LOS ANGELES — Milton Berle, the acerbic, cigar-smoking vaudevillian who eagerly embraced a new medium and became “Mr. Television” in the dawn of the video age, died Wednesday, a spokesman said. He was 93.
Berle died at 2:45 p.m. at his home after a lengthy illness, publicist Warren Cowan said. His wife, Lorna, and several family members were at his side.
Berle had been under hospice care for the past few weeks. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year.
“He was responsible for the television set in your home today,” Cowan said. “He put television on the map.”
“Uncle Miltie” was the king of Tuesday nights, and store owners put up signs: “Closed tonight to watch Milton Berle.” The program’s popularity spurred sales of television sets and helped make the new technology a medium for the masses.
At 8 p.m., four Texaco service attendants sang the “Texaco Star Theater” theme, and then came Berle, dressed for laughs: a caveman introduced as “the man with jokes from the Stone Age”; a man in a barrel “who had just paid his taxes.”
If the audience thought he looked funny in a dress, Berle was happy to oblige, and skits in drag became a trademark.
He was called the “Thief of Badgags” and joked about stealing quips — “I laughed so hard I nearly dropped my pencil,” he said of a rival comedian. He stopped at nothing for a laugh.
“Good evening, ladies and germs,” Berle would say to his audience.
“I mean ladies and gentlemen. I call you ladies and gentlemen, but you know what you really are.”
He admitted his humor wasn’t gentle: “I guess you’d call my style flippancy, aggressiveness ... a put-downer.”
In his debut season in 1948, Berle’s show was watched on four out of every five sets in the nation, and he was the new medium’s highest-paid funnyman.
But the magic faded later in the ’50s, and in recent years, Berle and his outsize cigars played fairs, night clubs, college campuses and the private Friars clubs in Beverly Hills and New York.
In 1983, he was among the first seven inductees into the TV Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Born Mendel Berlinger in New York’s Harlem on July 12, 1908, Berle remembered his mother bouncing him on her knee and telling him, “Make me laugh.”
His mother, Sandra, was a thwarted entertainer; his father Moses, Berle recalled, was a “charming, rather helpless man who suffered from rheumatism and could never keep a job. ... He always dreamed of the big chance around the corner, but it never came.”
Berle’s first chance came at age 5, when he won a vaudeville contest by imitating Charlie Chaplin.
Soon he was doing child leads in films with Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand, and was the kid rescued from the railroad tracks in the nick of time in the Pearl White movies.
He appeared with Chaplin and Marie Dressler in the movie, “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” and with Miss Pickford in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”
His Broadway debut came in 1920 in “The Floradora Girl.”
He attended New York’s Professional Children’s School, and as a teen-ager toured the vaudeville circuit as a stand-up comic, taking his jokes from College Humor and Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.
“I studied stars like Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Lou Holtz and others,” Berle said in a 1984 interview. “I have eight or 10 press books of bad notices from those years, but it was a good education in learning what not to do.”
In 1936 Berle was a headliner with the Ziegfeld Follies. He played a long run with Earl Carroll’s Vanities and began bringing his brand of humor to radio with guest spots on humor shows. He also appeared in several minor film comedies, such as “New Faces of 1937” and “Always Leave Them Laughing” (based on his autobiography). But he never really made it on the big screen.
Then came 1948 and the advent of television.
Berle was signed as host of the first show of a variety series — the “Texaco Star Theater.” He was supposed to alternate with several other hosts, including Henny Youngman and Morey Amsterdam, but Berle drew so much fan mail that NBC soon gave him the spot permanently.
Berle’s hour-long “Texaco Star Theater” began June 8, 1948, and was renamed “The Milton Berle Show” before it ended in June 1956.
He won an Emmy for the program, which was truly his own.
“Our star, besides performing, conducted the orchestra, made countless little changes, like revamping the dances, redesigning the costumes, rewriting and improvising one-liners and exit cues,” recalled Goodman Ace, one of Berle’s writers. “Dress rehearsals were classic exercises in wild frenzy. He wore a traffic cop’s whistle around his neck and blew the show to so many stops that a rehearsal often lasted from noon until 10 minutes before air time.”
Berle’s sister Rosalind designed many of the costumes, and his mother was a fixture in the studio audience.
“When I started out with the Texaco series in 1948, television was brand new, and I knew just as much about it as anybody else,” Berle once said. “I was in charge of everything because I wanted to be. Today there are experts for all phases of the medium.... We didn’t have any experts in 1948.”
In 1951, NBC signed him to an unprecedented contract calling for $100,000 a year for 30 years — whether Berle worked or not. The network agreed in 1965 to let him work elsewhere, and Berle accepted a pay cut to $60,000 a year.
In 1960, Berle lasted six months in “Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle,” sandwiching comedy bits between play-by-play of a bowling match. He jumped to ABC in 1966 with a new variety show which died after a few months.
He made more movies in the 1960s, notably “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” in 1963. Other films included “The Oscar,” “The Happening,” “Who’s Minding the Mint?,” “Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows,” “For Singles Only,” “Hieronymus Merkin,” “Lepke” and “The Muppet Movie.”
In 1984, he played himself in “Broadway Danny Rose.”
His mother’s influence remained strong until she died in 1953 at 77. Berle married, divorced and remarried show girl Joyce Matthews, and they adoted a daughter, Vickie. Their second marriage lasted six years.
In 1953 Berle married former publicist Ruth Cosgrove. They had an adopted son, Billie. She died on April 18, 1989.
In later years, Berle also said he found much solace in Christian Science, and called himself a Jew and a Christian Scientist.
In 1982 he became the national chairman of the American Longevity Association, and was president of The Friars Club.
A pioneer in television, Berle always was ready to try something new.
“Too many people simply give up too easily,” he once said. “You have to keep the desire to forge ahead, and you have to be able to take the bruises of unsuccess. Success is just one long street fight.”