Milton Berle was born into a Jewish family in a five-story walkup at 68 W. 118th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. His given name was Mendel Berlinger. He chose Milton Berle as his professional name when he was 16. His father, Moses Berlinger (1873–1938), was a paint and varnish salesman. His mother, Sarah (Sadie) Glantz Berlinger (1877–1954), changed her name to Sandra Berle when Milton became famous.
Berle entered show business at the age of five when he won an amateur talent contest. He appeared as a child actor in silent films, beginning with The Perils of Pauline, filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The director told Berle that he would portray a little boy who would be thrown from a moving train. In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, he explained, "I was scared shitless, even when he went on to tell me that Pauline would save my life. Which is exactly what happened, except that at the crucial moment they threw a bundle of rags instead of me from the train. I bet there are a lot of comedians around today who are sorry about that."
By Berle's account, he continued to play child roles in other films: Bunny's Little Brother, Tess of the Storm Country, Birthright, Love's Penalty, Divorce Coupons and Ruth of the Range. Berle recalled, "There were even trips out to Hollywood—the studios paid—where I got parts in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, with Mary Pickford; The Mark of Zorro, with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Tillie's Punctured Romance, with Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler." In 1916, Berle enrolled in the Professional Children's School.
Around 1920, at age 12, Berle made his stage debut in a revival of the musical comedy Florodora in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which later moved to Broadway. By the time he was 16, he was working as a Master of Ceremonies in Vaudeville. By the early 1930s he was a successful stand-up comedian, patterning himself after one of Vaudeville's top comics, Ted Healy.
In 1933, he was hired by producer Jack White to star in the theatrical featurette Poppin' the Cork, a topical musical comedy concerning the repealing of Prohibition. Berle also co-wrote the score for this film, which was released by Educational Pictures. Berle continued to dabble in songwriting. With Ben Oakland and Milton Drake, Berle wrote the title song for the RKO Radio Pictures release Li'l Abner (1940), an adaptation of Al Capp's comic strip, featuring Buster Keaton as Lonesome Polecat. Berle wrote a Spike Jones B-side, "Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma."
From 1934–36, Berle was heard regularly on The Rudy Vallee Hour, and he attracted publicity as a regular on The Gillette Original Community Sing, a Sunday night comedy-variety program broadcast on CBS from September 6, 1936 to August 29, 1937. In 1939, he was the host of Stop Me If You've Heard This One with panelists spontaneously finishing jokes sent in by listeners.
In the late 1940s, he canceled well-paying nightclub appearances to expand his radio career. Three Ring Time, a comedy-variety show sponsored by Ballantine Ale, was followed by a 1943 program sponsored by Campbell's Soups. The audience participation show Let Yourself Go (1944–1945) could best be described as "slapstick radio" with studio audience members acting out long suppressed urges—often directed at host Berle. Kiss and Make Up, on CBS in 1946, featured the problems of contestants decided by a jury from the studio audience with Berle as the judge. Berle also made guest appearances on many comedy-variety radio programs during the 1930s and 1940s.
Scripted by Hal Block and Martin Ragaway, The Milton Berle Show brought Berle together with Arnold Stang, later a familiar face as Berle's TV sidekick. Others in the cast were Pert Kelton, Mary Schipp, Jack Albertson, Arthur Q. Bryan, Ed Begley, Brazilian singer Dick Farney, and announcer Frank Gallop. Sponsored by Philip Morris, it aired on NBC from March 11, 1947 until April 13, 1948.
Berle later described this series as "the best radio show I ever did ... a hell of a funny variety show". It served as a springboard for Berle's emergence as television's first major star.
Berle would revive the structure and routines of his vaudeville act for his debut on TV. His first TV series was The Texaco Star Theatre, which began September 22, 1948 on ABC and continued until June 15, 1949 with cast members Stang, Kelton and Gallop, along with Charles Irving, Kay Armen, and double-talk specialist Al Kelly. Writers included Nat Hiken, brothers Danny and Neil Simon, Leo Fuld and Aaron Ruben.
