You won’t find up-to-the-minute Instagram posts from George Burns. Maybe that’s because he’s been dead for nearly three decades, but no celebrity these days can say they performed in vaudeville, radio, television, and movies. Likewise, not many can say their most reliable stage partner was a cigar.
The cigar between George Burns’ teeth wasn’t just schtick. Burns was a lifelong cigar smoker who lived to a hundred, so he must have been doing something right. Here’s a look at the legendary comedian and a life spent smoking cigars.
George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896 in New York City. The son of Jewish immigrants, his father died of influenza in 1903. The seven-year-old Burns had to work to support his family. He was “discovered” while working as a syrup maker in a candy shop, and the rest is, as they say, history. He began working in vaudeville as a comedian and singer and adopted the stage name to hide his Jewish identity.
Burns started smoking cigars at 14, and a cigar became his permanent stage partner. The premium cigar industry wasn’t like it is today. Burns grew accustomed to inexpensive cigars. Back then, he preferred a nickel cigar called Hermosa Jose. Like many legendary smokers and similar to Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, George Burns smoked all day long. Most attest to Burns smoking 10 to 14 cigars a day.
Aside from his cigar, his longest stage and screen collaborator was his beloved wife, Gracie Allen. They married in 1926 and shared success as a dynamic comedy duo. Their act featured Burns as a “straight man” offering his famous one-liners. The two took their routine from stage to radio, providing comedy relief for the big band leaders of the day like Guy Lombardo. Their act evolved over the years and led to radio shows. Eventually, they made movies and starred in a long-running television show.
George Burns’ Favorite Cigar Brand
Burns’ favorite cigars were El Producto Queens, a brand Elvis Presley favored. While this is a cheaper machine-rolled line these days, it was hand-rolled during Burns’ time. Also, they made several sizes back then, including perfectos, Burns’ preference.
One of the main reasons for his loyalty? They didn’t go out on stage when he was performing. Instead, when acting and thinking of his next line, Burns liked to puff his cigar to buy some time. He always knew Queens, or, as he called them, his “little ladies,” would stay lit.
Aside from that, Burns received 300 a month for free. In addition, he shot several commercials, and several print ads for El Producto featured him.
George Burns Career Resurgence
When Gracie died in 1964, George Burns threw himself back into his work. He produced several television shows and still performed live. However, his role in the film adaptation of Neil Simons’ play The Sunshine Boys would solidify his legacy and redefine his career at 80.
Originally, Burns’ lifelong friend, Jack Benny, was cast for the role of an aging vaudeville star Al Lewis. Benny died during pre-production, and Burns replaced him even though he had not been in a movie since 1939. He earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. At the time, Burns was the oldest person ever to win an Academy Award. Burns only needed a Tony Award to be in the elite company of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners, like Mel Brooks, Tim Rice, Jennifer Hudson, and Whoopi Goldberg.
The success led to several more movies introducing Burns to a new generation of fans. Oh, God! was the first of three films with Burns in the title role as the omnipotent wise-cracking deity that gave him a chance to deliver his classic one-liners. Burns remained healthy his entire life. He exercised regularly and never stopped working. He made several more films and performed stand-up after signing a lifetime contract at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas when he was 96.
Although he reduced his habit to 4 cigars a day, Burns smoked until the day he died. Then, when he was 98, he delivered this zinger for all the smoking detractors, “If I’d taken my doctor’s advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn’t have lived to go to his funeral.”
George Burns died a few months after his 100 birthday in 1996. He was buried with three of his “little ladies” in his breast pocket.
Photo credit: Allan Warren, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons