George Burns was born on January 20, 1896 in New York City. His name at birth was Naftaly Bimbaum and he was the ninth of twelve children of Louise “Lippe” and Dorah, who were Jewish immigrants, originally from Romania. His father died when young Naftaly was only seven years old. Naftaly or Nathan, as he was often called, began working at this tender age selling newspapers, shining shoes or running errands, in order to help his family to survive.
He ended up getting a job later that year making syrup at a local candy shop. There were a few other children that worked with him and when they got bored they would practice singing harmony. One day as the mailman was going by, he heard the kids in the basement singing and went to investigate. The kids sang a few more songs for him and as they were singing, more people stopped to listen. The people who werelistening gave them a few pennies because they enjoyed it so much and young George gave up working right then and there, beginning his show business career.
He tried quite a few things to make it as an entertainer, from dancing to working with a seal. He came up with his stage name at this time. His brother would sometimes call him George and the name Burns was taken from the Burns Brother’s Coal Company, which he used to steal lumps of coal from, as a child. He picked up cigar smoking and this eventually became his trademark.
During the 1920’s, he performed a dancing act with a young girl named Hannah Siegal. They were offered a three-month touring contract, but the only way that her parents would let her travel with him was if they got married. George married her, but it was strictly a business marriage and the marriage was never consummated. When the tour ended, so did the marriage.
He met Gracie Allen in 1923 and they were a good fit. When they started the act, George was the one who told the jokes. When he realized that the audience laughed everytime Gracie said anything, he reversed their roles and he became the straight man. George ended up falling in love with Gracie, but she was in love with someone else when they first met. George waited patiently for her with a ring in his pocket, until the day he could ask her to marry him. She soon realized that she loved George and they were married on January 7, 1926. They were married until she died on August 27, 1964 of a heart attack.
They got their own radio show in 1932, called the Burns and Allen Show. The show began with Burns and Allen playing single people, with Burns and other characters vying for Gracie’s attention. The show started slipping in the ratings because the audience were aware that Burns and Allen were married. They changed the format to them as the married couple they were. This reinvention of themselves and the new premise of the show made them stars.
In 1950, just as many other radio stars did, the couple moved their show to television. The show was very successful and ended in 1958 because of Gracie’s failing health. Although George Burns tried to continue the show without Gracie, it just wasn’t the same and the ratings fell and the show was cancelled the following year.
When George was 80 years old, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the film, The Sunshine Boys. Until Jessica Tandy won in 1980, he was the oldest film star to win an Academy Award. In 1977, he took on the role of God, in the film, Oh God. As he continued performing, his trademark look was his round spectacles, as well as, always holding or puffing on a cigar. He became very popular and well-known and made appearances on quite a few television shows. Most of his jokes were directed at himself and based around his longevity.
George Burns’ last appearance was in January of 1995, at the age of 99. George had a fall in his bathtub and was never able to recover from it. He celebrated his 100th birthday, but died 49 days later on March 9, 1996. He was laid to rest with Gracie and the crypt marker reads, “Gracie Allen & George Burns – Together Again.”