The show began with Berle rotating hosting duties with three other comedians, but in October he became the permanent host. Berle's highly visual style, characterized by vaudeville slapstick and outlandish costumes, proved ideal for the new medium. Berle modeled the show's structure and skits directly from his vaudeville shows, and hired writer Hal Collins to revive his old routines.
When the show moved to NBC, it dominated Tuesday night television for the next several years, reaching the number one slot in the Nielsen ratings with as much as an 80% share of the viewing audience. Berle and the show each won Emmy Awards after the first season. Fewer movie tickets were sold on Tuesdays. Some theaters, restaurants and other businesses shut down for the hour or closed for the evening so their customers would not miss Berle's antics. Berle's autobiography notes that in Detroit, "an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theatre before going to the bathroom."
Television set sales more than doubled after Texaco Star Theatre's debut, reaching two million in 1949. Berle's stature as the medium's first superstar earned him the sobriquet "Mr. Television". He also earned another nickname after ending a 1949 broadcast with a brief ad-libbed remark to children watching the show: "Listen to your Uncle Miltie and go to bed." Francis Craig and Kermit Goell's Near You became the theme song that closed Berle's TV shows.
Berle risked his newfound TV stardom at its zenith to challenge Texaco when the sponsor tried to prevent black performers from appearing on his show:
I remember clashing with the advertising agency and the sponsor over my signing the Four Step Brothers for an appearance on the show. The only thing I could figure out was that there was an objection to black performers on the show, but I couldn't even find out who was objecting. "We just don't like them," I was told, but who the hell was "we"? Because I was riding high in 1950, I sent out the word: "If they don't go on, I don't go on." At ten minutes of eight—ten minutes before showtime—I got permission for the Step Brothers to appear. If I broke the color-line policy or not, I don't know, but later on I had no trouble booking Bill Robinson or Lena Horne.
Berle's mother Sadie was often in the audience for his broadcasts; she had long served as a "plant" to encourage laughter from his stage show audiences. Her unique, "piercing, roof-shaking laugh" would stand out, especially when Berle made an entrance in an outrageous costume. After feigning surprise he would "ad lib" a response; for example: "Lady, you've got all night to make a fool of yourself. I've only got an hour!"
Berle asked NBC to switch from live broadcasts to film, which would have made possible reruns (and residual income from them); he was angered when the network refused. However, NBC did consent to make a kinescope of each show. Later, Berle was offered 25% ownership of a company manufacturing the teleprompter by its inventor, Irving Berlin Kahn, if he would simply use the new gadget on his program. He turned the offer down.
For Berle's contribution to television, he was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
At one million dollars a year, NBC signed him to an exclusive, unprecedented 30-year television contract in 1951.
Texaco pulled out of sponsorship of the show in 1953. Buick picked it up, prompting a renaming to The Buick-Berle Show, and the program's format was changed to show the backstage preparations to put on a variety show. Critics generally approved of the changes, but Berle's ratings continued to fall, and Buick pulled out after two seasons. In addition, "Berle's persona had shifted from the impetuous and aggressive style of the Texaco Star Theater days to a more cultivated, but less distinctive personality, leaving many fans somehow unsatisfied."
By the time the again-renamed Milton Berle Show finished its only full season (1955–56), Berle was already becoming history—though his final season was host to two of Elvis Presley's earliest television appearances, April 3 and June 5, 1956. The final straw during that last season may have come from CBS scheduling The Phil Silvers Show opposite Berle. Ironically, Silvers was one of Berle's best friends in show business and had come to CBS's attention in an appearance on Berle's program. Bilko's creator-producer, Nat Hiken, had been one of Berle's radio writers.
Berle knew that NBC had already decided to cancel his show before Presley appeared. Berle later appeared in the Kraft Music Hall series from 1958 to 1959, but NBC was finding increasingly fewer showcases for its one-time superstar. By 1960, he was reduced to hosting a bowling program, Jackpot Bowling, delivering his quips and interviewing celebrities between the efforts of that week's bowling contestants.
