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Milton Berle

Milton Berle (né Milton Berlinger) (1908 – 2002) was an extremely popular Jewish American comedian, whose career spanned vaudeville, radio, television, and film, but who made his biggest mark in television. His greatest success was as the headliner for Texaco Star Theater on NBC from 1948 to June 14, 1955 (also known as the Buick-Berle Show when Buick became its sponsor in 1953). Berle was originally one of several rotating hosts for the program, but was selected as the permanent emcee in the fall of 1948, and quickly took the show to Number One in the early days of television ratings, swamping all competition with an 80 percent share of the viewing audience. Many theaters and other businesses closed on Tuesday nights, as people stayed home to watch the antics of this highly visual comedian.

Berle was born in a five-story walkup at 68 West 118th Street in New York City. He began his long career in entertaining in 1913, when he won a contest by impersonating Charlie Chaplin.

It is said that Milton Berle was responsible for the sale of more television sets in the United States than any other individual. This earned him the sobriquet Mr. Television. He was also known as Uncle Miltie, after a remark he made to children on one program to listen to your Uncle Miltie and go to bed.

Berle was so popular that NBC signed him to an exclusive 30-year contract in 1951, not realizing that the lifespan of a comedian on television would be considerably shorter. A one-season series shot in 1955 on the West Coast, The Milton Berle Show, fell flat, with the exception of several memorable appearances by a young Elvis Presley. Berle later appeared in the Kraft Music Hall series, but NBC was finding increasingly fewer roles for its one-time superstar. By 1960, he was reduced to hosting a game show, Jackpot Bowling, delivering his quips in-between the on-screen efforts of bowling contestants.

Unable to find or accept other television work, Berle played Las Vegas, made nightclub appearances, appeared on Broadway in Herb Gardner's The Goodbye People in 1968, and appeared in many films (mostly as himself). These included Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) with Virginia Mayo and Bert Lahr, Let's Make Love, with Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand (1960); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); The Loved One (1965); The Oscar (1966); Lepke (1975); Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose (1984); and Driving Me Crazy (1991). He also had guest roles on television series such as The Jack Benny Show, Make Room for Daddy, The Lucy Show, Batman, The Big Valley, Get Smart, The Mod Squad, Ironside, Mannix, McCloud, The Love Boat, CHiPs, Fame, Fantasy Island, Gimme a Break, Diff'rent Strokes, Murder, She Wrote, Beverly Hills 90210, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny, Roseanne, Sister, Sister, and many others.

In 1966, freed in part from the obligations of his NBC contract, Berle was signed to a new weekly variety series on ABC. The show failed to capture the large audience Berle commanded in the 1950s, and was cancelled after one season. He later appeared as guest villain Louie the Lilac on the short-lived (but wildly popular) Batman series, also on ABC.

Like Jackie Gleason, one of his contemporaries, Berle proved to be a good dramatic actor and was acclaimed for several such performances, most notably his lead role in Doyle Against The House on the Dick Powell Show in 1961, for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also played the part of a blind survivor of an airplane crash in Seven in Darkness, the first in ABC's popular Movie of the Week series, and was often seen on the Hollywood Palace variety show on ABC. By 1970, however, he was appearing primarily as a nod to his past, an increasingly nostalgic figure.

One of Berle's most memorable later appearances came in 1985 on NBC's Amazing Stories in an episode called Fine Tuning, where friendly aliens from space, having received TV signals from the Earth of the 1950s, travel to Hollywood in search of their idols, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason and Burns and Allen - and Milton Berle. (Berle, speaking gibberish, is the only person able to communicate directly with the aliens.)

In later life, he presided as the master of ceremonies for many Friar's Club roasts and other gatherings. In 1988, a series of syndicated TV specials with the umbrella title Milton Berle: The Second Time Around recycled footage from the live Texaco Star Theater programs (unseen for decades) and helped to introduce Berle's brand of comedy to a new audience.

Berle had one of the greatest joke collections in the world, with about 6.5 million jokes on computer. The books Milton Berle's Private Joke File and The Rest of the Best of Milton Berle's Private Joke File each had 10,000 of these jokes. Being Jewish, one of his best remembered jokes was, "Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies."

Milton Berle was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. He died of colon cancer in March, 2002, at the age of 93, and was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2005.

Milton Berle Facts

Birth NameMilton Berlinger
BirthdayJuly 12, 1908
BirthplaceNew York, New York, USA
Date of deathMarch 27, 2002 (age 93)
Height5' 10" (1m78)  How tall is Milton Berle compared to you?

Selected Filmography

The Lucy-Desi Milton Berle Special
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Milton Berle Show: Texaco Star
All's Well That Ends
The Spike Jones Story
Cracking Up
Broadway Danny Rose
Classic Friars Club Roasts
Evil Roy Slade
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