Remembered for his quick-witted comedic delivery, gruff voice, and an incredible entertainment career that spanned over eight decades, George Burns was a gifted performer and one of the most famous cigar smokers in history. Burns was rarely seen without a cigar and it quickly became one his trademarks, with various sources claiming the comedian likely smoked hundreds of thousands of cigars over the course of his life. Cigars gradually went from being props to being a part of Burns' persona and he was rarely seen without one, smoking several each day. Along with cigars, Burns loved his wife and comedic partner Gracie Allen, and he loved making people laugh, something he did naturally and effortlessly well into his 90s.
Born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896 in New York City, Burns was the ninth of 12 children born to Hadassah and Eliezer Birnbaum, Jewish immigrants who emigrated to the United States from Poland. His father primarily worked as a coat presser but was also a substitute cantor at the local synagogue. During the 1903 influenza epidemic, Burns' father contracted the flu and passed away at the age of 47. Burns, who was seven at the time, went to work part time to help support his family by selling newspapers, shining shoes, and working in a candy store.
Burns later recalled his first experience with entertainment while working with three other children at Rosenzweig Candy Store:
Burns and the other children formed a quartet, singing on ferries, street corners, and in saloons for donations that passerbys would throw in their hats. "Sometimes they'd put a couple of pennies in the hat," Burns later explained, "and sometimes they took our hats. We lost a lot of hats." Burns dropped out of school during fourth grade to pursue a life in the entertainment business, gradually developing his comedic style and becoming a remarkably talented performer by the time he was a teenager.
Sometime during his teen years, he adopted the name George Burns as he felt it would look better on a marquee compared to his birth name, with George being the first name of his older brother. The Burns part comes from the Burns Brothers, a large coal supplier that delivered to customers along Manhattan's Lower East Side, where people used coal at that time to cook and heat their homes. Coal was rather expensive and George's widowed mother couldn't afford to buy any, so he and a friend would take some from the delivery truck when the driver wasn't around, stuffing it in their pants to bring back home. As a result, the neighborhood children referred to them as the "Burns Brothers," which George thought sounded good and used it for his stage name.
Throughout his 20s, Burns was a struggling entertainer who performed in various acts. His luck changed in 1923 when he met Gracie Allen, a talented vaudeville comedian who started working with Burns after seeing him perform. Burns later recalled, "So Gracie went out front and saw the act. She liked me, and I liked her. Not only was she attractive, but she didn't object to my smoking cigars." Burns and Allen had strong chemistry on and off stage — they eventually married a few years later and would go on to work together for several decades.
George and Gracie
Burns always credited Allen with his success after years of struggling in various acts and he made sure to let her talents shine when they performed. Burns once remarked, "I had to make sure the smoke from my cigar didn't go in her direction. That's all I really had to worry about because I knew she was good. The biggest thing in my life was meeting Gracie. I don't think I would have made it if I hadn't met her. I would have remained a small-time vaudeville act, and then when small-time vaudeville went out, I would have gone out with it."
During the late 1920 and early '30s, Burns and Allen appeared in short comedic films before finding success on the radio in 1932. The pair adapted some of their classic stage routines and developed new sketches for the radio, and audiences enjoyed their comedic stylings. Despite being a married couple, Burns and Allen were initially portrayed as young singles, with Allen being romantically pursued by Burns and other male cast members. It was a successful formula for several years but grew stale over time, so the couple reconfigured the show so that it focused on their marriage and their interactions with their friends.
After 18 years on the radio, the couple took their show to television in 1950 with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. The show was a huge success and the couple founded their own production company, McCadden Corporation, which produced commercials and other popular television shows such as The People's Choice and Mister Ed. Burns and Allen's show lasted until 1958, when Allen's worsening heart condition and exhausting schedule forced her to retire, but in doing so, it allowed her to stay at home and raise their two small children. Burns unsuccessfully tried to continue the show by himself and went on to create Wendy and Me, which featured a character similar to his wife but only lasted for a year.
Allen passed away in 1964 from a heart attack and it devastated Burns, who made it a point to visit her at Forest Lawn Memorial Park at least once a month. During a 60 Minutes segment in 1988, Burns visited Allen's crypt and later explained to Ed Bradley: "I still talk to her all the time. I hope she hears me. If she does, it makes me feel good. You see, Gracie made everything possible for me. I don't think you'd be interviewing me if it wasn't for Grace. I wouldn't have this house. I wouldn't be sitting here. I don't know where I'd be. I didn't do well from eight to twenty-seven, and from twenty-seven to ninety-two, I'm doing fine."
