Milton Berle’s quote, ‘I Live to Laugh and I Laugh to Live,’ accurately describes his life in its entirety. He was popularly referred to as ‘Mr Television’ and ‘Uncle Miltie’ during television’s Golden Age. As a prodigious child, he possessed inherent talent and acting abilities, as evidenced by his storming of the entertainment industry at the tender age of five. He had already carved a niche for himself with his inherent artistic ability by the age of twelve. His debut television appearance on ‘Texaco Star Theatre’ increased his fame and glory exponentially, establishing him as a household name. Interestingly, he was active in all major forms of entertainment at the time, including radio, television, and live performance. The public yearned to hear him speak or watch him demonstrate his antics on stage and television, to the point where theatres, restaurants, and business complexes closed for an hour to avoid missing out on his antics. Even cinemas reported a decline in bookings for Tuesday night shows that overlapped with the ‘Texaco Star Theatre’ schedule. Apart from being a stand-up comedian, he was an avid philanthropist and a regular at charity events in the Hollywood area. He played a significant role in raising millions of dollars for charitable causes. Continue reading to learn more about his life and career.
Childhood & Adolescence
Milton Berle was born Milton Berlinger in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in 1908 to Moses Berlinger and Sarah Glantz Berlinger. His father was a salesman of paint and varnish.
A prodigious child, he broke into show business at the tender age of five, winning a talent contest by imitating Charlie Chaplin’s legendary comic persona.
Soon after, his inherent talent and acting abilities were recognized by the industry’s who’s who, who began offering young Berlinger acting roles. He was cast in several early silent films, including ‘The Perils of Pauline’, ‘The Mark of Zorro’, and ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’.
He also appeared in other silent films from the decade, such as ‘Bunny’s Little Brother’, ‘Tess of the Storm Country’, ‘Birthright’, ‘Love’s Penalty’, ‘Divorce Coupons’, and ‘Ruth of the Range’. He enrolled in 1916 at the Professional Children’s School to hone his acting skills.
Career of Milton
He made his professional stage debut in 1920 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in a revival of the musical comedy Florodora. He was recruited four years later to serve as the MC or Master of Ceremonies in vaudeville. Simultaneously, he changed his name to Milton Berle.
He established himself as a successful stand-up comedian in the early 1930s. This rising popularity and newly acquired stardom landed him a role in Jack White’s topical musical ‘Poppin’ the Cork’. Along with acting, he co-wrote the film’s score.
He also pursued songwriting, penning the lyrics for the RKO Radio Pictures release ‘Li’l Abner’. Additionally, he wrote the B-side to Spike Jones’ ‘Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma’.
He made his radio debut in 1934 on ‘The Rudy Vallee Hour,’ which ran until 1936. Additionally, he gained popularity with ‘The Gillette Original Community Sing,’ a CBS comedy variety show. He hosted the show ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One’ in 1939.
Though he achieved widespread popularity through his radio programs, it was his live performances that drew the crowds. As a result, by the 1940s, he had risen to prominence as the highest-paid nightclub performer. However, he concentrated on the same in order to build a successful career in radio.
He began with the comedy variety show ‘Three Ring Time,’ which was followed by a Campbell’s Soups Company promotional program. He was even a part of the audience participation show ‘Let Yourself Go’ from 1944 to 1945. He was a judge on the 1946 CBS show ‘Kiss and Make Up.’ The show featured contestants’ problems, which were decided by a jury drawn from studio audiences.
‘The Texaco Star Theatre’ was his final radio series, which aired from 1948 to 1949. Apart from him, the show starred Charles Irving, Kay Armen, and Al Kelly.
The success of his radio career paved the way for further experimentation as he attempted to establish a career in television, which was then in its infancy. In 1948, NBC broadcasted ‘Texaco Star Theatre,’ with him serving as the series’ permanent host by October.
‘Texaco Star Theatre’ boosted his popularity even further, with viewers gobbling up his slapstick comedy and bizarre fashion sense. The show quickly rose to the top of the Nielsen ratings, with up to 80% viewership.
