwear and I pull and everything comes off. He is standing there bald naked. I jump in front of him and I say, 'The next act is...' " The old-timers at the table laugh. "It was better live," says Berle, heading for the men's room.
His meal arrives, and while he is gone, Jack Carter eats it. Berle comes back and pretends not to notice. He orders again. "Funny," he says. "I'm still hungry." It's an old joke, but it always gets a chuckle from the boys. Actually the boys are old men now, but there is something childlike that lingers.
A few days later, Berle is sitting in a booth in the main dining room of the Beverly Hills Friars Club, of which he is president. He looks on appreciatively as the venerable George Burns, 12 years his senior, painfully makes his way to a table. "So, George, how are you?" Berle asks.
George does not say. He taps his cigar, munches on his gums and smiles.
"Let me ask you something, George," begins Berle, and the spectators close in, sensing a major comic possibility. "If, by some miracle, you should meet a young girl and get lucky. If, out of that chance encounter, you should by another miracle have an orgasm, what would emerge?"
George doesn't hesitate: "Dust."
There is a pause. Not long. Just enough to get the listeners leaning in. "I can use that line, George," says Milton Berle. Pause. "When I get older."
A few old cronies crowd into the red booth. They listen respectfully as Berle reminisces. "It was 1920 when I first came to the Friars Club in New York," he says. "At the table were Eddie Cantor, Enrico Caruso, George M. Cohan, Fred Allen. Caruso says something to the waiter in an accent that you could barely understand. Eddie Cantor says, 'Enrico, you speak English like your boat won't dock until Thursday.' Fred Allen says, 'That's my joke.' 'No,' I said, 'it's Willie Howard's joke.' "
He lights his big cigar and enjoys the appreciative laughter. Caruso is gone. Cantor is gone. Allen is gone. Willie Howard is gone. All the jokes are Milton Berle's now.