In Las Vegas, Berle played to packed showrooms at Caesars Palace, the Sands, the Desert Inn, and other casino hotels. Berle had appeared at the El Rancho, one of the first Vegas hotels, in the late 1940s. In addition to constant club appearances, Berle performed on Broadway in Herb Gardner's The Goodbye People in 1968. He also became a commercial spokesman for the thriving Lum's restaurant chain.
He appeared in numerous films, including Always Leave Them Laughing (released in 1949, shortly after his TV debut) with Virginia Mayo and Bert Lahr, Let's Make Love with Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Loved One, The Oscar, Who's Minding the Mint?, Lepke, Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose and Driving Me Crazy.
Freed in part from the obligations of his NBC contract, Berle was signed in 1966 to a new, weekly variety series on ABC. The show failed to capture a large audience and was cancelled after one season. He later appeared as guest villain Louie the Lilac on ABC's Batman series. Other memorable guest appearances included stints on The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Lucy Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Get Smart, Laugh-In, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Hollywood Palace, Ironside, F Troop, Fantasy Island, I Dream of Jeannie, CHiPs, The Muppet Show and The Jack Benny Program.
Like his contemporary Jackie Gleason, Berle proved a solid 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, a role 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. (He also played it straight as an agent in The Oscar (1966) and was one of the few actors in that infamous flop to get good notices from critics.)
During this period, Berle was named to the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of charity performances made by a show-business performer. Unlike the high-profile shows done by Bob Hope to entertain the troops, Berle did more shows, over a period of 50 years, on a lower-profile basis. Berle received an award for entertaining at stateside military bases in World War I as a child performer, in addition to traveling to foreign bases during World War II and the Vietnam War. The first charity telethon (for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation) was hosted by Berle in 1949. A permanent fixture at charity benefits in the Hollywood area, he was instrumental in raising millions for charitable causes.
On April 14, 1979, Berle guest-hosted NBC's Saturday Night Live. Berle's long reputation for taking control of an entire television production—whether invited to do so or not—was a cause of stress on the set. One of the show's writers, Rosie Shuster, described the rehearsals for the Berle SNL show and the telecast as "watching a comedy train accident in slow motion on a loop." Upstaging, camera mugging, doing spit-takes, inserting old comedy bits, and climaxing the show with a maudlin performance of "September Song" complete with a pre-arranged standing ovation (something producer Lorne Michaels had never sanctioned) resulted in Berle being banned from hosting the show again. The episode was also barred from being rerun until surfacing in 2003, because Michaels thought it brought down the show's reputation.
As a guest star on The Muppet Show, Berle was memorably upstaged by the heckling theatre critics Statler and Waldorf. The Statler and Waldorf puppets were inspired by a character named Sidney Spritzer, played by comedian Irving Benson, who regularly heckled Berle from a box seat during episodes of the 1960s ABC series. Milton Berle also made a cameo appearance in The Muppet Movie as a used car dealer, taking Fozzie Bear's 1951 Studebaker in trade for a station wagon.
In 1974, Berle had a minor altercation with younger actor/comedian Richard Pryor when both appeared as guests on The Mike Douglas Show. At the time, Berle was discussing the emotional fallout from an experience he had with impregnating a woman he was not married to, and having to decide whether or not they would keep the child. During his talk, Pryor let out a laugh, to which Berle took exception and confronted him, stating, "I wish, I wish, Richard, that I could have laughed at that time at your age, when I was your age, the way you just laughed now, but I just couldn't... I told you this nine years ago, and now I'll tell you on the air in front of millions of people: Pick your spots, baby." This prompted Pryor to mockingly quip back, "All right, sweetheart."
Another well-known incident of upstaging occurred during the 1982 Emmy Awards, when Berle and Martha Raye were the presenters of the Emmy for Outstanding Writing. Berle was reluctant to give up the microphone to the award's recipients, from Second City Television, and interrupted actor/writer Joe Flaherty's acceptance speech several times. After Flaherty made a joke, Berle replied sarcastically "That's funny!" However, Flaherty's response of "Sorry, Uncle Miltie... go to sleep" flustered Berle. SCTV later created a parody sketch of the incident, in which Flaherty beats up a Berle look-alike, shouting, "You'll never ruin another acceptance speech, Uncle Miltie!"
