Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Post of the Week Created with Sketch. “Say goodnight, Blue Eyes”: George Burns on Best Friends (Quote of the Day)

 

“So there I was, married to a woman who knew she loved me because I made her cry, and best friends with a hack violin player who thought it was hysterical when I hung up the phone on him.”-George Burns (1896-1996), Gracie: A Love Story 

The morning after Christmas of 1974, the hack violin player died. Ten years earlier, the pixie-like Catholic girl cried for her Jewish husband who had died suddenly of a heart attack, and that same hack violinist had held his best friend’s arm through the long funeral service, stopping only to carry the girl’s coffin. It had been a long fifty-five years. 

Natan Birnbaum, stage name George Burns, and Benjamin Kubelsky, stage name Jack Benny, met relatively early on in their Vaudeville careers in the ‘20s and became fast friends. Both unmarried Jewish comedians, they had started in entirely different sectors of showbiz, Jack as a serious violin player and George as a dancer. Burns found success from his pairing with Gracie Allen in 1923, the straight man to her innocent, zany young flirt (eventually wife), while Benny’s big break arrived with a guest spot on a 1932 Ed Sullivan radio broadcast. They both got radio shows that same year and supported each other through the long runs of both, inviting each other on and making frequent reference to the gags each pulled on the other. 

When it came time to move to Hollywood, the Burns and the Bennys bought neighboring houses, and membership to Hillcrest Country Club, the site of frequent ‘round table’ lunches with Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, and George Jessel, among others. Each found success in television in the 1950s, and while Jack was profoundly saddened, and shaken, by the death of his close friend and legendary radio rival Fred Allen in 1956, they were good years. The couples had children of similar ages whom they parented together and seemingly endless glamorous nights on the town. 

For George, nights on the town and fancy cocktail parties, like almost any other time, were an opportunity to torture Jack. During one of Mary Livingstone’s very lush cocktail parties, George convinced Jack that it would be a brilliant gag for him to disappear upstairs mid-way through the fête, and reappear sans pants, wearing one of his wife’s big hats and playing the violin. Benny did just that, and while he was distracted with the endeavor, George announced what was happening to all of the party guests, and instructed them to ignore the scantily clad comedian and go on as normal. When Jack made his grand entrance and he was given no attention, and even more so when he began to move about the room playing, he was flummoxed as to why his carefully planned joke didn’t seem to amuse anyone. Until he saw a grinning George Burns. Almost on the spot, he burst out with laughter, and fell to the ground, pounding the floor with delight. 

The ‘60s were an altogether tougher decade. George lost Gracie halfway through, and Jack was forced not long after to leave his beloved next-door neighbor behind, as his wife wanted the minimal maintenance of a penthouse. While he still adored Mary, Jack also began to feel in a similar position to George in terms of losing a spouse, as his wife became increasingly reclusive, often refusing to accompany him out of the house, appear on his show, or even interact with her husband face to face, never mind share a bed. Likewise, their professional lives had slowed. 

Benny’s show was dropped by NBC in 1964, as the network felt the comedian had little draw for the youthful demographic they were courting, while Burns had had trouble creating any kind of successful program after his wife retired from performing in 1958. A sitcom, Wendy and Me, aired the same year that Benny was taken off of NBC, and lasted only one season. Health problems, too, began to plague the pair as the ‘60s wore into the ‘70s. 

Like his wife, Burns had heart troubles, and in early 1974 he underwent a bypass operation. As he recuperated in his Hollywood home, a call came in from his best friend, touring in Dallas. Jack had been having serious stomach pain for years, but because many of his friends considered him a hypochondriac, they failed to take it seriously, chalking it up to fear of turning 80. 

“‘I have a bad stomachache,’ he told me. Jack was the only person I knew who could call me after I’d had a serious heart operation to tell me how he was feeling. 

“That’s too bad,’ I said, ‘I’m lying here dying and you’re complaining about a stomachache.’ 

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I just think I sho-’ So I hung up the phone on him. That was me, always willing to do anything for Jack to help him feel better.”

When Benny suffered a minor stroke later that day, he was forced to return to California and undergo even more extensive testing. Eventually, his physicians discovered that Jack’s pain was anything but psychosomatic. He had pancreatic cancer, far too advanced to do anything but pursue palliative measures. George’s comment on this episode was succinct, but heart-wrenching, “There’s nothing I like less than a phony hypochondriac.” 

Six months of semi-sedated bed rest for Benny, who was never actually told of his condition, brought Burns to that cloudy December 26th. Against the protests of the doctors, he walked up the penthouse stairs to Jack’s room, and sat for a little while with his departed friend, crying for one of the few times in his long life. Determined to show his friend, and his friend’s family, the same kind of comfort that he had shown him a decade before, Burns was insistent that he would deliver the first eulogy of the funeral service. 

