Uncle Miltie sold the U.S. on television
'Mr. Television' Milton Berle dies of colon cancer at age 93
Legendary comic Milton Berle, was once again hailed as "Mr. Television" and remembered for the astronomical ratings his "Texaco Star Theater" variety series drew for several years beginning in 1948, when he died on March 27. Nicknamed "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Tuesday Night," after his show's weekly time slot, the 93-year-old embodiment of 20th-century entertainment died at his Los Angeles home after a long illness. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year and was under hospice care. (Chicago Tribune/Jeffrey Karasick)
That didn't matter Wednesday, when Berle upon his death was once again hailed as "Mr. Television" and remembered for the astronomical ratings his "Texaco Star Theater" variety series drew for several years beginning in 1948.
"The period when Milton was really huge was a relatively short one, but it was so terribly important. The critic Gilbert Seldes said he lit the fuse that started the television explosion, and I don't think that's an exaggeration," said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.
"Everybody needed an excuse to go out and spend the big chunk of money, move the radio aside and install that set. Berle provided that."
Also nicknamed "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Tuesday Night," after his show's weekly time slot, the 93-year-old embodiment of 20th-century entertainment died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home after a long illness, a publicist said. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year and was under hospice care for the past several weeks.
"He was one of the legends. He was the godfather of the one-liners," said Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club in Hollywood.
The marquee of Masada's club said Wednesday: "Milton Berle, Rest in Peace, Make God Laugh."
Yet because of his long period of relative eclipse, Berle was perhaps underappreciated by the current generation of comics and comedy fans, said Larry Miller, one of the few contemporary comedians to join the Friars Club, of which Berle was a longtime mainstay.
"You know that swing of DiMaggio? Where you can't believe a man could be that graceful, and then you can't believe a man could be that powerful? That was Berle," said Miller. "The natural. You don't know. Believe me, you don't. Even if you're old enough, you think, `Loved him. Funny guy. Made faces. Wore a dress.'
"You don't know. He was the best. Comics know. I know."
American television audiences knew, too, especially for a period of about five years in the medium's first days.
He was a brash performer who had been pushed onto the stage by a mother with thwarted theatrical dreams of her own.
"In those days being an actress was considered like being a harlot, so she never did it," Berle, born Mendel Berlinger in New York City on July 12, 1908, said of his mother.
"Instead, she poured all of her drive and passion for show business into me and my career. ... She was the ultimate stage mother. She made Gypsy Rose Lee's mother look like Mary Poppins."
Fueled by her dreams, Berle had persevered through an up-and-down vaudeville, Broadway and radio career before he came to television in 1948.
"He flopped in radio because he was visual. "With TV, he was in the right place at the right time," said Lawrence Lichty, a professor in Northwestern University's radio/television/film department. "With all due respect, there wasn't anything else on."
More-established performers shunned the new medium.
Berle's "Texaco Star Theater," a hosting gig he won during on-air auditions over a number of other performers, quickly became a sensation, in part because of his penchant for coming out in a zany costume then delivering his lines with an aggression that popped out of the set.
"He did things outrageous, outlandish and outsize," Lichty recalled. "The screens were so small you had to be outrageous. The first time I saw him I was looking at him through one of those plastic bubbles you filled with water to magnify the picture."