By 1949, television box sales had skyrocketed as more people tuned in to ‘Texaco Star Theater.’ His newly acquired celebrity elevated him to superstar status, as he was dubbed ‘Mr. Television’ and ‘Uncle Miltie’ by the populace.
To keep the gags flowing, he joked aggressively and even dressed up as a woman to get the audience in splits. He made the most of his newly acquired celebrity status by bringing on black performers for the show, a first-of-its-kind effort.
The ever-expanding and thriving career experienced a lull and then a decline when he lost sponsorship of the Texaco show. He later hosted the Buick automobile company’s show, which was renamed ‘The Buick-Berle Show.’ In its final season, the show was renamed ‘The Milton Berle Show.’
After departing from ‘The Milton Berle Show’ in 1955, he made several unsuccessful attempts to recapture his earlier success. He was paired with Phil Silvers on the latter’s show, ‘The Phil Silvers Show.’ Additionally, he appeared as a guest star on shows such as ‘The Love Boat’ and ‘Batman’. In the latter, he played the villain ‘Louie the Lilac’ on a recurring basis.
He appeared in the Kraft Music Hall series from 1958 to 1959. By 1960, his career had been reduced to hosting the bowling program ‘Jackpot Bowling’.
Apart from his television career, he performed live shows in Las Vegas to sold-out crowds at Caesars Palace, the Sands, the Desert Inn, and other casino hotels. Apart from clubbing, he was seen on Broadway in 1968 in Herb Gardner’s The Goodbye People.
Among the films in which he appeared are ‘Always Leave Them Laughing’, ‘Let’s Make Love’, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, ‘The Loved One’, ‘The Oscar’, ‘Who’s Minding the Mint?’, and ‘Driving Me Crazy.
His television career continued with appearances on a variety of shows, including ‘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,’ and ‘The Jack Benny Program.
He served as a guest host on NBC’s popular show ‘Saturday Night Live’ toward the end of his career. This, however, did not last long as he was barred from hosting the show in the future due to his peculiar stage antics. Indeed, his episode was not even aired on television during the 2003 rerun.
He was cast in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ in 1992. He also made appearances in ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ and ‘The Nanny’. In 2000, he made his final official television appearance, guest starring in ‘Two Heads are Better Than None.’
Awards and Accomplishments
He received an Emmy nomination for his show, Texaco Star Theatre’s first season. He later received an Emmy nomination for his performance as the lead character on ‘Doyle Against The House.’
He was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most charity performances by a performer in show business.
He received an award for entertaining at stateside military bases during World War I as a child performer, as well as for traveling to foreign military bases during WWII and Vietnam.
He was one of the inaugural seven inductees into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1991, he was inducted into the International Comedy Hall of Fame as the first entertainer.
In 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted him into the California Hall of Fame.
Personal History and Legacies
He married Joyce Mathews twice and divorced her before marrying Ruth Cosgrove, a former publicist, in December 1953. She passed away in 1989.
In 1992, he remarried Lorna Adams, a fashion designer 30 years his junior. Victoria and William were born to the couple. He also had two stepdaughters.
In April 2001, it was reported that he had a cancerous tumor in his colon. He refused to undergo surgery and died the following year, on March 27, 2002, of colon cancer.
Despite having made detailed arrangements for his cremation with his ex-wife Ruth at Burbank’s Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, he was cremated and interred at Culver City’s Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery.
Estimated Net Worth
Milton Berle was an American comedian and actor who died with a net worth of $2 million. Milton Berle’s career spanned more than 80 years, beginning with silent films and continuing with popular television shows and film roles during television’s first Golden Age. He was arguably the first major television personality in the United States. Berle was also known as “Mr. Television” and “Uncle Miltie.” From 1948 to 1955, he hosted the NBC television series Texaco Star Theater.
As the star of the ‘Texaco Star Theatre,’ he was known for always opening the television show with a different costume each week.