“Jack was someone special to all of you, but he was so special to me…I cannot imagine my life without Jack Benny, and I will miss him so very much.”

Unable to go on, the weeping comedian, the sole remaining half of a famous partnership and one of Hollywood’s closest friendships, was helped to his seat. 

Jack gave his friend one final gift, insisting that he take one of the lead roles in The Sunshine Boys, a film that he had been cast to star in before he fell ill. The film was a critical and commercial success, securing Burns’ an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and helping to prompt a career resurgence that lasted until his death in 1996, at the age of 100. But close friends said that, despite his newly revivified career and active personal life, Nattie never truly came to terms with his favorite hack violin player’s death.

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  1. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    I also have a question to go along with my quote, but it didn’t feel quite right have such an abrupt tone shift at the end of the post. 

    Who are your favorite historical, or celebrity, best friends?

    • #1
    • September 7, 2020, at 9:14 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    “Well…”


    This is the Quote of the Day. Or maybe several quotations for the price of one. Stories of a hilarious friendship never run out. If you have a quotation you would like to share, perhaps quoting your best friend, go choose an open date from our sign-up sheet.

    • #2
    • September 7, 2020, at 9:29 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  3. TBA Coolidge

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I also have a question to go along with my quote, but it didn’t feel quite right have such an abrupt tone shift at the end of the post.

    Who are your favorite historical, or celebrity, best friends?

    Laurel and Hardy come to mind – assuming Stan & Ollie isn’t utter hooey. 

    • #3
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:01 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    TBA (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I also have a question to go along with my quote, but it didn’t feel quite right have such an abrupt tone shift at the end of the post.

    Who are your favorite historical, or celebrity, best friends?

    Laurel and Hardy come to mind – assuming Stan & Ollie isn’t utter hooey.

    It isn’t (I did a little research when I initially saw the trailer). They always got along well, but didn’t become really close until their later variety tours in the 40s and 50s. Laurel was destroyed by Hardy’s death in 1957, and he never returned to stage or screen.

    • #4
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:06 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. Judge Mental Member

    John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. They do some of the only movie commentary tracks that are worth listening to. On one of them (Big Trouble in Little China, I think), they were 45 minutes in before they ever mentioned the movie.

    • #5
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:08 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    What a stupendously warmhearted post! You really know these guys, their careers and the times they lived through. 

    • #6
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:08 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  7. James Lileks Contributor

    Fantastic post. 

    • #7
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:15 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  8. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    TBA (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I also have a question to go along with my quote, but it didn’t feel quite right have such an abrupt tone shift at the end of the post.

    Who are your favorite historical, or celebrity, best friends?

    Laurel and Hardy come to mind – assuming Stan & Ollie isn’t utter hooey.

    It isn’t (I did a little research when I initially saw the trailer). They always got along well, but didn’t become really close until their later variety tours in the 40s and 50s. Laurel was destroyed by Hardy’s death in 1957, and he never returned to stage or screen.

    It’s ironic, really, that there are such touching friendships between comedians and comedy teams (as well as a fair number where there’s great enmity), but so many end in such a sad way. Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, friends of Burns and Benny, were partners on Vaudeville and close friends for their whole lives, and it was very difficult for George when Eddie died in 1964. Or The Blues Brothers, and John Belushi’s untimely end.

    • #8
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:15 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    What a stupendously warmhearted post! You really know these guys, their careers and the times they lived through.

    Thank you! I knew a fair bit about Benny (and Fred Allen) and George Burns before, but I ended up reading two of Burns’ books, Gracie: A Love Story and All My Best Friends (as well as Sunday Nights at Seven by Jack and Joan Benny), over a few nights when I couldn’t sleep during lockdown in England. Initially, I picked them out because I just wanted something to get me to sleep, and while I liked the subject matter I didn’t figure they would be particularly good, but I was impressed by the quality of the prose and how moving (both funny and sad) the stories were. I sent a few friends screenshots from them, and they developed a bit of a bad reputation, because both knew that I found them sad. That feels like a MadLibs final product, “A George Burns book made me cry.”

    • #9
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:27 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  10. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    • #10
    • September 7, 2020, at 10:39 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  11. Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… Contributor

    KirkianWanderer: Jack had been having serious stomach pain for years, but because many of his friends considered him a hypochondriac, they failed to take it seriously, chalking it up to fear of turning 80. 

    Understandable. It’s gotta be difficult going straight from 39 to 80.

    • #11
    • September 7, 2020, at 11:53 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  12. Jon1979 Lincoln

    While Burns failed to come up with any comedy successes on TV without Gracie, the alumni from his McCadden Productions went on to form the backbone of Filmways in the 1960s (especially the shows from ex-Burns & Allen writer Paul Henning), while George’s son-and-law Rod Amateu, who helmed the final two seasons of B&A, would take some of the other people from the company over to Fox for “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (when George sold his company to Filmways, they were already in the process of trying to get “Mr. Ed” on the air, with George’s brother Willie as one of the main writers. The first pilot, with different actors didn’t sell, so they did a second one with Alan Young & Connie Hines, which included a talk to Studebaker dealers by George pitching the show, which ran in syndication under their sponsorship for the first season, before being picked up by CBS for five more years):

     

     

    • #12
    • September 8, 2020, at 12:06 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  13. Arahant Member

    Jon1979 (View Comment):
    The first pilot, with different actors didn’t sell, so they did a second one with Alan Young & Connie Hines, which included a talk to Studebaker dealers by George pitching the show, which ran in syndication under their sponsorship for the first season, before being picked up by CBS for five more years):

    Thanks for that. It was fun.

    • #13
    • September 8, 2020, at 2:40 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  14. She Reagan
    SheJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tolkien and Lewis? Johnson and Boswell?

    • #14
    • September 8, 2020, at 4:45 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I was only 12 years old, but I still remember where I was when I heard Jack Benny had died (newsbreak over the car radio while we were driving through the Mayfair Mall parking lot). I obviously had missed his radio and TV career, but remember watching a couple of his last TV specials.

    In college CBN broadcast reruns of The Jack Benny Show and George and Gracie at midnight, and my roommates and I would watch every night.

     

    • #15
    • September 8, 2020, at 5:48 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  16. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I also have a question to go along with my quote, but it didn’t feel quite right have such an abrupt tone shift at the end of the post.

    Who are your favorite historical, or celebrity, best friends?

    After a post as fine as that? A question would be perfectly appropriate.

    • #16
    • September 8, 2020, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  17. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    I was only 12 years old, but I still remember where I was when I heard Jack Benny had died (newsbreak over the car radio while we were driving through the Mayfair Mall parking lot). I obviously had missed his radio and TV career, but remember watching a couple of his last TV specials.

    In college CBN broadcast reruns of The Jack Benny Show and George and Gracie at midnight, and my roommates and I would watch every night.

    I gather from what I’ve read that, even though he was 80, Jack Benny’s death was a major shock when it happened, and dominated the news for quite a bit. 

    He does seem to have quite a bit of endurance. Comedians that are popular now, like Conan O’Brien, bring up Benny as an influence with good regularity, and there’s a podcast that broadcasts his radio shows which does pretty well. I think, or at least hope, that his work will at least find a niche among people my age (those that are ‘serious’ about comedy seem very interested in probing the past, so there is hope). 

    Finding audio of Burns’ incomplete eulogy is pretty impossible, but there is a news broadcast from the funeral that gives Bob Hope’s, and shows just how massive the turnout was: 

    • #17
    • September 8, 2020, at 7:38 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  18. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Favorite friendships? They argued over strategy, occasionally insulted each other in a friendly manner, but William Tecumseh Sherman best summed it up:

    Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.

    • #18
    • September 8, 2020, at 8:44 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  19. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    Favorite friendships? They argued over strategy, occasionally insulted each other in a friendly manner, but William Tecumseh Sherman best summed it up:

    Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.

    Very good choice. I was planning on making today’s QotD about friendship no matter what, but this version nearly got scrapped because I didn’t like how the writing came out. Other pairs I considered were: 

    Showbiz/Celebrity:

    -Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks 

    -Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra 

    -Harvey Korman and Tim Conway 

    -Don Rickles and Bob Newhart 

    -Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda 

    -Steve Martin and Martin Short

    -David Spade and Chris Farley

    -Keith Richards and Mick Jagger 

    Historical: 

    -John Adams and Thomas Jefferson 

    -Elie Kedourie and Ken Minogue 

    -Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

    -Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox

    -Henry Plantagenet and Thomas Beckett

    -Abe Lincoln and Joshua Speed

    -David Hume and Adam Smith

    -Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift

    -Frederick Lindemann and Winston Churchill

    • #19
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:08 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  20. David Knights Member

    Gracie is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I tear up every time I get to the end.

    • #20
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:11 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  21. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Favorite friendships? They argued over strategy, occasionally insulted each other in a friendly manner, but William Tecumseh Sherman best summed it up:

    Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.

    Very good choice. I was planning on making today’s QotD about friendship no matter what, but this version nearly got scrapped because I didn’t like how the writing came out. Other pairs I considered were:

    Showbiz/Celebrity:

    -Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks

    -Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra

    -Harvey Korman and Tim Conway

    -Don Rickles and Bob Newhart

    -Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda

    -Steve Martin and Martin Short

    -David Spade and Chris Farley

    -Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

    Historical:

    -John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

    -Elie Kedourie and Ken Minogue

    -Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    -Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox

    -Henry Plantagenet and Thomas Beckett

    -Abe Lincoln and Joshua Speed

    -David Hume and Adam Smith

    -Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift

    -Frederick Lindemann and Winston Churchill

    John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was my second choice. They were friends during the Revolution, bitter rivals after the Washington administration, then friends again in later life.