One of his most popular performances in his later years was guest starring in 1992 in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as womanizing, wise-cracking patient Max Jakey. Most of his dialogue was improvised and he shocked the studio audience by mistakenly blurting out a curse word. He also appeared in an acclaimed and Emmy-nominated turn on Beverly Hills, 90210 as an aging comedian befriended by Steve Sanders, who idolizes him, but is troubled by his bouts of senility due to Alzheimer's disease. He also voiced the Prince of Darkness, the main antagonist in the Canadian animated television anthology special The Real Story of Au Clair De La Lune. He also appeared in 1995 as a guest star in an episode of The Nanny in the part of her lawyer and great uncle.
Berle appeared in drag in the video for "Round and Round" by the 1980s metal band Ratt (his nephew Marshall Berle was then their manager).
As "Mr. Television", Berle was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. The following year, he appeared on NBC's Amazing Stories (created by Steven Spielberg) in an episode called "Fine Tuning". In this episode, friendly aliens from space receive TV signals from the Earth of the 1950s and travel to Hollywood in search of their idols, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, The Three Stooges, Burns and Allen, and Milton Berle. (When he realizes the aliens are doing his old material, Uncle Miltie is thunderstruck: "Stealing from Berle? Is that even possible?") Speaking gibberish, Berle is the only person able to communicate directly with the aliens.
Berle was again on the receiving end of an onstage jibe at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards where RuPaul responded to Berle's reference of having once worn dresses himself (during his old television days) with the quip that Berle now wore diapers. A surprised Berle replied by recycling a line he had delivered to Henny Youngman on his Hollywood Palace show in 1966: "Oh, we're going to ad lib? I'll check my brain and we'll start even."
In 1947, Milton Berle founded the Friars Club of Beverly Hills at the old Savoy Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Other founding members included Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Robert Taylor, and Bing Crosby. In 1961, the club moved to Beverly Hills. The Friars is a private show business club famous for its celebrity members and roasts, where a member is mocked by his club friends in good fun.
Unlike many of his peers, Berle's offstage lifestyle did not include drugs or drinking, but did include cigars, a "who's who" list of beautiful women, and a lifelong addiction to gambling, primarily horse racing. Some felt his obsession with "the ponies" was responsible for Berle never amassing the wealth or business success of others in his position.
Berle was famous within show business for the rumored size of his penis. Phil Silvers once told a story about standing next to Berle at a urinal, glancing down, and quipping, "You'd better feed that thing, or it's liable to turn on you!" In the short story 'A Beautiful Child', Truman Capote wrote Marilyn Monroe as saying: "Christ! Everybody says Milton Berle has the biggest schlong in Hollywood." At a memorial service for Berle at the New York Friars' Club, Freddie Roman solemnly announced, "On May 1st and May 2nd, his penis will be buried." Radio shock jock Howard Stern also barraged Berle with an endless array of penis questions when the comedian appeared on Stern's morning talk show on Aug 5, 1988 (Berle was also a guest on the Stern show on Oct 30, 1996). In Berle's 1988 appearance, when fielding phone calls, Stern purposely asked his producer to only air callers whose questions dealt with Berle's penis. In his autobiography, Berle tells of a man who accosted him in a steam bath and challenged him to compare sizes, leading a bystander to remark, "go ahead, Milton, just take out enough to win". Berle attributed this line to comedian Jackie Gleason and said: "It was maybe the funniest spontaneous line I ever heard".
Though he "worked clean" for his entire onstage and onscreen career, except for the infamous Friars Club private celebrity roasts, Berle was known offstage to have a colorful vocabulary and few limits on when it was used. He often criticized younger comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin for their X-rated humor, and challenged them to be just as funny without the four-letter words.
