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At 100, George Burns still 'young at heart'


January 19, 1996
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- George Burns, the cigar-puffing, deadpan comedian has been around for a long time -- 100 years, to be exact, on Saturday. (George Burns sings - 162K AIFF sound or 162K WAV sound)

His philosophy may be the secret to his longevity.

"Fall in love with what you do for a living. I don't care what it is. It works," he advised. (51K AIFF sound or 51K WAV sound)

Burns' has spent 93 of 100 years doing what he loves -- show biz. Many of his greatest achievements he attained in his later years.

A quarter century ago, it would have been hard to predict Burns would go on to do so much so late in life.

When he was 79, he had open heart surgery. The same year, he put in an Oscar-winning performance in "The Sunshine Boys." At 81, Burns played the supreme being in "Oh, God." At 84, he launched a recording career and went on to win a Grammy. He then became an author, writing 10 books.

Changing roles is nothing new for Burns. He has done it all his life. Born Nathan Birnbaum, he started his career as a 7-year-old singer in the Pee Wee Quartet. He went on to Vaudeville where he worked as a seal trainer, a trick roller skater and a dance teacher.

But Burns would be best known for his pairing with comedian Gracie Allen.

"When George Burns met Gracie Allen his career took off," said comedian Bob Hope, a long-time friend of Burns' who is himself 92. (111K AIFF sound or 111K WAV sound)

"We were what you call a disappointment act," Burns explained. "If an act got sick, we'd take their place, and that went on for about two months. Then we took somebody's place in a very good theater, the Bushwick in Brooklyn, two shows a day -- the big time. And we did well, and we stayed there. We stayed in the big time. Gracie stayed, and I stayed with her." (221K AIFF sound or 221K WAV sound)

Burns and Allen later married, had two children and went from Vaudeville to radio to television to film. They performed together for four decades.

After Allen's death in 1964, Burns' career slowed. A decade later, he stepped into a role in "The Sunshine Boys," replacing his friend Jack Benny who had died.

Writer Neil Simon recalled the studio was nervous because Burns was recovering from heart surgery.

"He was 79 years old then, and the studio filming it worried about getting him insurance," said Simon. "They said, 'Well, he's not healthy; he just had a by-pass.' That was 21 years ago."

Throughout his 80s and 90s, Burns established a routine. Every day he went to the office. By noon, longtime friend Jan Murray said, Burns would show up at the Hillcrest Country Club for lunch and cards.

"He played bridge every day of his life," said Murray. "He loved bridge. But at 3 o'clock, he could be in the middle of a hand, he'd stand up (and say) 'Thank you gentlemen,'" and go home to take a nap. He would get up around 4:30 p.m., drink two martinis and go to dinner, Murray said.

A recent bout with the flu has kept Burns away from the club and out of the office. He had to cancel concerts last year after a fall in bath tub. But otherwise, he is in good health as he celebrates his centennial.

Among gifts Burns will receive -- a birthday card more than 20 feet long from Caesar's Palace. It is filled with birthday wishes from thousands of people from all over the world.

Though he may be showered with gifts on his birthday, Burns might do well to remember the words to his signature song.

"Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth to be young at heart? For as rich as you are, it's much better by far to be young at heart."

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