    • #21
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:12 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  22. David Knights Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Fantastic post.

    You need to read the book. You, especially, would love it.

    • #22
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:13 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Favorite friendships? They argued over strategy, occasionally insulted each other in a friendly manner, but William Tecumseh Sherman best summed it up:

    Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.

    Very good choice. I was planning on making today’s QotD about friendship no matter what, but this version nearly got scrapped because I didn’t like how the writing came out. Other pairs I considered were:

    Showbiz/Celebrity:

    -Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks

    -Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra

    -Harvey Korman and Tim Conway

    -Don Rickles and Bob Newhart

    -Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda

    -Steve Martin and Martin Short

    -David Spade and Chris Farley

    -Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

    Historical:

    -John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

    -Elie Kedourie and Ken Minogue

    -Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    -Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox

    -Henry Plantagenet and Thomas Beckett

    -Abe Lincoln and Joshua Speed

    -David Hume and Adam Smith

    -Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift

    -Frederick Lindemann and Winston Churchill

    John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was my second choice. They were friends during the Revolution, bitter rivals after the Washington administration, then friends again in later life.

    I had a book of their complete collected letters high school, it was a great read. They were also the subject of a very beautifully illustrated, and funny, kids book: 

    https://larrydayillustration.com/books/non-fiction/worst-of-friends/

    • #23
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:15 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    I don’t remember listening to them on radio but I was a big fan of Fred Allen. Listened to every show for years. I also used to listen to real life husband and wife show “Fibber McGee and Molly.” I do remember a few Jack Benny shows on radio. Rochester was a great character, not allowed now, of course. And I do remember the famous train stations, “Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.”

    • #24
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:44 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  25. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon

    John Wayne and Ward Bond

    • #25
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:46 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  26. Judge Mental Member

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    I don’t remember listening to them on radio but I was a big fan of Fred Allen. Listened to every show for years. I also used to listen to real life husband and wife show “Fibber McGee and Molly.” I do remember a few Jack Benny shows on radio. Rochester was a great character, not allowed now, of course. And I do remember the famous train stations, “Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.”

    Because Rochester totally had his number.

    • #26
    • September 8, 2020, at 9:46 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  27. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    I don’t remember listening to them on radio but I was a big fan of Fred Allen. Listened to every show for years. I also used to listen to real life husband and wife show “Fibber McGee and Molly.” I do remember a few Jack Benny shows on radio. Rochester was a great character, not allowed now, of course. And I do remember the famous train stations, “Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.”

    I share the love of Fred Allen, it’s just such a shame he died so early, before he could find his niche in tv: 

    • #27
    • September 8, 2020, at 10:05 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  28. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas PrattJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    I don’t remember listening to them on radio but I was a big fan of Fred Allen. Listened to every show for years. I also used to listen to real life husband and wife show “Fibber McGee and Molly.” I do remember a few Jack Benny shows on radio. Rochester was a great character, not allowed now, of course. And I do remember the famous train stations, “Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.”

    I share the love of Fred Allen, it’s just such a shame he died so early, before he could find his niche in tv:

     

    “I have been in vaudeville, I have been in theatre, and I have been in radio. Currently, I am in trouble. Trouble spelled sideways is ‘television.” –Fred Allen

    He never really cottoned to television, because the pace of preparation was so frenetic, even compared to radio. He summed it all up in one of my favorite quotes of all time: “Television is called ‘the medium’ because nothing is well done.”

     

    • #28
    • September 8, 2020, at 12:05 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  29. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas PrattJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    What a beautiful post. When I think of how sadly coarse our culture has become, I find solace in going back to a day when people like Burns and Benny brought delight to so many people. Who, in our day and age, can hold a candle to funny men like Fred Allen or the Marx brothers, Buster Keaton, Robert Benchley or Finley Peter Dunne?

    When Benny went from radio to television, he was replaced by Stan Freberg, doing what would become the last network radio comedy show. I love Freberg, but the show lasted only one season, mostly because he refused to have a tobacco company as a sponsor. Freberg went into advertising, and almost singlehandedly created the funny commercial. He described his approach as “why not create a commercial that people would actually want to listen to?” People would call radio stations and beg them to play the commercials again. Eventually he produced the album, “Stan Freberg Modestly Presents the United States of America,” which I think should be required to be played in every high school history class in the country.

    • #29
    • September 8, 2020, at 12:14 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  30. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    For anyone that wants to see Jack and George in action: 

    On one of George’s specials: 

    On one of Jack’s specials: 

    Jack filling in for Gracie on his own show:

     

    • #30
    • September 8, 2020, at 12:50 PM PDT
    • 6 likes