'Mr. Television,' Milton Berle, dead at 93
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Comedian Milton Berle, one of the pioneering legends of television known to a generation of devoted fans as "Uncle Miltie," died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, his publicist said. He was 93.
Berle, who had been in failing health in recent years, died in his sleep while taking a nap, publicist Roger Neale said. His wife, Lorna, was at home with him when he died.
Berle is also survived by a son and a daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.
"What a remarkable man, what a remarkable career," Bob Hope and his wife, Dolores, said in a statement. "Eighty-eight years in show business, a brilliant comedian, an accomplished actor, a lifelong friend."
Berle's career began when he was 5 years old and spanned more than 80 years in stage, film, radio, and television. He also penned some 400 published songs.
But it was on television in the 1940s and '50s that Berle made his most lasting mark.
"The Texaco Star Theater," featuring Berle and guest stars in what would become legendary comic skits, debuted in 1948 and caught on with the public almost immediately. It became a Tuesday night fixture in homes across America and was credited with helping sell millions of first-time TV sets to a nation just getting acquainted with the new medium.
"There was a time ... when people didn't go out of their house on Tuesday night at 8 o'clock because Milton Berle was on," entertainer Ed McMahon told CNN at Berle's 90th birthday bash in 1998.
Known for his trademark cigars and for occasionally donning women's clothes to get a laugh, Berle was a mainstay on network television for nearly two decades, earning the nickname "Mr. Television."
'Better than anything'
Berle was not supposed to be the permanent host of "Texaco Star Theater." The emcees, which included Henny Youngman, Morey Amsterdam, and Jack Carter, were supposed to rotate.
But, as Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh note in their compendium of television history, "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-present" (Ballantine), Berle proved the most popular host and was made permanent in September 1948, three months after the show debuted.
Berle, his talent honed in vaudeville and radio, would do anything for a laugh. After the weekly opening from the Texaco Service Men, he would come out in a costume, sometimes in drag.
His manic energy permeated the goings-on, which included singers, comedians, acrobats, and wacky skits. Some critics dismissed the show as video vaudeville -- "vaudeo" was one term floated -- but it was immensely popular.
"I think laughter is very imperative. And that's the important part of my life, of making people laugh so they can forget their problems," Berle once said. "A good laugh is better than anything."
The show changed its name in 1953 after Texaco changed its sponsorship to another night, and the show was finally renamed "The Milton Berle Show" in 1954.
Fellow comedian Sid Caesar, whose "Your Show of Shows" was also a TV groundbreaker, said Berle set the pattern for much of television programming.
"Milton Berle proved to the networks that you could do a new show every week with the same cast," Caesar said. "Milton Berle is going to be sorely missed. He was Mr. Television, and also a friend."
Berle "was a pioneer," said film critic Roger Ebert. "That's why my family wanted to get a TV set because all the kids at school were talking about what Uncle Miltie said last night and we didn't have a TV."
While his prominence on network TV had declined by the late 1960s -- he was the host of the roundly panned "Jackpot Bowling" in 1960-61, and his 1966 variety hour died in the ratings -- he still continued to get laughs in guest spots on TV shows.
Berle became such a fixture of American entertainment that he often appeared as himself in films like Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984) and in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985). His film credits spanned decades -- from "The Perils of Pauline" (1914) to "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter" (1999).
Milton Berle was born Mendel Berlinger on July 12, 1908, in New York City. He won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest when he was 5 and followed that up with wins in several local amateur contests. His mother, Sarah, was a classic stage mother, constantly pushing her child to be a performing success.
Berle became a regular on the vaudeville circuit and also appeared in several silent films. In 1931, he played the Palace Theater in New York, becoming the youngest master of ceremonies on Broadway. Even before his television success, he was reportedly one of the highest-paid comedians in show business, even if he wasn't much of a name to most of America.
"Texaco Star Theater" cemented Berle's fame. NBC gave him a "lifetime contract" of 30 years in 1951, paying him $200,000 a year whether he worked or not. (When Berle asked to work elsewhere in 1965 -- his 1966 variety show appeared on ABC -- NBC agreed, and his yearly salary was cut to $60,000.)
He was called the "Thief of Bad Gags" -- an appelation given by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell -- for his predilection for stealing jokes, a habit he readily admitted.
"I laughed so hard I nearly dropped my pencil," he once said of a rival comedian.
He won an Emmy award in 1949 and was given another Emmy for lifetime achievement in 1979. He was one of the first members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame and president of the Friars Club for more than a decade. His books include "Milton Berle: An Autobiography" and "B.S. I Love You," the latter a collection of stories and anecdotes.
In 1991, he was among the first inductees into the International Comedy Hall of Fame.
Berle married four times, including twice to Broadway showgirl Joyce Mathews. After their second divorce, he married Ruth Cosgrove and was with her for more than 35 years, until her death in 1989. He married his fourth wife, Lorna Adams, in 1991.
His survivors include two adopted children. Berle was also the father-in-law of "Night Court" actor Richard Moll.
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