...he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance at the age of 80
To distract himself from the emotional pain, Burns devoted himself to work, performing at several theaters and nightclubs around America. Burns found success a decade later on the big screen with the 1975 comedy film The Sunshine Boys, in which he and Walter Matthau play a pair of vaudeville comedians who attempt a comeback despite their hatred of one another. It was Burn's first film in nearly 40 years, but you wouldn't be able to tell by watching him in the movie. The role of Al Lewis was perfect for Burns and he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance at the age of 80, becoming the oldest Oscar winner in history until Jessica Tandy broke the record with her win for Driving Miss Daisy. During Burns' acceptance speech he jokingly remarked, "Making The Sunshine Boys was so exciting. I decided I'm going to make a picture every 37 years."
Several films followed after Burns' Oscar win, including 1977's memorable comedy Oh, God, which features Burns playing the titular character and selecting supermarket manager Jerry Landers, played by singer-songwriter John Denver, to help spread his message to the modern world. Burns looked back on the movie and its success in an interview, saying, "Well, the casting was good. 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."
Burns stayed busy throughout the '80s and '90s, appearing in a handful of films before eventually retiring from acting since he found it difficult to remember multiple lines of dialogue. Instead, he focused on performing his hour-long one-man show around the country and humorously remarked in an interview, "I already know the jokes and the songs I'm going to sing. I've been doing them for 50 years in theaters. Invite me to your house to dinner and I'll do them in your living room, too. But only if you'll let me smoke a cigar."
Burns remained in excellent shape throughout his life, maintaining a daily exercise regimen well into his 90s and stayed active by going out to the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles and attending dinner with friends. When asked in an interview if public smoking restrictions bothered him, a 98-year old Burns replied, "Not at all. You see, for me, Hillcrest passed a special bylaw: anyone over 95 is allowed to smoke a cigar in the card room." Though if he was out in public and people objected to smoke, Burns respectfully refrained from smoking.
A 1994 interview in Cigar Aficionado magazine provides great insight into Burns' cigar-smoking journey and preferences. Arthur Marx, son of comedian and cigar enthusiast Groucho Marx, conducted the interview and explored Burns' illustrious career while also capturing the comedian's sharp wit. Burns' lifelong cigar fascination began when he was a teenager, using them more as props than smoking them for pleasure. Burns explained, "I smoked them because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they'd say, 'hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.' Of course, it's also a good prop on the stage. When you can't think of what you are supposed to say next, you take a puff on your cigar until you do think of your next line."
"When a joke calls for a delayed laugh, I smoke slowly. If that laugh never comes, I swallow."
As a young teen, Burns preferred five-cent cigars, with a cigar called Hermosa Jose being his favorite. Burns mentioned that two Hermosa Joses would last him a week when he started, as they were quite lengthy, and when he wasn't on stage or trying to impress anyone, he would let them go out and save them for later. In a 1954 interview with TV Guide, Burns explained the versatility of a cigar in his act, saying, "It's many things. A prop. A crutch. A device. In that time (when I puff on the cigar) the audience heals, digests, understands, and finally reacts to the joke."
Burns elaborated further on the importance of cigars in his act in a 1957 interview in The Palo Alto Times: "It's a handy device. If I get a laugh with a joke, I just look for the cigar, or twiddle it. If I didn't get a laugh, it's nice to have something to hang on to. When a joke calls for a delayed laugh, I smoke slowly. If that laugh never comes, I swallow. The camera only shows me from the waist up ... If it showed the floor I'd lose my reputation. I'm standing up to my ankles in ashes."
Though he loved cigars, Burns may have occasionally enjoyed smoking pipes as he appeared in a 1976 television advertisement for Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco. However, cigars were always the go-to for Burns, explaining in the 1994 Cigar Aficionado interview, "Today I smoke about 10 cigars when I'm not working and 15 when I am working." In addition to enjoying a steady supply of cigars, Burns was also known to drink up five martinis a day.
George Burns For Sir Walter Raleigh Pipe Tobacco (1976)
When asked what cigar he smoked, Burns said:
Burns was invited to perform at the London Palladium on his 100th birthday but was too weak to attend, still recovering from a serious fall in his bathtub a couple of years prior. After the fall, his health gradually declined but he never lost his sharp wit or sense of humor. A little over a month after his centenary, Burns passed away in his Beverly Hills home. He was buried in his finest suit, with three cigars tucked away in his breast pocket. In accordance with his final wishes, Burns was laid to rest next to his wife — their tomb engraved with the inscription "Together Again." George Burns was a mastercraftsman of comedy and enjoyed a lengthy career entertaining millions of people over the years, always doing so with a cigar in hand.