Hundreds of younger comics, including several comedy superstars, were encouraged and guided by Berle. Despite some less than flattering stories told about Berle being difficult to work with, his son, Bill, maintains that Berle was a source of encouragement and technical assistance for many new comics. Berle's son Bob backs up his brother's statement. He was present many times during Berle's Las Vegas shows and television guest appearances. Milton aided Fred Travalena, Ruth Buzzi, John Ritter, Marla Gibbs, Lily Tomlin, Dick Shawn and Will Smith. At a taping of a Donny & Marie show episode, for example, Donny and Marie Osmond recited a scripted joke routine to a studio audience, to little response. The director asked for a retake, and the Osmonds repeated the act, word for word, to even less response. A third attempt, with no variation, proved dismal—until Milton Berle, off-camera, went into the audience, pantomiming funny faces and gestures. Ever the professional, Berle timed each gesture to coincide with an Osmond punchline, so the dialogue seemed to be getting the maximum laughs.
After twice marrying and divorcing showgirl Joyce Mathews, Berle married publicist Ruth Cosgrove in 1953; she died in 1989. In 1989, Berle stated that his mother was behind the breakup of his marriages to Mathews. He also said that she managed to damage his previous relationships: "My mother never resented me going out with a girl, but if I had more than three dates with one girl, Mama found some way to break it up." He married a fourth time in 1992 to Lorna Adams, a fashion designer 30 years his junior. He had three children, Victoria (adopted by Berle and Mathews), William (adopted by Berle and Cosgrove) and a biological son, Bob Williams, with showgirl Junior Standish. Berle had two stepdaughters from his marriage to Adams, Leslie and Susan Brown. He also had three grandchildren: Victoria's sons James and Mathew, and William's son Tyler Roe.
Berle's autobiography contains many tales of his sexual exploits. He claimed relationships with numerous famous women, including actresses Marilyn Monroe and Betty Hutton, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. The veracity of some of these claims has been questioned. The McPherson story, in particular, has been challenged by McPherson's biographer and her daughter, among others.
In later life, Berle found comfort in Christian Science, and subsequently characterized himself as "a Jew and a Christian Scientist". Oscar Levant, when queried by Jack Paar about Berle's conversion, quipped, "Our loss is their loss."
On July 15, 2000, Berle guest-starred as Uncle Leo in the Kenan & Kel special "Two Heads Are Better than None". This would be his last acting role.
In April 2001 Berle announced that a malignant tumor had been found in his colon, but he had declined surgery. Berle's wife said the tumor was growing so slowly that it would take 10 to 12 years to affect him in any significant or life-threatening way. One year after the announcement, on March 27, 2002, Berle died in Los Angeles from colon cancer.
Berle reportedly left arrangements to be buried with his second wife, Ruth, at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Burbank, but his body was cremated and interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City. (Warren Cowan, Berle's publicist, told The New York Times, "I only know he told me he bought plots at Hillside, and it was his idea.") In addition to his third wife, Lorna Adams, Berle was survived by his adopted daughter Victoria, his biological son Bob Williams, and his adopted son Bill.On December 5, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Berle into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.
Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1932 (1932) – revue – in the roles of "Mortimer" in the sketch "Mourning Becomes Impossible", "Joe Miller, Jr." in "What Price Jokes", "Frank" in "Two Sailors", "Paul" in "The Cabinet of Doctor X", the "Announcer" in "Studio W.M.C.A." the "Defendant" in "Trial by Jury" and "Milton" in "The Bar Relief"
Saluta (1934) – musical, co-lyricist and performer cast in the role of "'Windy' Walker"
See My Lawyer (1939) – play – performer cast in the role of "Arthur Lee"
Ziegfeld Follies of 1943 (1943) – revue – performer in the role of "Cecil" in Counter Attack, "J. Pierswift Armour" in The Merchant of Venison, "Perry Johnson" in Loves-A-Poppin, "Escamillio" in Carmen in Zoot, "Charlie Grant" Mr Grant Goes To Washington, "'The Micromaniac' Singer" and "'Hold That Smile' Dancer"
I'll Take the High Road (1943) – play – co-producer
Seventeen (1951) – musical – co-producer
The Goodbye People (1968) – performer cast in the role of "Max Silverman"